Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Tunisian Democracy in Crisis 2019-2024

The presidential and legislative elections at the end of 2019 brought deep changes to the Tunisian political system. A new populism determined the results and pushed the unstable political balance into crisis.

Tunisia under Kais Saied
Tunisian General Workers’ Union gather to stage a demonstration at El-Kasaba Square in the capital Tunis, on March 02, 2024. The protest aimed to voice opposition to perceived constraints on union rights, the escalating cost of living, and the challenging economic situation facing the nation. An assembly of workers, activists, and citizens gathered in solidarity to amplify their concerns, denouncing what they perceive as limitations on their labour rights. Yassine Gaidi / ANADOLU / Anadolu via AFP

Author: C.R. Pennell, former Al-Tajir Lecturer in the History of Islam and the Middle East, University of Melbourne, Australia

Edited by: Erik Prins

The Presidency of Kais Saied

President Kais Saied, the new head of state and Rashid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda and president of the Assembly of People’s Representatives (hereafter: ‘Assembly’), soon fell into conflict. Saied’s ideas fundamentally conflicted with the Islamist conception of Ennahda, which controlled the parliament.

Habib Jemli, who had been appointed prime minister, failed to get a vote of confidence from the Assembly, so in February Elyas Fakhfakh, Jemli’s nomination for minister of Finance, tried to put together a coalition government. Drawn from members of Ennahda, the Democratic Current and a varied group of smaller parties, it lasted until September 2020 when Fakhfakh also resigned. He too was accused of massive corruption, although he denied it. He was eventually replaced by Hishem Mechichi, after many switches of proposed government leaders.

Amidst all this political turmoil, no government could deal with the impending crises that faced the country. One was financial: external debt was growing, and the cost of living was rising. As a result, public services were deteriorating fast, and corruption was growing. Another problem was the emergency brought about by COVID-19, which arrived in Tunisia in late September 2020 and spread very quickly. The government imposed a lockdown and the economy contracted by 4 per cent.

At the beginning of 2021, Mechichi tried to reorganise his cabinet, but President Saied refused to swear it into office, saying that some of its members had violated the constitution. Unfortunately, there was no constitutional court that could investigate, and the president blocked the attempt by the Assembly to appoint one.

Most legislative work in the Assembly was put on hold, apart from the annual budget. On occasion, deputies became involved in physical violence. Outside Tunis, demonstrators managed to reduce oil and gas production by 50 per cent. When the Delta variant of COVID-19 spread in Tunisia in July 2021, the dysfunctional government was unable to cope.

Concentration of Power

On 25 July 2021, President Saied activated Article 80 of the constitution. This allowed him to take ‘exceptional measures’ for 30 days in the face of what the constitution referred to as “an imminent danger threatening the homeland’s integrity or the country’s security and its independence, in a way that results in the impossibility of carrying on with the normal functioning of state institutions.” This was the first step to concentrate power in Saied’s own hands.

In practical terms, this meant that Saied suspended parliament and removed immunity from its members. He fired some ministers from the cabinet, removed the independence of the judiciary and made public prosecutions the responsibility of the Office of the President. In effect, by mobilising the army, he then declared martial law.

Two months later, President Saied went further. In September, he dissolved parliament and replaced the constitution with a decree (three pages long) that gave him complete executive and legislative authority. He could now rule by decree. In one of the first such decrees, Saied imposed prison sentences on those who spread ‘false information’ online.

The police began arresting journalists and online bloggers. Without a constitutional court to rule on the legality of all this, there was no way to challenge the president. Saied had almost entirely destroyed democratic institutions while consolidating his own presidential power.

In doing all this, President Saied attracted vociferous opposition from Islamist activists and sympathisers of the trade union movement, but also from professionals who had opposed President Ben Ali’s regime. They feared that the regime was returning to autocracy.

However, Saied also had considerable support, particularly among poor Tunisians, including lower-ranking officials, tradesmen, cab drivers and, especially, pensioners and young people. These groups were concentrated in the poorer suburbs of the capital and the less prosperous regions of the country.

Among Saied’s biggest supporters were members of the Mouvement des Forces de la Tunisie libre (Movement of the Forces of Free Tunisia). It supported Saied after his election in 2019 through its own organisations that were independent of the president. Known as tansiqiyat, these coordination committees were active in all governorates of Tunisia.

The tansiqiyat competed with the political parties and trade unions by forging their own direct link to the Presidency of the Republic. They reported cases of corruption and local problems directly to the Head of State. Ideologically they positioned themselves as anti-Ennahda nationalists. With roots among former student activists and unemployed graduates as well as ex-members of the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, the committees brought together a cross-section of the disillusioned.

There was also support for Saied from some parts of the middle class, who saw him as a force to cleanse the political and administrative structures and create a new democratic system. They wanted a structure that was true to Tunisia’s history and social reality and represented local populations through genuinely accountable representatives who would oversee local development strategies.

In the first part of 2022, these ideas were formalised in a rolling process of public consultation through electronic balloting. Public participation in this process was very low, but it culminated in a new constitution that was approved by a huge majority, with less than a third of the eligible voters taking part. It set up a strengthened presidential system, and parliamentary constituencies represented by a single member elected by proportional representation but without party affiliation appearing on the ballot.

This paved the way for parliamentary elections in December 2022 and January 2023 which were boycotted by most political parties and by a large sector of the population. Turnout for the first round in December 2022 was around eleven per cent, as was the turnout of the second round the following month. With some Tunisians calling it a “ghost election”, turnout was likely the lowest for a parliamentary election worldwide.

Saied’s dictatorship

The new system became increasingly repressive in early 2023. Numerous politicians, businesspeople, trade unionists, journalists and civil servants went into exile or were arrested on charges of corruption or support for jihadist groups abroad. Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, was sentenced to a year in jail for “apologising for terrorism” – after he called the police “tyrants.” The government also prohibited Ennahda itself from demonstrating and arrested other members of its leadership.

Against this background, economic conditions got worse. There was heavy inflation: in 2022, fuel prices rose by 20 per cent, electricity by 12 per cent and gas by 16 per cent, respectively. Food prices increased particularly quickly, driven up by the rise in international commodity prices. Also to blame was the much lower agricultural productivity that partly resulted from the difficulty of importing Russian fertiliser because of the conflict in Ukraine. When the government enforced price controls it became difficult to obtain basic commodities like fuel, cereals, sugar, coffee, and dairy products.

At the same time, the judiciary and police operated in increasingly unpredictable ways, making it dangerous for anyone to express political discontent. The public had little appetite for dissent anyway, as many were drawn to Saied’s populism. Those who might have considered protesting were generally dissuaded from doing so by the growing perception of the risk they might run. After war broke out in Gaza in October 2023, public attention was diverted away from Tunisia’s internal difficulties.

Tunisia under Kais Saied
Zied Dabbar, President of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), is giving a speech during a rally staged by the SNJT in Tunis on March 6, 2024, in solidarity with Tunisian journalist Khalifa Guesmi. Journalists participating in the rally protested the imprisonment of their colleague and called for his release. Guesmi was imprisoned after being sentenced on appeal to five years in prison under anti-terrorism legislation. The rally coincided with the examination by the Court of Cassation of the journalist’s case. Chedly Ben Ibrahim / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP

Growing Foreign Debt

The government tried to borrow its way out of these problems, so foreign debt grew. In 2022, it equaled nearly 90 per cent of GDP. The International Crisis Group reported that in 2024, state budget expenditure would reach $17.3 billion, while revenues would likely only raise $14.9 billion. Debt servicing consumed a large percentage of government expenditure, but as Tunisia’s credit rating was repeatedly lowered, borrowing became increasingly expensive in 2023.

To an extent, Saied held off dissent by posing as a clean politician who was taking on corrupt elites, and by relying on the police to repress opposition. He also positioned himself as a populist nationalist during the Gaza war and made several speeches denouncing Zionism and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. This helped him to rally support.

In 2023, he used increasingly strident rhetoric to make racist attacks on what he called the “hordes of illegal migrants.” These migrants, mainly black and from other parts of Africa, had, according to Saied, become violent criminals who wanted to transform Tunisia’s demographic makeup and “strip it of its Arab and Islamic identity”. A wave of violent physical attacks on migrants followed.

While the Saied government ignored condemnations by the African Union of his xenophobic speech, it maintained good relations with Algeria and reopened diplomatic links with Syria that an earlier Tunisian government had broken off in 2011 in protest against the brutality of Syrian repression of the Arab Spring revolts.

The Saied regime carefully nurtured foreign relations, maintaining the alliance with the United States by supporting US policy on Ukraine and security cooperation. It continued to have a strained relationship with the European Union (EU), with which it signed a migration deal, promising to curb irregular migration from Tunisia’s coast in return for financial aid and economic cooperation with the bloc.

While the deal was met with opposition from within Tunisia, President Saied reportedly used his power grab to push through the deal. As the deal did not address rights abuses or include human rights conditions, the EU has been accused of abandoning human rights. At the same time, as Human Rights Watch has warned, it emboldened Saied, who can claim credit for securing financial support for the failing economy while repressing the population.

In the first half of 2024, Saied’s government continued its authoritarian trend, deepening its crackdown on political activists, journalists, civil society workers, migrants and asylum seekers.

With the difficult economic and social situation ongoing, the Tunisian government has been under pressure to implement reforms of its economy, including cutting subsidies and slashing the public wage bill. These demands put forward by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in return for a multibillion dollar loan package, have met fierce opposition from President Saied, who is himself under pressure from the Tunisian population. Necessary reforms demanded by the IMF would likely make their life even more difficult.

As President Saied has concentrated power in his own hands while Tunisians are denied a decent living, freedom of dissent and other rights, the gains of the Tunisian revolution, which were once seen as exemplary in the Arab world, are increasingly at stake.