Democracy in Tunisia was under threat long before President Kais Saied acted to dismiss Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspend parliament, with a small group of corrupt political elites hoarding power and spreading wealth among themselves to the detriment of the Tunisian people.
Showcasing a profound lack of self-awareness, last week Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Tunisian Islamist Ennahda party, called Saied’s emergency intervention a threat to democracy. “We have seen in the past how gathering all powers in the hands of a single person led our country to plummet into the darkness and despair of dictatorship,” Ghannouchi wrote in a piece published by The New York Times.
Seeking to substitute foreign support in lieu of the domestic support he lacks, the head of the Islamist Ennahda failed to mention the desperation and anger experienced by Tunisian voters and the tyranny of corruption, political gridlock and economic mismanagement that hijacked democracy in Tunisia while his party dominated the country’s politics for the past 10 years.
Saied’s actions are a threat to the status quo rather than democracy, but nevertheless a slew of reductivist pundits in foreign outlets quickly tried to decontextualize the crisis and marginalize local voices in favor of Ennahda’s talking points. However, for the majority of Tunisians, the emergency measures announced on July 25 were not “a coup” or a “threat to democracy”, but an important course-correcting intervention against a corrupt status quo that subverted democracy for over a decade and rendered it meaningless.
Today, it is the ordinary Tunisian who is in despair. A father on the verge of tears, the 57-year-old father Ali Ayari who participated in the protests in Tunis told Meshkal/Nawaat, “I cannot live anymore. I feel like crying as I am talking to you. I went out because I am fed up. We’re hungry.”
A poll by Emrhod Consulting on July 28 revealed that more than 87 percent of Tunisians approve of Saied’s “state of exception” measures, while 86 percent approve the suspension of parliament, 88 percent approve the lifting of parliamentary immunity, and 83 percent approve the dismissal of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi. The Tunisian Labor Union, expressed its support too: “This era – that put Tunisia on fire, dismantled the state and worsened the economic and social conditions – must be ended.”
For a decade, Ennahda’s era oversaw the country spiraling into economic collapse, police brutality, and corruption while doubling the country’s debt to unsustainable levels. Tunisia now faces a crippling unemployment rate of 16.69 percent and a COVID pandemic with one of the highest per capita death rates in the world.
According to the OECD, Tunisians perceive corruption as the third main problem after unemployment and economic mismanagement, while 59 percent feel helpless against corruption.
A nationwide survey of Tunisia by the International Republican Institute (IRI) in September and October 2020, published in January 2021, revealed that corruption has had a negative impact on 78 percent of citizens. Nearly one-in-four Tunisians have personally experienced corruption with police (23 percent), and nearly one in five Tunisians have personally experienced corruption with hospitals (18 percent). When IRI asked about the national government’s most important achievement in 2020, 75 percent of Tunisians said it accomplished nothing, and even more believe the government (85 percent), ministries (81 percent), and parliament (88 percent) are doing little or nothing to address the needs of ordinary citizens.
As Bertrand Venard, professor at the University of Oxford explains, corruption is profoundly damaging to democracy as it destroys the relationship between collective decision-making and people’s ability to influence decisions, which is the very relationship that defines democracy.
Furthermore, while elections are a feature of democracy, elections alone do not ensure that a state is democratic. In new and emerging democracies, elections are just a first step. Even in established democracies such as the United States where elections are regular, minority interests can, over time, exploit an ineffective system to transmute democracies into oligarchies. Another example closer to the region is Turkey, which has maintained its path towards autocracy while posing increasing threats against its own citizens and neighbors.
As such, it is disingenuous to pretend that the Tunisian status quo has been a successful or meaningful model of democracy. Without a genuinely representational and responsive government and a vibrant civil society, democracies can very well become kakistocracies that fuel poverty, civil unrest, and even mismanagement of natural disaster response. Scott Richards, Executive Director of the Joint Task Force for Anti & Counter Corruption, said that in states where “day-to-day corruption becomes a norm for ordinary people, corruption inhibits the formation of a functional civil society and deprives citizens of belief in the State as being at the service of the people that it purports to govern.”
In Leo Tolstoy’s What Then Must We Do?, a non-fiction work where he addresses the poverty and exploitation afflicted by the ruling elite in 19th-century Russia onto Moscow’s slum dwellers, he writes: “I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means-except by getting off his back.”
Today, 10 years after Tunisians revolted against Ben Ali’s dictatorship out of hunger and desperation, they find themselves even hungrier and more desperate still.
Perhaps it is time for the failed political elite of Tunisia to get off the backs of their long-suffering citizens and allow them another chance at an “Arab Spring” after the first proved to be a long, cold winter.