A decade on from Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, the act that ostensibly sparked the Arab Spring, Tunisia is regarded as a revolutionary success story. The national constitution, which was three years in the making, debuted in 2014, and regular elections with minimal disruption have been a defining feature of the fledgling democracy. But freedom hasn’t come without its challenges. The country’s post-revolutionary journey has also been characterised by political assassinations, deep inter-party tensions, and continued public protests. Tunis is still marked with military presence; imposing vehicles that loom in public spaces under the watchful eyes of armed and uniformed men. Amongst this backdrop, a shadow is growing on the legacy of Tunisia's revolution as the politics of President Kais Saied start to move toward familiar and unwelcome territory.
President Kais Saied came to power in 2019 following a landslide victory, becoming only the second democratically elected President since the deposition of dictator and former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Saied’s campaign was met with significant fervour and optimism, especially from the country’s young people; he won the votes of an estimated 90 per cent of 18–25 year olds. A constitutional lawyer with no political background, Saied represented a new era for a country that had found itself suddenly self-governing after years under a dictator, and the grip of a French protectorate prior to that. For the 73 per cent of the population that voted for him, Saied presented a departure from the old guard of the political elite, someone who promised to deliver the change that was supposed to come with the revolution. As is often the case, this is not how his presidency has played out.
Saied has faced criticism over a weak response to the COVID-19 pandemic, something he attributes to the constraints of a constitutional shared power arrangement between the position of president and prime minister. On 25 July 2021, Saied sacked the latter, froze parliament, and initiated a presidential rule by decree. This seizure of increased presidential power created an immediate rift between the people who saw the move as freeing Saied to fully enact his agenda, and those who rejected it as a power grab, reminiscent of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The very next day, police raided Al Jazeera’s Tunisia office with no warrant and no explanation, a slight against media freedom. In February 2022, Saied dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council, a move condemned as illegal by the country’s interior and concerning by the international community.
Perhaps the most socially significant move by Saied is the change to the ‘Festival of the Revolution’, a day of recognition and celebration held annually on 14 January, the day that former president Ben Ali fled Tunisia in 2011 and marked the end of his 23–year rule. In late 2021, Saied declared the holiday would change to December 17th, the date of Bouazizi’s self-immolation and what he called the real origin of the revolution. This year, in the days leading up to 14 January, Saied enacted a ban on group gatherings and enforced a curfew. Protesters to the measures were met with tear gas and water cannons. These steps were ostensibly taken to help curb the rise of the Omicron outbreak, though given their timing and repressive nature it has been difficult for people to dismiss as simply public protection measures. After only ten years of freedom, the country is beginning to fear the possibility of another dictator.
Tunisians who did not consider leaving their home during the time of former president Ben Ali, through the revolution and the period of rebuilding of its aftermath, are beginning to wonder what they stayed for. The economy is languishing, to the point where Saied is attempting to drum up support from the International Monetary Fund to avoid disaster. Tunisia’s young people are leaving its shores; a national ‘brain drain’ of the professional and educated who are going in search of opportunity elsewhere. Graffitied images of Che Guevera dot the towns of the interior governorates. Those left behind, not so long ago filled with hope and possibility, are struggling to buy bread and pay for power. For most people the promise of the revolution was simply never fulfilled, though it has certainly not been forgotten.
While Saied crowdsources a new constitution, people are questioning his priorities when so many other issues-quality of education, reviving industry and supporting people impacted by the pandemic-require more immediate attention and governmental action. The president has been public about his desire for constitutional change, something that fits right into his wheelhouse as an area expert who helped shape the initial document in 2014. There is credence in the argument that a new constitution may not operate as effectively in practice as it did in its development, especially under the exceptional circumstances of a pandemic. However, the changes Saied wants to make are those that increase the power of the presidential office while he himself holds that position.
Saied might be playing true to the image that saw his rise to president—a man of the people with a pledge to end corruption and a former professor who simply wants the freedom to fully enact the agenda that Tunisians voted for. However, his demonstrated willingness to use his position to undermine the constitution, freeze parliament, and adopt greater power for his office is rightly sounding alarm bells. In a country where people have actively demonstrated their willingness to drive out a dictator and reclaim their power, Saied is playing a risky game.
Eva Mackinley is a General Sir John Monash Scholar and Rotary Peace Fellow at the University of Bradford, former Young Woman to Watch in International Affairs listee, and currently based in Tunisia. This piece was published as part of YAIA’s International Women’s Day Series.