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5 Things to Know about Tunisia’s Democracy Struggle

We asked SIS professor Anders Hardig to share with us five things to know about the state of Tunisia’s democracy.

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The National Monument in Tunis, Tunisia.

Tunisian president Kais Saied recently shut down parliament for 30 days and fired the country’s prime minister and defense and justice ministers, citing an imminent threat to the Tunisian state and assuming emergency powers. Critics and outsiders have called the move by Saied a coup, but Tunisian citizens, activists, and journalists are grappling with the president’s actions and what is happening in their country.

We asked SIS professor Anders Hardig, whose main fields of expertise are international politics and comparative and regional studies with a special focus on social movements and grassroots networks in the Middle East, to share with us five things to know about the state of Tunisia’s democracy.

  1. Democracy is under threat in Tunisia, but it’s not yet dead. The developments in Tunisia—the only country to come out of the 2011 Arab Spring as a democracy—represent a real threat to the democratic future of the country. A decade is a relatively short time to develop the strong institutions necessary to curb authoritarian slide, and the true test for Tunisia’s democratic future comes when the stipulated 30-day period of the president’s actions runs out. Will the president return the power he has seized, or will he seek to extend the period of extraordinary presidential powers?
  2. Two things can be true at once. Many Tunisians can be unhappy with the status quo and celebrate President Saied’s actions, and those actions can at the same time be a threat to Tunisia’s democracy. Celebrations were indeed widespread on the eve of the president’s announcement and many Tunisians have had enough of their politicians, who they widely regard as corrupt and incompetent. President Saied may very well enjoy popular support for his move—but whether he does is irrelevant to the question of whether he is acting in accordance with the country’s established democratic regime. It is also irrelevant to the question of where he goes from here—he would not be the first autocrat in Tunisia and elsewhere to ride a wave of popular support to power.
  3. Whether there is constitutional support for the president’s actions depends on interpretation. President Saied claims to be acting in accordance with Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution, which gives the president the power to take certain measures in the event of “imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions or the security or independence of the country.” However, President Saied appears to have gone beyond what the constitution stipulates, particularly by suspending the Assembly of the Representatives of the People. According to Article 80, the Assembly should be “deemed to be in a state of continuous session” during such extraordinary measures. The historical track record of presidents seizing power “temporarily” is not good. In Tunisia, matters are complicated further by the fact that the main arbitrating institution, the Constitutional Court, which is supposed to determine whether the president’s actions are constitutional and whether “extraordinary circumstances” still prevail after the 30-day period, is not yet functional.
  4. Failure to return to democratic governance in Tunisia has regional repercussions. If President Saied continues down the path of consolidating power, the tired tropes of countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region not being “ready” for democracy will gain new traction, which may have a significant impact on prospective democratization processes in neighboring countries such as Libya.
  5. International reactions have ranged from muted to toothless. Both the United States and European Union have expressed “concern” over the developments and have urged adherence to democratic principles, but, at least in public, there has been no real pressure on President Saied to reverse his course. Meanwhile, autocratic states in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have expressed support for Saied. In short, the international reaction so far suggests that Western powers remain more interested in “stability” over democracy in the region, much to the satisfaction of regional autocrats.