On October 3, Tunisia’s UGTT labor confederation threatened to launch street protests if authoritarian President Kais Saied went ahead with plans to negotiate further austerity with the IMF. Sadly, it is unclear if this threat by the country’s largest labor organization will have any immediate effect on the country’s increasingly rapid slide into authoritarian rule.
As of this summer, Tunisians live under one of the most undemocratic constitutions in the world. Approved in a July 2022 referendum marked by threats to the opposition and the absence of neutral observers, the new constitution replaced one of the Arab world’s most democratic and inclusive ones, adopted in 2014 in the wake of the 2011 revolution.
The hard-fought gains embodied in the 2014 Constitution were the product of several years of contention between Islamist, liberal, leftwing, feminist, and trade union groups. During this period, the somewhat moderate Islamist Ennahda party faced strong opposition from trade unions and the left, two of whose prominent members were assassinated by ultra-fundamentalist Salafists. Ennahda was forced to retreat in the wake of mass street protests and accepted compromises that included strong protections for women’s rights and religious pluralism. As a result, for the first time in decades, the left and feminists could organize openly, while LBGTQ groups also gained a degree of tolerance, though not legal recognition. Moreover, all this took place at a time when Egypt was hurtling back toward authoritarian rule, the Syrian revolution was being crushed by Assad with the help of Russia and Iran, and Libya was gripped by warlordism. As a result, Tunisia was seen, and rightly so, as a rare victory produced by the region-wide Arab Spring.
However, the core issue behind Tunisia’s 2011 uprising, mass youth unemployment, was not solved by this essentially liberal document or the political system it helped produce. In most of the decade following the revolution, a third of the country’s youth could not find employment. This resulted in a massive wave of emigration across the Mediterranean, which continues today. Emigration took the flower of the nation’s youth, who were so desperate for a better life that they embarked upon these very risky voyages. Moreover, a high level of corruption plagued the governments and the civil service after 2014. Over time, the working people and the youth, the social base of the 2011 revolution, became indifferent or even hostile to the new order.
All this left an opening for Kais Saied, a demagogic nationalist law professor who won the presidency with 73% of the vote in 2019. Above all, Saied promised to fight poverty and unemployment, and to wipe out corruption. A religious conservative but not an Islamist – he attacked the “corrupt” Ennahda Party — Saied put himself forth in Bonapartist fashion as a strong hand who could root out problems caused by “elites,” especially Ennahda and the moderate nationalists who essentially shared power after 2014. Saied supported the death penalty and opposed any rapprochement with Israel. Crucially, he appealed to reactionary opinion on gender by opposing equal inheritance rights for women and on sexuality by opposing any decriminalization of homosexuality, labeling any such notion part of a foreign plot against the nation.
Once in office, Saied began to accumulate more and more power, undermining the 2014 Constitution at every step. By 2021, in what amounted to a coup, he suspended parliament and began to rule by decree. Again, much of public opinion seemed to support him, taken in by his promises of full employment and ending corruption. Equally crucially, so did the army. Having got away with his coup, Saied thereupon extended the suspension of parliament indefinitely and appointed a committee to write a new constitution more to his liking. At this point, both the UGTT and many of the democratic political parties mounted street protests, but these were relatively small.
As the economy continued to deteriorate, Saied’s popular support seemed to wane, at least marginally. By spring 2022, the UGTT staged a nationwide general strike to protest declining living standards due to rampant inflation. While carefully avoiding a directly political stance, union leaders made clear their opposition to the authoritarian constitution Saied and his coterie were putting forth. But it was too late, as Saied’s constitutional referendum was imminent.
The proposed constitution kept some of the outer forms of a democratic republic like an elected parliament, but parliamentary power was to be hemmed in not only by the presidency, but also by an appointed Economic, Social, and Environmental Council. While civil rights and liberties were retained from the 2014 Constitution, at least on paper, the weakening of the judiciary called actual enforcement of those rights into question, especially considering Saied’s authoritarian governance ever since his election in 2019.
In July 2022, the new constitution received overwhelming approval in a nationwide referendum, receiving over 90% of the vote according to Saied’s government. But there was a huge catch: As a result of apathy and despair, largely over the dire economic situation, as well as calls for a boycott by almost all political parties, turnout was less than 28%.
Nonetheless, Saied wasted no time in implementing his “mandate.” By September, he enacted, again by decree, a law against “cybercrime.” This new law prohibits the circulation of “false information” (up to five years in prison) and “defamation” of public officials (up to ten years). The law applies not only to journalists, but also to ordinary citizens circulating information or opinions on social media. (Lilia Blaise, “Un decret-loi tunsien menace la libre expression,” Le Monde, September 23, 2022).
It remains to be seen whether Tunisia will now go the way of Egypt’s plunge into an iron dictatorship, or whether democratic and leftist forces can reassert themselves. While wider and wider sectors of the population are coming to realize that Saied has no solution to the burgeoning economic and social crisis, the only force that could offer a real solution, the anti-capitalist left, remains small and marginalized. The left is in fact less of a force today than a decade ago, when the revolution was still fresh in the minds of the masses, and it was able to exercise significant power on the streets, if not at the ballot box.
At the moment, the outlook is not positive for the country that gave birth to the Arab Spring, a world-historical event that, along with the 2008 economic crisis, ushered in a resurgence of the left at a global level. The Saied dictatorship in Tunisia, as with the fascist and far right threats elsewhere, exemplifies a kind of brutal reactionary politics that expresses fear of change not only on the part of the rulers, but also from those sectors of the population they can stir up with their demagogic and reactionary appeals, and with their false promises of changing the economic situation for the better. Of course this new order in Tunisia is built on sand, as public support is rapidly draining away. But can the Saied regime hang on for a while, now that it has full police and military power? Can it hang on at a time when the masses have become deeply disillusioned with all of the old political parties whose democratic republic was also built on sand, due to a failure to provide employment or any kind of economic security to the working people? Sadly, the answer appears to be yes. There are important lessons here, and not only for Tunisia.