Only Tunisians Can Save Tunisia

"Saied is like a fire chief who is facing a five-alarm blaze that is burning the house down, yet who dismisses the utility of water and fire trucks in favor of a mystical, fire-destroying contraption that only exists in his head."

Jan 3, 2023 
Daniel Brumberg
What if an aspiring autocrat held an election and barely anyone showed up? This question looms large following Tunisia’s December 17 parliamentary election. With the country’s electoral commission conceding that no more than 11 percent of registered voters cast ballots—and little reason to expect that these figures will climb much higher for the second round of elections  that are scheduled for January 20—it is tempting to conclude that for Tunisian President Kais Saied, the election was a fiasco. After all, this outcome, the worst showing in any election since Tunisia began its now broken transition following the 2011 uprising, has confirmed the sentiments of the country’s estranged voters, one of whom asserted prior to the vote, “I will not participate…The elections are sham, and the parliament will be a body without powers.”

This was certainly a strange election. Although some have labeled the vote yet another step in Saied’s consolidation of nearly absolute power, it is far from clear whether he has any idea at all what such far-reaching power would look like. Most autocrats would work to ensure that, after having written a new constitution that designs a parliament that will serve as a mere adjunct to the president, a respectable number of voters would be encouraged or pushed to show up to elect the new parliament’s members. This would have required a political machine; but no such apparatus was created and it seems there is no plan to do so in the future.

This being the case, the country’s opposition parties’ decision to boycott the elections may have been impelled by considerations beyond their desire not to legitimate a feckless parliament and an electoral law that effectively banned political parties. For, in point of fact, it is possible that many voters would still have stayed at home even if every party put forth candidates by having them run as “independents.” The number one obstacle to democracy in Tunisia is not Saied, or even the still incomplete autocratic institutions he has created; it is the overwhelming estrangement of everyday Tunisians from the state, from any idea of formal politics, and from a widely despised political elite.

What is Kais Saied Thinking?

While many observers have argued that the December 17 election was a humiliation for Saied, it is not apparent that he really cared all that much, or that he suffered a sense of defeat that in any way punctured his considerable ego. Saied failed to mobilize his supposed supporters, and also flew to Riyadh in the week prior to the election to join a summit between China and Arab states, then continued on to Washington DC for the US-Africa Leaders Summit. This was not the first time that an ambitious autocrat has tried to enhance his authority at home by strutting about with other leaders in the international arena. But it is also possible that Saied believed that low voter turnout would only illustrate the people’s contempt for western-style representative democracy. Thus, even if the second round of voting does not produce greater turnout, Saied might still defend his image as an uncorrupt leader who ultimately speaks for a different kind of politics, one that is in tune with the masses.

Even if the second round of voting does not produce greater turnout, Saied might still defend his image as an uncorrupt leader who ultimately speaks for a different kind of politics, one that is in tune with the masses.

The problem is that we have little to no idea of what is going on inside Saied’s head. He evinces a strange, if perhaps useful, mix of Machiavellianism and neo-utopian Rousseauism. The former can be seen in his manipulation of identity conflicts pitting secular and Islamist leaders against each other, while the latter is visible in his use of simple religious and culturally conservative themes to inspire support in rural areas, even as he champions a radical, bottom-up politics. This brand of populism seems dominated by a form of magical thinking that is dissociated from hard facts, the most crucial of which is Tunisia’s collapsing economy.

Indeed, observers could be forgiven for assuming that with a pending meeting of the IMF’s executive board—whose green light is needed to issue a new $1.9 billion loan for Tunisia—Saied had every reason to take the December 17 election seriously. His failure to do so, or perhaps his inability to present a cogent economic strategy, prompted the IMF to postpone the meeting at a perilous moment for Tunisia. The grim facts speak for themselves: Inflation has climbed to 9.1 percent, unemployment is at 18 percent, and foreign investors are fleeing. This exodus includes Novartis, Bayer, and GlaxoSmithKline, as well as Royal Dutch Shell, whose operations provide 40 percent of the country’s domestic natural gas production. And yet, when Saied was in Washington and was asked by administration officials and members of the Washington Post’s editorial board what steps he envisioned for the economy, he reportedly provided few details, while asserting that he would help small businesses and combat unemployment.

As for his plans for the coming months, Saied is trying to signal optimism, insisting that the next round of voting will demonstrate the people’s commitment to his project. But what is that project? The new parliament, such as it is, will be tasked with passing legislation to create a new, regionally-based second assembly. If this proposed body accords with Saied’s populist vision of a “people-led” democracy, no one (including perhaps the president) appears to know how it will actually work. Saied is like a fire chief who is facing a five-alarm blaze that is burning the house down, yet who dismisses the utility of water and fire trucks in favor of a mystical, fire-destroying contraption that only exists in his head.

Saied’s psychology is a problem for his own government. Prime Minister Najla Bouden has apparently made some efforts to push for the restructuring of public enterprises. But Saied doesn’t seem at all interested or even supportive.

Saied’s psychology is a problem for his own government. Prime Minister Najla Bouden has apparently made some efforts to push for the restructuring of public enterprises. But Saied doesn’t seem at all interested or even supportive. He may be assuming that his best option is to let Bouden take the fall for any backlash against austerity measures. But as the postponement of the IMF’s meeting suggests, without Saied’s clear commitment to the fund’s agreement and a realistic political plan to undergird it, there is no reason to assume that the prime minister has any room for maneuver.

Elite and Popular Politics: Overcoming Divides

It might be said that Saied’s problem is an abundance, rather than a lack of, imagination. Given his limitations, hopes for relieving Tunisia of its troubles will rest on two things. First, on the capacity and the will of political leaders to create an organized alternative outside of, or parallel to, whatever type of parliament emerges in the coming months. And second, on the ability of any such organized alternative and its leaders to muster real popular support.

There are several obstacles standing in the way of achieving these outcomes. One is enduring tensions between Islamist and secular-oriented political leaders. The key opposition organizations, the most important of which is National Salvation Front, have members from all of the country’s key parties, including the Islamist Ennahda Party. But ideological polarization endures, as was demonstrated during a November 22 event with former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki in Washington, during which Marzouki blamed Tunisia’s current woes on Ennahda.

Although Marzouki is living in exile and is widely viewed as irrelevant by both the population and the political elite, his frank (if maybe unfair) judgment captures a sentiment that is still felt strongly by “modernist” politicians and intellectuals. Saied’s growing use of repression has produced a tactical meeting of the minds between opposition leaders over their shared demand for both his resignation and the reinstatement of the previous parliament. And yet there is little love lost when it comes to Ennahda. Thus, the recent arrest of former Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh on what are probably fabricated “terrorism” charges, elicited little protest from secular leaders. If anything, a sparsely attended December 23 protest in front of the Justice Ministry, which was organized and led by Ennahda leaders, underscored the party’s isolation.

As for the wider populace, Marzouki’s comments again provide insight. When asked why Tunisia’s escalating crisis has not provoked a nationwide protest movement, but has instead produced a “demobilization of the people,” the former president seemed taken aback. There were, Marzouki noted, protests that brought thousands to the streets in Tunis. But his response was not convincing, if only because mobilizing those numbers in a vast and heavily populated urban area hardly signals the kind of massive movement that might get Saied’s attention or induce the military and police to back away from enabling him.

The absence of a widespread protest movement can be partly attributed to the exhaustion of the citizenry 
in the context of an economic crisis that has sapped the energy and attention of the poor and 
a frayed middle class as well.

The absence of this kind of movement can be partly attributed to the exhaustion of the citizenry in the context of an economic crisis that has sapped the energy and attention of the poor and a frayed middle class as well. But ultimately, the bigger problem is that most Tunisians do not believe that the political institutions established in 2014 have any credibility. Such sentiments call into question attempts to come to hasty conclusions about the December 17 election. Saied’s critics argue that the 11 percent participation rate signaled a protest vote aimed at the president. But the idea that the poll was “boycotted” seems simplistic, if only because, absent any polling of those who did not vote, it is reasonable to assume that a multitude of motives impelled voters to stay home. Massive disgust with formal politics was probably a major factor. But it was also one that holds contradictory implications for Saied. He would have been pleased had his followers voted in large numbers. Yet as noted above, he might also point to the lack of turnout as a sign that many Tunisians share his quest for a different kind of politics. The fact that he has not indicated what such a politics would include may be less important than the conviction of what appears to be a considerable number of Tunisians for whom Saied speaks.

The UGTT and Prospects for a New National Dialogue

From the start of Saied’s power grab, a stalemated political arena has awaited the decision of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) to decisively break with the president. With the UGTT being the only national body with the capacity for mass mobilization, its fence-sitting has deprived the opposition of the ally it needs to pressure Saied. This logjam may have been broken on December 20, when UGTT Chair Noureddine Taboubi stated, “We will not let you [Saied] mess with the country…If you do not understand the message, the people will say their word through peaceful struggle.” Moreover, the UGTT has now demanded that the second round of elections be postponed to “avoid chaos.” But beyond making such demands, the union must still decide how to deploy its national network of bureaus and local leaders. A nationwide strike would be one option, but would not necessarily give the union the leverage to shape, much less lead, the evolving political struggle.

A nationwide strike would be one option, but would not necessarily give the UGTT the leverage to shape, much less lead, the evolving political struggle.

One scenario that the UGTT’s leaders now appear to be considering is to push for a new national dialogue. But Taboubi faces many hurdles. He does not enjoy the prestige and legitimacy of his predecessor, Houcine Abbasi. Indeed, after his allies amended the union’s constitution in early 2022 to allow him to run for a third term, Taboubi’s reputation as a consensus builder took a major hit. Moreover, the UGTT’s hostility toward Ennahda—not to mention widespread Tunisian antipathy toward Islamists—could tempt the union to exclude Ennahda from the dialogue. For Ennahda’s supporters, and for the National Salvation Front as well, such a divisive step would be a nonstarter. Saied will surely oppose any bid to rekindle the UGTT’s 2014 role as the arbiter of a real national dialogue, as opposed to the kind of fake dialogue that the president orchestrated in early 2022. In short, the road ahead for Taboubi to create and lead a viable national dialogue is fraught.

The Biden Administration Struggles for Influence

Still, if Taboubi’s current consultations with various political parties and civil society groups gain momentum, they might provide the US with a chance to encourage a path forward, one that is rooted in Tunisia. But this will not be easy. In the lead up to the December 17 vote, the Biden administration tried to signal its concerns about Saied’s undemocratic actions. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken took a light touch, reiterating the United States’ “deep commitment to Tunisian democracy and to supporting the aspirations of the Tunisian people for a democratic and prosperous future.” For his part, Saied offered a bizarre review of the US and Tunisian constitutions, while claiming that his drafting of a new constitution this year was necessary because Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution was “tailor-made” for a specific group. In his subsequent meeting with the Washington Post’s editorial board, he made this conspiratorial message explicit, saying, “There are so many enemies of democracy in Tunisia who want to do everything they can to torpedo the country’s democratic and social life from within.”

Saied’s paranoia will complicate any potential US effort to support a process of domestic reconciliation without appearing to twist arms in ways that play into Saied’s hands. Reaching this sweet spot may ultimately be impossible. But it is worth trying, especially since the confrontational approach advocated by some analysts and former US diplomats might undercut still fragile efforts to forge a national dialogue. The US and its western allies can and must help. But ultimately, only Tunisians can save Tunisia.