Demonstrators supporting President Kais Saied in Tunis on October 3, 2021. Chahd Lina Belhadj/Meshkal

There is a widely held belief in Tunisia that the political elite has thwarted the aspirations of the 2011 revolution, which ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali with popular demands for social and economic justice. Urgent questions about wealth redistribution, political and economic corruption, and transitional justice have been ignored or relegated to technocratic and international bodies. In this way citizens have been denied a voice in determining the post-revolution future of the country. Many believe that by foreclosing substantive debate on these and other related issues, successive post-revolution Tunisian governments have reduced democracy to an electoral cycle in a closed field dominated by the machinations of self-interested political parties.

Many observers from abroad, and some of Tunisia’s political elites, celebrate the country as the Arab world’s sole democracy. President Kais Saied’s recent expansion of presidential powers has upended this political system, calling into question the future of Tunisia’s democracy but also highlighting the shortcomings embedded in Tunisia’s democratic framework. Said’s evocation of Article 80 of the Constitution on July 25, 2021, which outlines a legal “state of exception,” followed by Presidential Decree 117 on September 22, granting him legislative powers by decree, have been variously described as a constitutional coup, an autogolpe (self-coup) or a military-backed coup d’état. He also froze parliamentary activities while removing the representatives’ immunity and dissolved the government headed by Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi.

These actions by the president clearly run counter to the separation of powers outlined in Tunisia’s 2014 democratic Constitution. Many Tunisians, however, reacted to Saied’s July 25 Republic Day announcement with mass public celebration, including fireworks that continued through the night despite a country-wide 8pm curfew in the midst of the nation’s worst Coronavirus infection cycle to date. While international observers, political parties and, increasingly, civil society and media voice their concerns, Saied has surprisingly maintained his popularity since then. Three days after Saied invoked Article 80 a public opinion survey by a local polling firm showed that 87 percent of Tunisians reported being favorable or partially favorable to his decisions, and in a poll conducted after Presidential Decree 117, 79 percent claimed to be satisfied with his actions. Although Saied’s actions have been widely celebrated by Tunisian citizens, the country’s political class is largely divided. Public opinion is playing a major role in shaping how political parties are responding, but at the same time, pre-existing internal divisions within political parties are being exposed more profoundly than ever before. While a number of “anti-coup” protests have been organized, turnout has been, to date, significantly less than rival “pro-Saied” rallies. This scenario may change. In fact, it is changing every day.


End of Democracy? Which Democracy? Whose Democracy?


The symbolism of Saied’s invocation of Article 80 on Republic Day can be read in many ways, but perhaps the most widely held interpretation is that it broke an unpopular political status quo, as did Habib Bourguiba’s July 25, 1957, declaration to end the monarchy. Coming out of a pandemic and living through the worst economic conditions since the early 1980s, many Tunisians are willing to abandon the 2014 Constitution and its political system in the hope for a better system that reflects their needs and interests. While perhaps shocking, that stance does not mean they support a return to an authoritarian system. Rather, many believe that the 2014 political system simply perpetuated the socio-economic despotism of the ancient régime via a new constitutional framework dominated by political parties. Support for Saied can thus be viewed as citizens demanding that the 2011 revolution be implemented in a democratic framework where the definition of “democratic” goes further than minimalist elections and addresses deep-seated socio-economic grievances. These positions are consistently identified not only by the Arab Barometer (a non-partisan research network that conducts public opinion polls), but also by the 19,577 sit-ins, demonstrations and wildcat protests documented by the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights between October 2019 and July 25, 2021.

Support for Saied can thus be viewed as citizens demanding that the 2011 revolution be implemented in a democratic framework where the definition of “democratic” goes further than minimalist elections and addresses deep-seated socio-economic grievances.

Ash-sha‘b yurid” (the people want), a slogan linked both to the January 2011 revolution and Kais Saied’s 2019 electoral campaign, is a multivalent and densely packed expression that conjures different meanings for different people. While during the revolution citizens called for the fall of Ben Ali’s regime and its replacement with a democratic system, what that democracy would be, and more importantly what it would do and for whom, was never clearly defined. Most outside observers, including academics, pundits and policymakers, understood this system to be some sort of multiparty, liberal democracy. By focusing on a minimalist and proceduralist approach measured by elections—and one which reduced the historically rich debate about religion and politics down to voting behavior and patterns—these analysts pushed aside equally important Tunisian questions and debates on wealth distribution, transitional justice and combating corruption. The analysts presumed that these concerns could be resolved with technocratic commissions supported by foreign advisers to ensure best international practices. By ignoring the breadth of aspirations created in 2011, such frameworks reduced the goals of the revolution to a set of institutional and episodic events—elections.

For many Tunisians, this minimalist democracy did not capture the aims of the 2011 revolution. According to the Arab Barometer poll that year, the first and second most important reasons for anti-Ben Ali protests were demands to improve the economic situation, followed by combatting corruption, within a democratic framework. How people defined democracy, however, diverged. According to the same survey, when asked to identify the most important characteristic of democracy, Tunisians were split between political liberties and economic rights. While 27 percent of respondents indicated that democracy is “the opportunity to change the government through elections,” 22 percent defined it as “providing basic items (such as food, housing and clothing) to every individual,” followed by 21 percent who claimed democracy should be focused on “narrowing the gap between rich and poor.” The slogan “ash-sha’b yurid haq az-zawali” (people want the rights of the poor), frequently heard during the revolution, underscores this determination. Democratic elections were a means of implementing the revolution, which would create the conditions of a dignified life for all.


Democratic Success Story or Elite-Driven Failure?


None of Tunisia’s three elected governments substantively addressed democracy in all the ways most people defined it, despite working from within a liberal democratic framework. Rather, each of the country’s three legislatures since 2011 was characterized by ideational fights, counter-intuitive alliances, party defections and implosions and conflict between the presidency, legislature and judiciary over prerogatives. Substantive reforms to deepen democracy, though sometimes evoked, have been just as quickly forgotten or, worse, undone.

Tunisia’s first three years of democratic governance, under the 2011–2014 National Constituent Assembly (NCA), were marked by bitter fights over both procedure and identity politics. These disagreements pitted the so-called Troika government—composed of the Muslim democratic Ennahdha, the revolutionary democratic Congress for the Republic (CPR) and social democratic Ettakatol—against a coterie of leftist, Arab nationalist and secular parties and led to a few significant party splits. The assassinations of leftist politicians Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid led to mass protests and a major political crisis in 2013. A consensual solution to the crisis was negotiated by a quartet of associations and unions whereby a technocratic government oversaw presidential and legislative elections in 2014. Perhaps the NCA’s greatest achievement, in addition to the 2014 Constitution, was the creation of the Truth and Dignity Commission (Instance Verité et Dignité, IVD) in December 2013, which was tasked with gathering testimonies of state violence and corruption from 1955 to 2011.

The 2014 presidential and legislative campaigns pitted Ennahdha against newly formed big-tent party Nidaa Tounes in what appeared to be a highly charged campaign defined by the latter’s intransigent commitment to secularism, while riding on its claims to master economic and security issues. Nidaa Tounes won a plurality in the elections, followed by Ennahdha. Troika coalition partners CPR and Ettakatol lost badly (CPR won 4 seats, Ettakatol was eliminated). Nidaa Tounes leader Beji Caid Essebsi bested transitional president Moncef Marzouki in the second round of legislative elections. Ultimately, Nidaa Tounes reneged on its promise not to work with Ennahdha, inviting it to join as a junior coalition partner. That government’s commitment to political liberalizations was symbolic. The 2015 declaration of a state of emergency, still in effect, restricted the right to protest, and the period was marked by a significant uptick in police brutality. During this legislature, the prerogatives of the IVD were curtailed and cooperation with the presidency was minimal. Several important figures in Nidaa Tounes were linked to state violence and corruption in the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes. In 2017, the coalition government passed the Law on Administrative Reconciliation, granting amnesty to public officials who had engaged in financial corruption during the Ben Ali period. Proposed by Caid Essebsi, and supported by Ennahdha in parliament, the law ran counter to the spirit of the IVD, whose mission came to an end in 2018, as did the transitional justice project in general. The law also signaled the government’s lukewarm commitment to fighting corruption, to the dismay of many. During this period, the Nidaa Tounes party imploded amid a bitter internal struggle over leadership, ultimately pitting then prime minister Youssef Chahed against Hafedh Caid Essebsi, the president’s son.

Ennahdha thus won the 2019 legislative elections, while Qalb Tounes—a populist party founded by a failed presidential hopeful, media magnate and Nidaa Tounes defector, Nabil Karoui—came in second. During the electoral campaign both parties were adamant about not working together, but within three months of the election and after Ennadha’s failed attempt to get parliament to ratify its proposed prime minister, they had joined forces along with a smaller, radical Islamic populist party, al-Karama. In spring 2020, allegations that Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh, appointed by Saied, was engaging in conflict-of-interest business dealings while in power led to his resignation in June, on the eve of a vote of no confidence led by Ennahdha and its allies. This move allowed Saied to nominate then-ally Mechichi to the post. Relations between Mechichi and Saied quickly soured, and the former found himself beholden to the Ennahdha-Qalb Tounes coalition to maintain his post. During Mechichi’s tenure, the parliamentary floor took on a carnivalesque flavor and was the scene of frequent disruption and violence by members of al-Karama and Abir Moussi’s Free Destourian Party. At the same time, the country was experiencing the most profound economic crisis since the 2011 revolution.

According to the 2021 Arab Barometer poll, close to 90 percent of respondents reported that there was a high or significant degree of corruption in government, with 67 percent of respondents to the 2019 Transparency International survey stating they believed corruption had significantly increased over the last 12 months. Not surprisingly, 64 percent of respondents to the 2021 Arab Barometer survey believed the government was failing in its fight against corruption: The governments’ efforts to curtail the independence of the IVD was widely viewed as protecting the political elite.

Despite identifying economic dignity as a major component of democracy, none of the post-Ben Ali governments improved the quality of life for most Tunisians. Unwilling to attack tax evasion and illegal capital transfers to capture revenues, each has requested International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans to cover public sector salaries. Unable to access capital markets at favorable terms following the revolution, the Troika government signed a 24-month $2.6 billion loan with the IMF, despite serious reservations from some deputies in the NCA. The agreement effectively tied future governments’ hands by agreeing to austerity-setting conditionality clauses, which ran rough-shod over citizens’ hopes that democracy would mean more equitable wealth creation and distribution.

In May 2016, the Nidaa Tounes-led government then signed a four-year Extended Fund Facility loan with the IMF for $2.9 billion, which targeted the streamlining of the public sector (through audits and austerity) and private sector job growth. The agreement was predicated on the devaluation of the Tunisian dinar through a central bank reform law. The dinar has dropped in value by 32 percent to the dollar since 2016, with the unanticipated effect of hurting local industry that assembles imported parts into final products for the export sector, thus exasperating the trade deficit. The 2018 Finance law was designed to reduce the budget deficit by attacking subsidies, weakening state enterprises, freezing public sector wage increases and increasing the VAT on a range of basic consumer items—policies viewed as indirect subsidies to the wealthy by taking from the poor and middle classes. The law triggered widespread protests, quelled only after the army was called in to support the police, and leading to more than 500 arrests. Spearheaded by movements such as Fech Nestannou (“what are we waiting for”) and Manich Msamah (“I will not forgive”), 2018 was a year of social movements calling for enhanced transitional justice, opposition to the government’s economic amnesty and austerity measures, for self-management of environmental protection policies and greater re-distribution of localized resources, including date palms, phosphates, oil and gas—issues the parliament largely failed to address.

Spearheaded by movements such as Fech Nestannou (“what are we waiting for”) and Manich Msamah (“I will not forgive”), 2018 was a year of social movements calling for enhanced transitional justice, opposition to the government’s economic amnesty and austerity measures, for self-management of environmental protection policies and greater re-distribution of localized resources, including date palms, phosphates, oil and gas—issues the parliament largely failed to address.

Tunisia’s GDP shrank by 8.6 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic, placing additional strain on the government to meet its creditor obligations. In late April 2021, the Mechichi government announced it would seek a $4 billion loan from the IMF to partially cover the $5.8 billion in 2021 debt payments, including $1 billion due in July and August. Currently, Tunisia’s public debt is more than 90 percent of GDP, and close to 30 percent of the government’s annual budget goes to debt servicing.

The 2018 Arab Barometer poll again confirmed that most Tunisians defined democracy in distributive terms: 55 percent of respondents agreed that government should “ensure job opportunities for all.” In that same survey, 55 percent disagreed with the statement that “under a democratic system, the country’s economic performance is weak,” while 80 percent of respondents were dissatisfied by the government’s performance in “creating job opportunities,” “narrowing the gap between rich and poor” (82 percent) and “keeping prices down” (88 percent). “Democracy” was not at fault for failing citizens’ redistributive aspirations, rather it was the political and economic elite, embodied by the leaders of parliament and government who were responsible. Indeed, 79 percent of respondents agreed that “democratic systems may have problems, yet they are still better than other systems.”

While the 2013 decision to take out an IMF loan may have been unavoidable after Tunisia’s credit rating was downgraded in 2011 and Western governments’ pledges to fund the new democracy evaporated, it created a cycle of debt requiring more loans, with their linked conditionality clauses. The net effect has been the weakening of the dinar, pressures on household income and stagnating unemployment, without a real public debate on what most Tunisians want, or how to achieve it. Instead, by relegating economic questions to technocrats and international advisers and funding agencies, Tunisia’s ruling political elite has passed economic reforms that contradict many citizens’ aspirations for the revolution: a popular voice in determining the future of the country. By refusing economic debate, Tunisia’s successive post-revolution governments have foreclosed political debate, the essence of democracy itself. Unsurprisingly, in 2018, when asked by the Arab Barometer “is your country democratic?” 41.6 percent of respondents answered on the left side of the scale (ending with “no democracy”), 21.4 percent at the median and just 24.5 on the right side of the scale (“complete democracy”). Pundits, it turns out, did not fully consider the real effects of policies guided by the priorities of international financial institutions on the Tunisian democratic polity.


The Rotten Compromises, Boulitique and Hogra


Although Tunisia’s democracy is widely celebrated by much of the country’s ruling elite and international pundits, by 2021 the limits of multiparty democracy—as enshrined in the 2014 Constitution and in the practices of politicians—has become abundantly clear to many Tunisian citizens. The success of the “twin tolerations” (the agreement between religious and secular authorities and citizens to co-exist) and integration of political Islam into a democratic framework resulted in what many Tunisians view as a series of “rotten compromises” that effectively blocked real political discussions and debates on how to both define and address Tunisian aspirations for democracy.[1] Rather, many Tunisians believe the country’s elected political elite reduces politics to a process of deals and counter-intuitive alliances and coalitions negotiated between hitherto ideologically opposed parties (for example in 2011 between Ennahdha, CPR and Ettakatol; in 2014 between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha; and in 2019 between Ennahdha and Qalb Tounes). Worse, there is a widely held belief that the 2014 and 2019 post-election parliamentary coalitions were merely the result of secret deals negotiated prior to or during the election cycle itself. Tunisians see this cynical and self-serving political theater, or what they call boulitique, as weakening the important role of compromise in a liberal democracy. Many Tunisians see those deals as an intentional effort to create a monopoly on the political levers of power in order to undermine an essential strength of the system of voting in elections—which is to force incumbents to defend their performance and push the opposition to generate new ideas to address citizen issues and demands.

Another commonly held view is that such a political monopoly serves one interest: maintaining socio-economic despotism. Parliamentary announcements about the fight against corruption and in support of transitional justice and equitable development, are seen as a continuity of political theater, meant to mask the economic status quo under the guise of multiparty politics. This deceptive behavior is part of what Tunisians mean when they speak of hogra, or the disdain the political, economic and intellectual elite are thought to feel for common people and the quotidian problems they encounter. The term conjures social discrimination and categorizes society into the holders of power and those excluded from it, and thus can at times transcend social class.

Saied has frequently repeated his long-time frustration that the multiparty system, enshrined in the 2014 Constitution, perpetuates the bifurcation of Tunisian society between political and economic insiders (hagara) and outsiders (mahgurin)—a position that resonates with many Tunisians.

Saied has frequently repeated his long-time frustration that the multiparty system, enshrined in the 2014 Constitution, perpetuates the bifurcation of Tunisian society between political and economic insiders (hagara) and outsiders (mahgurin)—a position that resonates with many Tunisians. This political-economic status quo, he believes, is in contravention of the spirit of the 2011 revolution captured in ash-sha’b yurid. Indeed, on Republic Day 2020, upon returning from Jellaz cemetery (the National Cemetery) where he prayed at the graves of Essebsi and Brahmi, as well as Bourguiba opponent Salah Ben Youssef and union leader and resistance fighter Ahmed Tlili, Saied gave a speech that included this statement:

Responding to the demands of the most disadvantaged is one of our most important priorities. We will respond to the legitimate demands of our people, and we will do everything to respond to them because these demands are legitimate within a framework of legitimacy that we respect…Everyone must assume their responsibilities for the preservation of Tunisia and its people, as well as their wishes. Some try to instrumentalize these demands, but we are working to realize them. And we will do it with a will of steel.

Although a radical position at the time, this perspective had become the norm for many Tunisians by Republic Day 2021. The reason for this attitude is perhaps because post-2011 parliaments have not addressed the major issues Tunisians wanted the democratic system to resolve.


Republic Day and the Social State


While Saied’s Republic Day gambit was widely popular, it is not clear how long this popularity will last. It is also unclear how many Tunisians fully support his radical transformation of the political system in order to harness the strengths of the republic, even if they share aspects of his rejection of the way liberal democracy was practiced in Tunisia. Saied received under 20 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2019 presidential elections, just ahead of Karoui who then was imprisoned. His second-round landslide victory may have been as much a sanction of Karoui as a vote for Saied. Perhaps both. While Saied remains Tunisia’s most popular political figure, opponents to his measures are increasingly vocal. Protests against him are growing in both number and size in part because Saied’s battle against hogra holds different meanings for different groups, and they are growing impatient with his perceived silence on how he will move forward. Some hoped July 25 was a prelude to banish Ennahdha from the political arena. For others, removing Mechichi was a priority. Still others hope he will be the man to finally end the perceived rampant corruption that hinders both democracy and economic wellbeing. Finally, others (and it remains unclear who they are and hence impossible to measure their electoral weight) might indeed support a complete and radical re-ordering of the political-economic system. But even then, while they might agree with Saied’s goals, they may have very different ideas of how Tunisia should achieve them.

Ultimately, on July 25, the day in 1957 that Bourguiba announced the end of the monarchy and establishment of the Tunisian Republic, Kais Saied announced a radical break with the 2014 Constitution and concentrated powers in his office. While the end of the monarchy was widely celebrated in 1957, Bourguiba rapidly concentrated all power into his own hands. In the absence of the Constitutional Court—the 12-member court outlined in the 2014 Constitution that was never fully seated due to political wrangling—Saied’s constitutional reading of Article 80 effectively concentrates the powers of the executive, legislature and judiciary into his office, at least for as long as the state of exception is prolonged. And while Saied insists that he is acting constitutionally (and with legitimacy), some fear that Saied’s next steps may mirror Bourguiba’s answer to Clement Henry Moore’s November 11, 1961, interview question on the post-monarchy political system: “What system? I am the system.”[2]


[Robert P. Parks is a political scientist, founding director of the Centre d’Études Maghrébines en Algérie and founding fellow of the Sidi Bou Said School of Critical Protest Studies. Tarek Kahlaoui is former director of the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies and is currently associate professor of international relations at the Mediterranean School of Business, South Mediterranean University in Tunis.]





[1] Alfred Stepan, “Tunisia’s Transition and the Twin Tolerations,” Journal of Democracy 23 (2012) pp. 89–103.

[2] Clement Henry Moore, Tunisia Since Independence: The Dynamics of One-Party Government (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965) p. 41.


How to cite this article:

Robert P. Parks, Tarek Kahlaoui "Populist Passions or Democratic Aspirations? Tunisia’s Liberal Democracy in Crisis," Middle East Report Online, October 26, 2021.

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