The silent downfall of Tunisian democracy: what happened after the Arab Spring?

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By Francesco De Fazio, BOSDIC

Tunisia was the only north-African country where the Arab Spring produced a radical and effective change in freedoms and democracy. Many had high hopes after the approval of the new Tunisian Constitution in 2014 that the country could approach a more Western and secular vision. But after Kais Saied’s election in 2019, Tunisia is rapidly and silently going back to its dark authoritarian past: in this article this complex situation will be analyzed.

Tunisian revolution: hopes of a lasting democracy

Twelve years ago, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the building of the Governorship of Sidi Bouzid after many unjustified mistreatments by the local authorities. This extreme act brought the population to arise against the Tunisian government. The protests asked for better living conditions, which had worsened throughout those years due to the 2007 economic crisis. They could not stand anymore the evident corruption of the heads of the government, who did not care about the tremendous growth of inequalities in the country. During the protests, an interesting double effect arose in the use of social media: firstly, the videos on Twitter encouraged many other Tunisian teenagers to join the riots, furthermore Tunisian courage became a role model for other north-African and middle-eastern countries such as Algeria and Yemen. The Tunisian revolution, called in Italy “Rivoluzione dei Gelsomini”, had a huge impact in the country: in less than a month, then-president Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia after France and Malta refused to protect him. A temporary government followed but protests did not cease: in October 2011 elections were held to elect the Constituent Assembly. The members voted and approved in 2014 the new Tunisian Constitution, a revolutionary document that stated, among others, the right to equality between men and women: the first democracy in North Africa was officially born.

What happened right after the revolution?

Since its birth, the Tunisian democracy has had to face many obstacles. In 2015, the economic situation had not improved since the Ben Ali regime: unemployment rates were rapidly rising due to the high percentage of people contracted by the previous government who lost their jobs; furthermore, three episodes of Islamic terrorism purposely directed to foreign tourists severely damaged the country’s tourism industry. Moreover, the International Monetary Fund imposed austerity and anti-corruption policies to the country in exchange for the approval of international loans. Not seeing any improvement, Tunisians started not to trust the political leadership and to fear a further worsening in their conditions. Indeed, the population under 35 was becoming poorer each year, as youth unemployment rose as high as 40% while older people could not rely on living off their low pensions. During these hard times, 2019 elections had been held and had a new winner, a law professor running as an independent outsider who promised Tunisians to renew the corrupt system: Kais Saied was elected in the second round with 72% of votes. Despite the initial hopes, the new president took a number of actions that undermined the stability of the country, and international analysts grew worried of the fate of Tunisian democracy.

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Kais Saied and the de-democratization of Tunisia

Between 2019 and 2021 the new President Kais Saied had to face another complicated situation: the Covid-19 pandemic. Tunisian economy kept worsening and the living conditions were becoming unbearable for the working class. Taking advantage of this disastrous situation, Saied started to dismantle the Tunisian democratic institutions. In July 2021, he froze parliamentary activities invoking article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution, which states that the President can take power in extreme cases: he justified his choice claiming that the pandemic and the economic crisis the country was facing could not wait for parliamentary discussions to take action. In February 2022 Saied dissolved the Supreme Council of Magistrates, a fundamental organ for judicial independence and later on, in March 2022 he dissolved the Parliament. The most worrying authoritarian turn dates back to July 2022, when the President rewrote and replaced the Constitution, receiving an approval of 90% in a referendum with a registered turnout of less than 27%. In this new document, checks and balances were removed while Saied centralized power in his hands guaranteeing himself both immunity and the right to name the Prime Minister without consulting the elected Parliament. In addition to that, twenty opposition politicians were arrested and, in February 2023, Saied was re-elected in the least attended election ever in Tunisia: turnout rates were registered at 12%, which certainly indicates a vote of no confidence in the President.

Tunisian democracy still exist?

The current political crisis in Tunisia is well-known around the world and among analysts and geopolitical experts. Despite the extremely serious actions taken by President Saied may lead to the conclusion that Tunisian democracy does not exist anymore, many scholars such as Alissa Pavia, Associate Director for the North African program at the Atlantic Council, claim it is just a strong phase of de-democratization. These complicated phases, on a minor scale, are not new even to strong established democracies: we have seen populists and anti-system politicians taking over in Brazil, with Bolsonaro’s election in 2018 and in France with the far right leader Marine Le Pen reaching 42% approval rate in the latest election. Only proper civic and historic education can fight authoritarian drifts, studying and understanding the importance of a rigid constitution that guarantees a clear division of power in order to defend democracy. Tunisia and Tunisians proved that since 2010 they are ready for a mature democracy: the country has been the example that Islam and freedom are not mutually exclusive.

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Author profile

BOSDIC, Bocconi Students for Diplomacy and International Cooperation, is a student-led association which aims at creating a tight network between the students interested in the fields of diplomacy, international cooperation and humanitarian aid. It also provides a forum for discussion for the members over geopolitical issues.

Moreover, it offers to its members and, more in general, to the students of the University the opportunity to directly interact with experts on the subjects by organizing meetings and conferences with professionals operating in these fields.

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