Zaid M. Belbagi
To many, the appointment of the Arab world’s first female prime minister in Tunisia late last year typified its troubled but genuine democracy. Of all the countries that experienced regime change during the tumult of the so-called Arab Spring, Tunisia remains the only nation that has fostered a functional democracy. It is, however, a bankrupt one, with the country currently in the throes of its worst ever economic recession.
The modern state of Tunisia has always struggled with the challenges facing any developing country, but the destabilization since the 2011 revolution has seen its problems grow more acute. With a huge public spending bill, Tunisia has a gaping budget deficit and its debts have soared to nearly 100 percent of gross domestic product. The COVID-19 pandemic greatly exacerbated an existing cost of living crisis, while the same unemployment that pushed its youths on to the streets more than a decade ago remains a chronic problem. Labor supply pressures caused by a weakness in demand for skilled labor and the mismatch between the skills needed and those produced by the country’s education and training systems has led to scenes of top graduates queuing up for jobs. Tunisia now requires an international rescue package to avert economic collapse. Faced with national bankruptcy, the political situation is becoming increasingly contentious.
When President Kais Saied and his advisers first planned to take control of Tunisia, it was in a bid to break the political paralysis of successive post-revolutionary governments that had failed to improve the country’s circumstances, most prominently concerning the economy. There were scattered protests in September in response to his takeover, but these were muted by the huge numbers that came out in his support. “We are all Kais Saied, we are all Tunisia,” they chanted along Avenue Habib Bourguiba in downtown Tunis. For normal Tunisians, confidence in democratic institutions had “fallen dramatically” and, according to the 2019 Arab Barometer country report, more than half (51 percent) of the Tunisians surveyed saw democracy as “indecisive,” 42 percent said that it “leads to instability,” and 39 percent blamed it for “weak economic outcomes.”
Amid this sentiment, Saied promised to “remake” the Tunisian political and economic spheres in 2022. But the year has started with the economy on the brink and the traits his detractors had worried about coming to the fore. The sharp decline in living standards has meant the praise Saied had initially received has been replaced by an emboldened opposition.
The abandonment of the country’s fragile 2014 constitution — the embodiment of its emergence from dictatorship — was broadly accepted at the time. However, this disregard for the country’s hard-won freedoms has now manifested itself through increasingly assertive security forces, high-profile arrests and robust policing. It is little surprise, therefore, that Tunisians consistently top lists of nationals arriving in Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
Though Saied’s tactics may be reminiscent, for some, of the Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali years, the failing economy is not. Though Ben Ali preceded over an infamously leaky crony capitalist state, the economic reality is that, since his flight, the dinar has lost almost half its value. Tunisians have begun to question the benefits of the democracy for which they fought.
Protests have so far been modest but, should Tunisia lurch toward an economic calamity as currently being experienced in Lebanon, there is the potential that Saied’s strongarm measures could push public opinion against him. A recent national dialogue, coupled with the appointment of a female prime minister, were designed to ensure some semblance of democracy. However, democracies are judged by the extent to which a state manages to foster accountable institutions, competent governance and the application of rules that apply equally alongside the provision of basic universal services. Thus far, Tunisia’s democracy has only managed to secure elected representatives — which were then dismissed by Saied. It has fallen short of guaranteeing the other essential pillars and it cannot hope for the lives of Tunisians to improve without the guarantee of those essential tenets of any functional democracy.