As 2021 Begins, Rival Populisms Menace Tunisia’s Democracy

Ten years after Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” sparked grassroots uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, the pressures of an economic crisis, rampant corruption, and endless political infighting have fostered deep estrangement with the country’s political establishment. Tunisia is suffering a crisis of faith not only in democracy but in politics itself.

Disenchantment with democracy in Tunisia has encouraged competing populist appeals that are manifest in the efforts of rival leaders to convince their followers that their agonies are rooted in the machinations of this or that enemy—sometimes pointing to morally bankrupt secularists, foreign linked Islamists, or unnamed “conspirators.” Because these leaders lack sufficient power to impose their will on their rivals, they prefer vilifying their foes rather than offering a credible alternative to political combat. This situation does not bode well for 2021.

Power Sharing Breeds Disenchantment

Advocates of populism proffer one overriding message: they assert that because it is backed by nefarious internal and external powers, the ruling political elite defends a system that has betrayed the people’s one true and authentic identity. Such claims work their magic when citizens come to view national politics as a distant, irrelevant, and corrupt game.

Populism in Tunisia has emerged partly as a reaction to a power-sharing system that is now widely seen as ineffective and corrupt. The squabbling fomented by this “big tent” system has alienated rank and file party activists, thus prompting rivals to compete for the mantle of party leadership. In turn, these elite power struggles have estranged Tunisians, especially those struggling in the rural hinterlands and in the slums abutting the capital Tunis itself.

After a new government was sworn in on September 3, 2020, hopes for creating an effective government were buoyed by the decision to create a cabinet of independent technocrats.

Still, after a new government was sworn in on September 3, 2020, hopes for creating an effective government were buoyed by the decision to create a cabinet of independent technocrats. The decision of the Islamist-oriented Ennahda Party to join forces with Heart of Tunis (Qalb Tunis)—a secular, pro-western party led by Nabil Karoui, a millionaire media mogul—helped secure parliament’s support for Prime Minister Hichem Mechihi’s proposed cabinet. But this partnership also signaled that however independent, the new government would still be bound by the constraints of power sharing between antagonistic party leaders and their parties.

This antipathy deepened after Karoui backed a bid by the leader of Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi, to become speaker of parliament. By cutting a deal with Karoui (who was rearrested on December 24 on money laundering and tax evasion charges), Ghannouchi provoked the ire of his radical rivals in both the secular and Islamist camps. They saw his maneuvering as proof positive that the sole value animating the political class is power. But this hostility toward the parties supporting the new cabinet did not produce a unified or effective opposition. Instead, Mechichi’s foes have advanced rival populist claims in a bid to discredit the political system and undermine the democratic values that this system presumably protects.

Islamist Populism

By weaving the moral conservatism of salafist Islam with a more radical jihadist ethos, the Dignity Coalition (Karama) has emerged as Tunisia’s most potent Islamist exponent of populism. Led by Seifeddine Makhlouf, an often smiling charismatic lawyer who rose to prominence by defending Tunisians accused of terrorism offenses, his coalition has 21 seats in the 217-member parliament, just one seat behind the avowedly secular Democratic Current (at-Tayyar ad-Dimuqrati).

Makhlouf’s strategy is to foster conflict and dissension by tossing ideological grenades at multiple targets: secularists, Ennahda Islamists, women’s and LGBTQ activists, French officials, and even President Kais Saied. He also caused a stir by accusing health officials of ignoring what he claimed to be a locally fabricated COVID-19 vaccine, a purported vial of which he displayed in parliament in late November. Yet if such grandstanding was widely mocked, Dignity’s calculated manipulation of hot button identity issues has provoked followers and foes alike.

Makhlouf’s strategy is to foster conflict and dissension by tossing ideological grenades at multiple targets: secularists, Ennahda Islamists, women’s and LGBTQ activists, French officials, and even President Kais Saied.

One such issue involves France. Dignity’s verbal assaults on France’s political, cultural, and social influence are designed to impugn the loyalty of Tunisia’s modernist political and social elite. But beyond accusations of disloyalty, in June 2020 the party’s leader, Rached Khiari, claimed that the very founder of the modern Tunisian state, Habib Bourguiba, had abetted French colonialism. This accusation provoked an outcry from party leaders whose conception of a civil state echoes Bourguiba’s constitutionalist principles. Abir Moussi, the leader of the Free Destourian Party (al-Hizb ad-Destouri al-Hurr, FDP) and a passionate defender of Bourguiba’s legacy, denounced Khiari’s incendiary remarks, thus helping to stir the pot of identity conflict—as Khiari surely intended.

But Khiari’s statement, which came after Dignity tabled a resolution demanding that France apologize “for all the crimes it has perpetrated against the Tunisian people,” also embarrassed Rachid Ghannouchi, who (rightly or wrongly) was loudly criticized by liberal and leftist parties for allowing Khiari to speak in the first place. While the resolution failed, Ennahda and Dignity leaders backed it, thus displaying the latter’s ability to push Ennahda in a direction that clashed with Ghannouchi’s quest to maintain good relations with liberal parties, especially Heart of Tunis.

In October, Dignity once again provoked a storm of controversy following the killing near Paris of Samuel Paty, a French school teacher who was beheaded by a radical jihadist after Paty used caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed as part of a civics lesson. Seizing another chance to stir the identity pot, Rached Khiari stated1 on his Facebook page that “any attack on the Prophet is one of the greatest crimes and anyone who dares to do such a thing must bear the consequences, be it the state, an individual or a group.”

Khiari’s words achieved his objective. Outraged, a group of secularly oriented intellectuals and NGOs released a statement2 demanding that Khiari’s parliamentary immunity be removed so he could be prosecuted for supporting terrorism. Echoed by several MPs, some of whom organized protests3 in front of the parliament, this demand was followed with a preliminary investigation by the judiciary. True to form, Khiari listed the signatories of the NGO statement on his Facebook page, dismissing4 them as  mere “customers” of France.

The most recent blowup provoked by Dignity came on December 4. Speaking before parliament, Dignity MP Mohamed Al-Afas insisted that while Islam provided full rights to women, sexually liberal single women are “immoral” and unwed mothers, in particular, are “whores or rapists.” As for the “so-called rights achievements,” they “have undermined the dignity of Tunisian women.”

These inflammatory words sparked a brawl on the floor of parliament during which several Dignity MPs reportedly assaulted their cohorts in the Democratic Current, including Samia Abbou. A prominent women’s rights activist, Abbou apparently fainted while her colleague, Annouar Benchahed, suffered a facial cut. After the fracas was broadcast on Facebook, five Tunisian parties called for lifting parliamentary immunity to allow charges to be brought against those MPs accused of perpetrating the attack.

However one assesses the various competing accounts5 of the brawl, Al-Afas’s statements produced their intended effect: they intensified recrimination between Dignity’s secular and Islamist rivals. Ghannouchi tried to avoid antagonizing both camps by denouncing “any form of violence.” Unhappy with these tepid words, Democratic Current leaders—who had previously backed a failed effort to have a vote of no confidence in Ghannouchi—now assailed him for not condemning those they held responsible for the altercation. The situation escalated after President Saied met with Democratic Current MPs. In a TV interview, Makhlouf scolded the president for hosting the meeting before an investigation had taken place, and again implied6 that he no longer recognized Saied as the president.

Abir Moussi’s Secular Populism

While no Tunisian leader has responded more forcefully to Dignity’s provocation than Abir Moussi, the ideology that she and her FDP advocate mirrors Dignity’s populism. Whereas the latter believes that Islam—and by implication, Islamic law—is Tunisia’s one authentic identity, FDP holds that constitutionalism, secularism, and nationalism provide the historical, psychological, and spiritual foundations of the Tunisian people. FDP’s leaders are as determined to impugn the legitimacy of any Islamist party or leader as Dignity’s leaders are to demonize all forms of secularism. Each considers the other as the carrier of a foreign disease that must be extracted from the body politic.

But these rival populisms differ in seemingly paradoxical ways. While opposing secularism, Dignity has not explicitly called for banning secular parties. The FDP, by contrast, has sought to ban all Islamist parties including Ennahda. Moussi claims wrongly that the latter is merely an  extension of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its regional offshoots, and for this reason it is a “threat to national sovereignty.” Thus FDP advocates an authoritarian agenda, or at least a distinctly illiberal form of democracy. Moreover, its illiberalism extends to many social issues. FDP opposes LGBTQ rights, advocates reimposing the death penalty, and rejects proposals for gender equality in inheritance laws. In a society with a large traditional sector and numerous areas of the country suffering social and economic crisis, this blend of social conservativism and illiberal ideas has given FDP an apparent edge over Islamists. Indeed, an August 2020 poll indicated that FDP would receive nearly 36 percent of the vote as compared to 22 percent for Ennahda and six percent for Dignity.

In a society with a large traditional sector and numerous areas of the country suffering social and economic crisis, this blend of social conservativism and illiberal ideas has given FDP an apparent edge over Islamists.

Such disparities help to explain why FDP has focused its efforts on Ennahda rather than Dignity. The former’s enduring, if diminished, popular appeal, and Ennahda’s readiness to support power sharing in a parliament whose speaker remains Ennahda’s leader (at least for now), give FDP an impetus to be far more discriminating than Dignity about picking its enemies. Thus in the closing months of 2020, Abir Moussi intensified her attacks on Ennahda while calling for a shift from a mixed political arrangement in Tunisia to a presidential system, one that would limit the authority of the parliament.

Kais Saied’s Presidential Populism

By the end of 2020 most of Tunisia’s leaders were deeply unhappy with their president, even as he maintained strong support in the wider society. Yet this situation would probably not worry him. Kais Saied won the 2019 elections because he was an independent figure who was not linked to any political party. His advocacy of a vague social populism—based on popularly elected local assemblies—troubled many party leaders and media observers. But it also signaled that he shared the wider society’s growing disdain for the political establishment.

By the end of 2020 most of Tunisia’s leaders were deeply unhappy with their president, even as he maintained strong support in the wider society. Yet this situation would probably not worry him.

That this particular element in his populist toolkit virtually disappeared in 2020 is not surprising. After all, the 2014 constitution envisions the president as a kind of national arbiter. This role requires managing conflicts and rising above the fray rather than advocating utopian social projects or advancing yet another competing populist project, one that would be hard for Saied to advance since he has no party to project his message or mobilize support.

Still, one populist theme did emerge in the president’s rhetoric: his accusations that unnamed internal or external actors were disrupting political and social stability. Given his deteriorating relations with all the key political leaders, especially Ghannouchi, it was not strange that Saied took to blaming conspiracies and  “crooked politicians and plotters” for Tunisia’s troubles—and his own. But as his liberal critics noted, such unbecoming behavior made it harder for the president to exercise authority. By the dawn of 2021, Saied’s provocative words suggested that he could not play the role of an effective political arbiter. Thus, while he recently proposed a new national dialogue on economic and social issues—because it is far more tempting to push the populist-identity button than to grapple with tough policy choices, for which there is little to no consensus—his proposal will probably not garner sustained support from his political rivals.

Tunisia: Into 2021

Commenting on Dignity’s demand that France apologize for its colonization of Tunisia, one Heart of Tunis MP remarked, “We are not going to feed Tunisians with such motions.” In Tunisia, as in other countries (including, of course, the United States) , populism can be a useful, if often dangerous, mobilizing tool; however, it rarely offers effective strategies for addressing difficult economic, social, and health problems. Still, in the coming year, Abir Moussi’s populism might eventually help FDP emerge as the major player in a political struggle that could test the very limits of Tunisia’s increasingly shaky democracy.

If Tunisia’s democracy totters, both North Africa and Western Europe will suffer the social, humanitarian, and political consequences. Therefore, Tunisia needs—and the international community has good reason to provide—additional support. But foreign aid will not have sufficient impact unless the country’s leaders muster the will and vision to avoid the authoritarian path that many Arab leaders chose—or advocated—in the decade following the Arab Spring.

Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Daniel and read his publications click here

1 Source is in Arabic.
2 Source is in Arabic.
3 Source is in Arabic.
4 Source is in Arabic.
5 Source is in Arabic.
6 Source is in Arabic.