Since Tunisian President Kais Saied announced a series of exceptional measures on July 25, external observers’ main concerns have been to determine whether the President’s move could be termed a “coup”, and whether the sacrosanct democracy for which Tunisia has been applauded for a decade was now under threat.
Eager to keep regarding Tunisia as the sole success story of the Arab Spring in a region where most countries have either returned to some form of authoritarianism or slipped into civil war, these observers, concerned to see collapse what, in their own definition, was still a democracy, failed to grasp the actual situation on the ground.
Instead, they confined themselves to a narrow and overly procedural conception of democracy, regrettably neglecting the human dimension of the whole situation, and giving little consideration to Tunisians’ own views and feelings about the last events. As such, they largely missed the ills that have afflicted Tunisians for years and the even more blatant deficiencies of a system that has remained democratic in nothing but name.
A political elite doing the work
Democracy in Tunisia has not been put at threat by President Saied’s latest decisions. It has been subverted for years by a self-interested political elite that has systematically undermined all state institutions, and that has brought an already rampant corruption under the Ben Ali regime to levels never before achieved.
These political elites have distorted the very nature of parliamentary work, first by preventing the emergence of a constructive opposition under the cover of a needed consensus and, later, by turning the institution into a circus shaped by incessant disputes and violence.
Elected representatives’ immunity has become a synonym for impunity, allowing them to absolve responsibility rather than be held accountable to their constituencies. Politicians have weaponized cabinet formation and reshuffles into political horse-trading, aimed at satisfying egos and silencing opponents, while public service positions are sold to the highest bidder or distributed based on partisan allegiance.
For six years, these elites have prevented the establishment of a constitutional court whose absence they now deplore, and for 10 years they have failed to meet the revolutionary demands of dignity and social justice. Instead, the Tunisian people have seen widening social gaps and deepening inequalities, depriving a whole generation of hopes and future prospects in their own country.
Now, these same politicians claim to understand and respect the “legitimate demands” of a people that they have at best ignored, at worst despised.
Is this the democracy that everyone is now so concerned to protect?
This is certainly not the democracy that Tunisians had hoped for or aimed at when they overthrew Ben Ali’s regime 10 years ago. Today, Tunisians are not aspiring to a return to authoritarianism as has been stated elsewhere, but to restore a process that has deviated from its path and has been jeopardized for the interests of a minority. They wish to rebuild a functional democracy able to deliver the most basic services to its people, to ensure them a decent life, to respect their dignity, and above all to treat everyone on an equal footing.
To reach this objective, a majority of Tunisians are now ready to accept a radical change, even if triggered by disputable means, including measures deemed by some as undemocratic or unconstitutional. How many times did the political elite use undemocratic means to safeguard or advance their selfish interests? How many times did the international community tacitly approve and openly endorse undemocratic means to enable political processes to move forward?
Political scientists themselves have argued that, in some circumstances, resorting to undemocratic means could help (re)build democracy. Today, sacrificing some democratic procedures appears to Tunisians as a small price to pay to restore the true meaning of democracy, i.e. a government representing the will of the people, serving the people and being accountable to the people.
However, this does not mean that Tunisians are giving President Saied a blank check. They are willing to trust him, but not to accept anything and especially not to make concessions on the revolution’s gains, in particular their hardly achieved rights and freedoms. Truly, the president has now concentrated significant power in his sole hands, and the absence of checks and balances can be a source of concern.
In these exceptional circumstances, Tunisians must and will be more vigilant than ever, and constitute the first bulwark against any backsliding into authoritarianism. They will closely monitor every step of the process and speak out against any abuse. President Saied has claimed to be acting in the name of the people and for the sake of the people. It is now time for him to deliver on his promises and to help rebuild a genuine democracy, for and with the people.
Maybe Tunisia’s democracy is not at threat today, but rather on the way to its revival.