The Long and Bumpy Road of Tunisian Democracy

Did compromising with old corrupt rivals compromise Ennahda’s governing experience?

President Kais Saied meets with Prime Minister Najla Bouden Romdhane at the Carthage Palace. (Tunis Afrique Presse)

Monia Mazigh

January/February 2022

In December 2010, I stood on the pavement across the Tunisian embassy in Ottawa. Neither freezing Ottawa nor fear of the brutal Tunisian regime dissuaded us, a handful of Tunisian Canadians, from showing our solidarity with the protest movement that took down Ben Ali’s government and swept the country.

It was the start of the “Arab Spring,” born in Sidi Bouzid, a town of people known for their indomitable, revolutionary spirit and unmitigated marginalization by Tunis.

Having left for graduate studies in Canada in 1991, I never lost interest in its politics. A small country known for centuries as a crossroads of civilizations, it is nestled between the geographic and economic powers of Algeria and Libya and the northern Mediterranean. As such, Tunisia remains a staple in the Maghreb and Mediterranean basin’s politics.

Since then, our demonstrations have become marches to support Tunisia’s nascent democracy. In January 2011, about 100 of us walked from Parliament in Ottawa to the Human Rights Monument via the prime minister’s offices, singing the now popular slogan Ash-shaʻb yurid isqat an-nidham (The people want regime change). Quickly becoming the Arabic world’s slogan, it’s been chanted in the streets of Cairo, Daraa, Sanaa, Tripoli and elsewhere.

The nidham (regime) was a dictatorship, a police state in which arbitrary arrests of political opponents, nepotism, corruption and violations of civil liberties were commonplace.

After President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s flight, angry crowds gathered across from the Ministry of the Interior, the terrifying building in which many Tunisians had been tortured or humiliated and chanted “degage degage” (game over). They dared to dream of building a free, dignified and prosperous country.

Thus began the era that lasted from 2011 until today. Last July 25, which marks the birth of the first independent Tunisian republic (est. 1956), President Kais Saied, elected in 2019, froze Parliament’s work, removed the prime minister and seized executive power.

The ensuing shock waves, still being felt, caused some to take to the deserted streets to express solidarity with this “courageous and timely” decision; others cautiously called it a “coup de force,” avoiding what many defiantly called a “coup d’état.”

Beyond the images of euphoria and between the extreme views of “supporters” and “opponents” lay several shades of analyses and reflections.

I remain sceptical, to say the least, about the current situation. The populist excesses taking democracies by the storm have become a little too familiar: President Trump, who communicated directly to his base via Tweets speaking and thereby flouting democratic laws and institutions, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, a former army officer whose populist decisions and disregard for science endangered thousands of lives. Tunisia is neither the U.S. nor Brazil, but its burgeoning democracy isn’t immune to its leaders’ populist aspirations to reign unopposed.

The question arises: How did Tunisia reach this state?

The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the county’s poor management of the health crisis, precarious health infrastructure, incompetent politicians, almost nonexistent communication with citizens, some of whom remained sceptical about the vaccination’s importance, and social media outlets, which circulated conspiracy theories that heightened the populace’s fears.

It is, above all, a crisis of confidence between the financially strapped population and the political class, which continues playing political cards instead of improving their constituents’ lives.

The Economic Crisis. Tunisia never recovered from the 2008 global financial crisis. Its economy is dominated by old and archaic tourism, a mining industry vulnerable to world markets and a cumbersome, bureaucratic administration that has neither modernized nor offered tax advantages to international investors, as Tunis did during the 1970s. In short, the post-revolution internal wars among the politicians and the pervasive corruption killed the sclerotic economy that survived relatively well under Ben Ali.

Tunisians had little knowledge of their country’s hybrid and complicated electoral and political system. From 1956 (independence) until 2014 (the adoption of a new constitution and the emergence of a parliamentary system), Tunisia had been governed by a presidential system: “the strongman of Carthage” (the presidential palace).

In the popular mentality, the nation’s “saviour” is always Mr President, who takes the “right” decisions to get us out of successive crises. Only very rarely did the institutions have the upper hand, as happened in 2010. Nevertheless, between 2011-21 the new politicians’ incompetence made their parties the country’s most hated groups.

Many, particularly from Ennahda, came into power as “survivors.” Under presidents Habib Bourguiba (1957-87) and Ben Ali (1987-2011), the Islamic opposition was prevented from being the de facto opposition. Continuously persecuted at home and abroad, they developed no sophisticated socio-economic programs. Trapped in this mindset, they, therefore, spent their time shuffling and reshuffling political cards, neglecting economic reforms and focusing on staying in power.

The Counterrevolutionary Forces. Since 2014, the long-reigning and sole party, Rassemblement Constitutional Démocratique (RCD; Democratic Constitutional Assembly), has regained power under a new political formation and name. Some Gulf countries, disturbed by the emerging democratic model, gave the new political formation financial and media support.

Not only did Ennahda build an alliance with it to govern, but it was also instrumental in supporting legislation that amnestied the former regime’s corrupt businessmen and politicians. Thus, some old names and practices reappeared. The fragmented and weak Parliament became a circus, and many Tunisians began arguing that Ennahda, the real power holder, had betrayed the revolution’s essence.

On July 25, 2021, the current “man from Carthage,” relying on popular disgust and disillusion with the political class, defied and attacked the institutions that had brought him to power. But this power grab, along with his freezing of Parliament and later erasure of a large portion of the Constitution, solved nothing.

In October Saied appointed Najla Bouden prime minister but retained legislative and executive authority. Despite being a great and symbolic moment of pride for many Tunisian and Arab feminists, many saw this appointment as another attempt to return “state feminism” to the political arena.

The secularist Bourguiba had played the women’s emancipation card along with his Western partners and inside with his conservative opponents. Ben Ali controlled and used the “feminist” discourse as proof of social progress. For instance, he used the Union National des Femmes Tunisiennes, one of the country’s oldest women’s organizations, to perpetuate the state propaganda of improving the state of women, despite the many women being harassed, raped and imprisoned for voicing their political opinions (

Today Bouden, the head of government, appears on state TV seated quietly and nodding while Saied delivers another bizarre and long monologue. While it is still too early to assess her work, in all fairness it would be difficult to do so because her mandate remains obscure and solely within his hands.

The economic issues are still persistent, if not worse. Negotiations with the International Monetary Fund about a rescue package and new loans timidly restarted in November, after a long pause due to the ongoing political crisis. After several downgrades by international credit agencies due to the economy’s large debt and political instability, the country faces huge challenges to put its economy back on track.

Since the 1970s, the economy has followed a liberal economic model tied primarily to its Western partners’ priorities. During the 1990s, Tunisia embraced the neo-liberal models imposed by IMF’s Structural Adjustment Program. As a result, it gradually transitioned from an agriculture-based economy to a service economy. Generations of young people grew up attracted to the jobs available in Europe.

Even the tourism sector, the sacred cow that had brought in so much foreign currency since the 1970s, lost its lustre. An ageing infrastructure, poorly trained hotel workers, two terrible terrorist attacks in 2015, continuous political instability and the Covid-19 pandemic put the last nails in tourism’s coffin.

Today, Tunisia is at a crossroads. Both of its important economic and security partners, American and European politicians, have criticized this power grab severely. Not yet calling it a coup, they continue demanding that it return to constitutional legitimacy and formulate a roadmap for the future. Until now, Saied is appealing to his base through speeches and Facebook postings and rejects all calls for dialogue and restoring Parliament and democratic institutions.

In 2015, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, composed of the two powerful unions for workers and for bosses, respectively, a human rights organization and the order of lawyers, received the Peace Nobel Prize for their laudable efforts to find compromises and work toward democratization.

Will they or other Tunisian organizations be able to reproduce this same strategy? One can only hope so.

Monia Mazigh, PhD, an academic, author and human rights activist, is an adjunct professor at Carleton University (Ontario). She has published “Hope and Despair: My Struggle to Free My Husband, Maher Arar” (2008) and three novels, “Mirrors and Mirages” (2015), “Hope Has Two Daughters” (2017) and “Farida” (2020), which won the 2021 Ottawa Book Award prize for French-language fiction. She is currently working on a collection of essays about gendered Islamophobia.