Tunisians Want More from Democracy than Just to Vote. Can Saied Deliver?

Oussama Romdhani

AFP photo: Fethi Belaid

The West is struggling to understand Tunisia after president Kais Saied’s suspension of parliament and dismissal of the prime minister. But it may be asking the wrong questions and not seeing the whole picture. It has failed to appreciate the monumental changes required — and with which the country has struggled — since the 2011 uprising that toppled long-time ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. As in too many cases, the West failed to appreciate that its formalistic understanding of democracy — voting — does not always go hand-in-hand with the implicit, crucial necessity for the political process to be matched by sound governance and socioeconomic progress. For sake of Tunisia’s people, the West should take the time to understand the country’s complexities.

But it won’t be easy. Witness a New York Times reporter’s summing up of her impressions on the streets of Tunis: “There was almost no sense of dread about the fate of Tunisian democracy; I went around feeling its lack like a phantom limb.” For many in the West, Tunisia was the poster boy of the Arab Spring, a sort of ideal built on the pedestal of voting. Too simplistic and too detached from reality.

Anyone who has paid attention to public opinion in Tunisia would have understood that the reality did not always match the West’s political construct or expectations. Most Tunisians rejoiced at their hard-earned freedoms, but they never felt themselves custodians of the Arab Spring. While the outside world celebrated the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet in 2015, Tunisians were more focused on the mounting and daunting challenges of their new reality.

Street protests never ceased in the aftermath of the toppling of Ben Ali, as discontent with unmet expectations and the performance of the political class continued. Indeed, polls showed a widening gap of distrust — if not outright rejection — of the whole ruling elite, by the common man.

Appearances notwithstanding, the democratic idea is not out of fashion in Tunisia, even though many have had second thoughts about those they brought to power, most recently in 2019, and the electoral system that made that possible. Freedom remains non-negotiable. Indeed, what Tunisians still yearn for is the very substance of democracy.

But in a country beset by economic and health crises, and hit by rising poverty, unemployment and a shrinking middle class, the democratic transition did not usher in a socioeconomic recovery.

As a consequence of that, some of the country’s nearly 250 political parties — surely too many; surely an atomization of special interests as opposed to the national need — shrank in size and stature or simply became extinct. The public’s deep distrust of political parties and politicians perhaps is best epitomized by the dramatic drop in support for Ennahda, the main Islamist party, which used to think that it enjoyed “Teflon” protection from criticism over the part it played in successive governments’ failures and inept performances since 2011.

In all that time, the West seemed to think that economic assistance alone could do the job of rebuilding a new Tunisia. Billions of dollars poured into the country — though not as much as some had hoped for. But all that it accomplished was to fuel misguided spending and corruption. The aid failed to build jobs that ensure dignity; for many, it even failed to put food on the table.

Democracy itself was further tainted by the endless horse trading among politicians and the insults and abuse they heaved on each other in parliament, often carried live on television. This did no small damage to the credibility of the democratic transition and its main actors.

The West now faces a quandary. Some wonder if reverse engineering might reset the system to the status quo ante and put back on track the same old process — such is its unalloyed dedication to the formalistic idea of democracy. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, articulating the wishes not just of his government but perhaps also that of Europe, asked Saied to “adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights.” The statement is a reflection of the West’s reductive approach to the problem; one of the reasons it was clearly surprised by developments.

The most detailed prescriptive pronouncement came from Blinken’s colleague, Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor, who called for the resumption of the democratic process and “the timely return of the elected parliament.” Tunisian analysts are still parsing the meaning of “timely.” But there is no ambiguity about the West’s insistence that Saied must make clear a strong commitment to democratic rule.

To be sure, a re-commitment to democratic principles should not be difficult. But a resumption of the political process may not necessarily mean a full return to the recent past. Saied, a constitutional jurist, believes the old system to have no redeeming value. An advocate of local government, he has often talked of a bottom-up democracy. He may be tempted to tweak the electoral system accordingly. Speaking to French president Emmanuel Macron, he pledged a quick unveiling of a roadmap and to give a “rightful place to popular legitimacy.”

To that end, he believes that a presidential regime is better fit for the needs of Tunisia — a system that would give the directly elected leader greater latitude. Such a change would require constitutional amendments and probably a popular referendum in the absence of a sitting parliament. Saied could use his emergency powers to introduce the reforms needed for this.

But nothing is yet a done deal. As usual, Saied is proceeding with caution. He has to accommodate two potentially conflicting issues. He must be careful of popular blowback in case he opts for a full U-turn, which would disavow his own verdict that the old system has failed. The other would be the need to avoid any move that risks alienating the West, a crucial economic and security partner.

The future of Tunisia and the country’s relations with the West will have to be based on acknowledging nuances in Tunisia’s social, economic and political culture. It is likely to be made through adjustments and compromises, not confrontation. Failure could be potentially de-stabilizing for the country, with possible repercussions for its immediate neighborhood. Now as before, the pulse on the street might be a better indicator of things to come than theoretical models of transition.

Oussama Romdhani is the editor of The Arab Weekly. He previously served in the Tunisian government and as a diplomat in Washington.