Why sliding back into autocracy won’t solve Tunisia’s problems

Tunisian President Kais Saied announces the formation of a new government in Tunis on Oct. 11. (Tunisian Presidency/AFP via Getty Images)
Tunisian President Kais Saied announces the formation of a new government in Tunis on Oct. 11. (Tunisian Presidency/AFP via Getty Images)

On Sept. 29, President Kais Saied raised eyebrows in Tunisia by naming the little-known university lecturer Najla Bouden Ramadhane as prime minister. Though historic — Ramadhane would be the Arab world’s first female head of government — the appointment comes during the most turbulent times in Tunisia since the country’s 2011 revolution, which sparked the Arab Spring revolts. She takes her post two months after Saied dismissed her predecessor and dissolved parliament on July 25, leading many to fear he is taking the country back to one-man rule.

A sizable percentage of Tunisians have welcomed the president’s power grabs. A sputtering economy, persistent corruption and rising covid-19 cases have contributed to widespread disillusionment with political parties.

But apologists for Saied’s moves are wrong to believe that a return to strongman rule could ever be the answer to Tunisia’s problems. Dictatorship did not serve us in the era of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and it will not serve us today. What Tunisia needs is to erect the real pillars required to strengthen its hard-won democracy — most urgently, the creation of a constitutional court and the implementation of transitional justice.

Had Saied sought to embark on major reforms, the people might have taken more kindly to his power grab. Alas, he did not, and now discontent is rising even among groups that initially welcomed the moves.

On Sept. 22, Saied passed a decree that drastically reduces the new prime minister’s power. These moves have serious implications for the rule of law, amid a seemingly endless state of emergency that has been in place since the 2015 terrorist attacks.

Saied’s supporters equate Tunisia’s revolutionary gains with the agenda of the Islamist Ennahda party, which currently dominates parliament. These critics treat the October 2011 elections, which made Ennahda the country’s largest party, as the starting point of our current democracy. In doing so, the president’s apologists completely overlook the many changes made in the years since. The new constitution adopted in 2014 emerged from a broad national discussion that aimed to ward off the specter of authoritarianism by ensuring fundamental liberties and real checks and balances.

Saied’s supporters are right to criticize Ennahda’s dire failures. Despite appearances, Ennahda never adopted the revolutionary agenda, instead focusing on maintaining its own power. This obsession led it to form alliances with old regime networks in the police, judiciary and media. Ennahda not only opposed the reforms that the revolutionary process called for, but also approved “reconciliation” laws designed to exonerate corrupt individuals.

The main problems that we have faced in recent years stem from Tunisia’s policy of consensus, which has sabotaged the democratic process. Thus the coalition between the Islamists and the secular Nidaa Tounes party has prevented bold action on important matters such as judicial accountability and establishing the constitutional court.

Officially, the 2014 and 2019 elections were free, but only because the authorities turned a blind eye to illicit electoral finance. This led to the election of lawmakers accused of bribery, smuggling and even pedophilia. The electoral body requires candidates to list previous convictions. None did so. The result was a parliament whose performance outraged Tunisians.

We have a crony-led economy, fueled by a complicit government, that shuts out young entrepreneurs. The majority of corruption cases end up in the financial courts, where mafia networks have influence and suspects walk free.

But autocracy will not resolve these issues. Viable democratic solutions to these problems exist — they need only be implemented. Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, established post-revolution to investigate human rights and corruption abuses by the dictatorship, introduced a judicial accountability system that succeeded in transferring dozens of corruption cases to specialized courts. Even so, these measures faced resistance from powerful police unions that refuse to respect judicial mandates, with the complicity of the Interior Ministry.

The commission produced a report in 2019 recommending reforms that include fighting corruption and impunity. It is by implementing such reforms that Tunisians can begin cleaning up their country’s corruption record and serve justice to those who have suffered in past crimes. The failure to address corruption and implement transitional justice has been a destabilizing force in the country.

The Tunisian transition — essentially an effort to transform an entire state’s institutional architecture — has been underway for only 10 years. That’s just the blink of an eye in the sweep of our history. Hungary and Poland overthrew communism three decades ago and still face democratic challenges even with European Union membership. Tunisia will find its way back to democracy despite these upheavals.

Tunisia is undergoing a painful democratic gestation period. But democracy here is not dead, despite the views of the bigots who claim that our region’s fate is despotism.

Tunisians have clearly and irrevocably disproved this prejudice by starting a revolution that brought down a dictator. They will never be ruled by one again. Even Saied must understand that there is no healthy state without legitimate institutions. Tunisia needs a stronger democracy, not a return to autocracy.

Sihem Bensedrine, a Tunisian journalist and human rights activist, headed Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission from 2014 to 2019, which investigated and exposed human rights abuses committed by the dictatorship.

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