Nothing captures Tunisia’s crisis of democracy better than this act: the sentencing, in absentia, of former President Moncef Marzouki to four years in prison. Convicted of “undermining the security of the state from abroad,” Marzouki’s alleged crime was that he had the audacity to condemn President Kais Saied’s power grab. For Tunisia’s populist autocratic leader, criticizing the president is tantamount to undermining state security. This “l’etat c’est moi” logic is that of all would-be dictators.
The response of the international community to Saied’s increasingly authoritarian rule has been relatively mild. On December 10, the United States joined Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the European Union in issuing a statement that affirmed their commitment to help Tunisia maintain its democratic experiment. But Saied appears to be sticking to his guns by announcing, on December 14, that he would keep the parliament shut, appoint a committee to revise the constitution, and postpone elections until December 17, 2022. There also has been little follow-up while European leaders seem divided on how to respond to Saied’s grandiose assertion that he wants to “protect the paths of the revolution and history.” As for the United States, the State Department called for an “inclusive” reform process while also welcoming “President Saied’s announcement of a timeline outlining a path for political reform and parliamentary elections.” Not surprisingly, some of Saied’s allies pounced on this statement as proof positive that the Biden Administration was backing their president.
But it is not clear that outside powers can exercise the kind of clout that some Washington think tanks envision. The problem is not merely that Saied has used outside pressures to discredit his domestic critics. The more basic issue is that opposition leaders must still tackle the one major challenge that they have skirted for some eight years, namely: how will they square the quest for a pluralistic democracy with the simultaneous pursuit of both market reforms and social justice? If Saied’s opponents want to take the wind out of his sails, they must first unify behind a realistic road map that points the way to a new democratic bargain. Then and only then will pressure or incentives from the United States, the European Union, and others have some chance of making a real difference.
Economic Obstacles to a Democratic Bargain
In a December 5 speech marking the anniversary of the assassination of Farhat Hached (the founder of the General Union of Tunisian Workers, or UGTT), Nourredine Taboubi, the current leader of the UGTT, warned that “we have become afraid for Tunisians’ democratic gains” because President Saied has refused to “announce a roadmap” for moving the country forward. Cheering him on, the crowd responded: “Work, freedom and national dignity.”
This slogan sums up the challenges and dilemmas that have come to define not merely the politics of Tunisia but of the wider Arab world. The region’s autocracies were largely forged around a “ruling bargain” by which regimes promised jobs, social welfare, and stability in return for the support or political quiescence of both elites and their wider populations. In Tunisia, the UGTT provided the institutional structure through which this bargain was channeled. Indeed, from the early 1960s until the dawn of the Jasmine Revolution, its number one priority was work, to which the quest for freedom was often, if grudgingly, subordinated.
The Arab region’s autocracies were largely forged around a “ruling bargain” by which regimes promised jobs, social welfare, and stability in return for the support or political quiescence of both elites and their wider populations.
Given this legacy, it is hardly surprising that, to this very day, the UGTT’s leaders still evince a certain ambiguity when it comes to accepting the replacement of the old arrangement with a new democratic bargain. After all, the bargain requires that this powerful organization—which boasts a membership of some 800,000 out of a population of 11 million—cede more space to other powerful economic groups whose quest for market economic reforms could come, quite literally, at the expense of the UGTT. The challenge facing the union is how to defend its traditional social base without falling in bed with autocratic leaders who argue that Tunisia’s experiment in pluralistic democracy has been little more than a vehicle for domination by one corrupt social class.
A Fragile Saied-UGTT Accommodation
The UGTT’s efforts to grapple with this dilemma have fueled its political ambivalence, as was amply evident in Taboubi’s above-mentioned December 5 speech. While assailing some of Saied’s actions, he noted in his speech that the union “supported July 25 because it was an opportunity to save the country and implement reforms.” In other words, the UGTT backed Saied’s July 25 decree suspending parliament and imposing a state of emergency on the condition that it be followed by political reforms, the most important of which, the union has argued, is early elections.
What is missing from this formula are two critical elements. First, Taboubi has avoided calling the president’s action a coup d’état. Thus, he has resisted joining the still wobbly but growing coalition of forces that have condemned Saied’s July 25 decree and subsequent suspension of the constitution. Second, the UGTT has avoided detailing its position on the contentious issue of market economic reforms. Thus on December 11, Taboubi reiterated that the union “does not have any differences with the President of the Republic Kais Saied, and supports the corrective path,” while also noting that the union was preparing “a project and a vision … to reform the educational, health and university system.” Thus, he recapitulated the union’s long held focus on the public sector while avoiding any mention of the private sector. The latter issue, the union has intimated, will only be tackled after a political road map is set and parliamentary elections held.
UGTT’s Taboubi recapitulated the union’s long held focus on the public sector while avoiding any mention of the private sector. The latter issue, the union has intimated, will only be tackled after a political road map is set and parliamentary elections held.
Taboubi’s effort to link to the elections works well for him and it also benefits President Saied. In mid-November, Minister of Employment Nasreddine Nsibi announced that the government would stick to all the deals it had previously struck with the UGTT, including an agreement not to reduce the minimum wage set by the government. That his promise came one week after the government resumed talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on implementing the 2016 economic reform agreement underscored the fragile common ground that has come to define the opportunistic relationship between the union and the president.
Echoing the tenuous bonds between them, during the solemn ceremony marking the assassination of the UGTT’s founder, Saied claimed that during its first decades, the union “was pure and intervened solely for the good of the country.” No one watching this speech—which Saied filled with themes of Islamic piety—could have missed the verbal barbs that he tossed at the UGTT. Its current leaders, he implied, were not honoring the legacy of pure patriotism for which Hached was martyred. Saied’s populist bid is to seize the very mantle of nationalism the UGTT has long claimed for itself, and this poses a difficult and even humiliating challenge for Taboubi and his labor allies.
Will Tunisian Leaders Seize the Moment?
The UGTT has tried to deflect Saied by sticking to its rejection of any austerity measures proposed by the IMF. Laid out in early November, the UGTT not only rejected any price increase but also called for strengthening subsidies to oversee the deteriorating purchasing power of the dinar. “A temporary government in exceptional circumstances,” the UGTT insisted, “cannot implement economic reforms,” the likes of which “may require five years” to carry out.
For their part, Tunisian officials are still pursuing the request that the government made to the IMF in mid-November. IMF officials have emphasized that these talks seek to “examine the possibility of starting a new program of funding in favor of Tunisia,” with a view to providing a $4 billion rescue package. Taboubi’s December 16 assertion that the government is now proposing a 10 percent cut of the public sector wage labor bill (which, he emphasized, the union rejected) could suggest that the government is finally getting serious. But Saied has said nothing to indicate that he is backing ministers who are accountable only to him. Instead, he has pushed his vague proposals for consultations with young people, thus raising legitimate questions about whether the government has any effective authority to negotiate with the IMF.
Saied has pushed his vague proposals for consultations with young people, thus raising legitimate questions about whether the government has any effective authority to negotiate with the IMF.
Absent an agreement, the already serious fiscal crisis that Tunisia is facing could become dire. With a public sector wage bill that constitutes nearly 18 percent of GDP and an external funding gap of almost $2 billion (4.3 percent of GDP) in the last quarter of fiscal year 2021, experts predict that the government could run out of funds to cover its domestic expenditures within several months. While Tunisia is not expected to follow the path of Lebanon—which last year defaulted on its Eurobonds—and with Gulf states providing no indication that they can or will help, Tunisia’s already stressed state institutions could reach a breaking point.
With such a grim scenario now in the offing, the unfolding struggle to stem the rising tide of autocracy in Tunisia will depend in part on two factors: the capacity of opposition parties to solidify as wide a coalition as possible, and the readiness of opposition leaders to find some common ground on the difficult challenges of economic reform. Stated otherwise, the president’s critics must signal that their quest to restore the 2014 constitution, reinstate parliament, and hold new elections in a timely manner is animated by a shared resolve to tackle the economic and social problems that Saied has clearly proven incapable of addressing.
On the first of these two issues, the opposition has made some progress. As one astute Tunisian analyst notes, Saied’s repressive and illegal actions have had the unintended if familiar effect of helping to both widen and unite the opposition. Indeed, on December 23, many leaders of the “Citizens Against the Coup” declared a hunger strike to mobilize national and international public opinion against Saied.
On the second issue, there remains much to be done. The opposition’s biggest challenge is Taboubi’s reluctance to alienate Saied. But there is something deeper at work, and that is the UGTT’s desire to protect the interests of its followers in ways that will sustain its historical and symbolic role as Tunisia’s dominant national force. To continue playing this role—or perhaps recapture it—the union cannot afford to be seen as giving in to the dictates of either the president or his most vociferous opponents. Whether these calculations continue to hamper the opposition will depend on future developments. A major crisis, such as a violent confrontation between security forces and the opposition, could compel the UGTT to side with the opposition, or at least threaten to do so, in ways that could enhance its bargaining leverage. But if it sticks to its current position, the opposition will lack the capacity to mobilize the street. The resort to a hunger strike seems to underscore its limited room for maneuver.
Democracy and Empty Stomachs
When Taboubi was elected secretary general of the UGTT in January 2019, he asserted that “there can be no democracy when the stomachs are empty.” The challenge in today’s Tunisia—as in so many other developing countries—is that the advent of an open if distorted democratic contest has intensified social divisions over the role that the state should play in securing both social justice and market-driven economic growth. In the Arab world, Tunisia has stood as a lonely test case for the proposition that pluralistic democracy can contain or even reduce—rather than magnify—social and identity conflicts. If the country’s leaders fail to create a new democratic bargain, every autocrat in the Middle East and North Africa will point to Tunisia’s unhappy story to argue for maintaining one version or another of the old authoritarian compact.
If the country’s leaders fail to create a new democratic bargain, every autocrat in the Middle East and North Africa will point to Tunisia’s unhappy story to argue for maintaining one version or another of the old authoritarian compact.
Such a stance would be deeply cynical, particularly given the support by Arab autocrats such as Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi for Saied’s power grab. Moreover, their actions have paralleled the readiness of successive US administrations to back Arab autocracies, or in the case of Tunisia, to avoid rocking the boat by embracing a more critical position regarding Saied’s increasingly autocratic rule.
Still, care should be taken not to exaggerate the positive or negative role of outside forces—including the Biden Administration. Foreign governments, NGOs, and multilateral institutions can play a useful role. But they can only do so if Tunisian leaders take steps not only to reshape the rules of the democratic game, but also to redefine the role of elected leaders and state institutions in managing the public and private spheres of economic life.
Any readiness to tackle this arduous task should be encouraged or rewarded. The path forward requires a readiness by Tunisian leaders to embrace—and foreign governments and multilateral institutions such as the IMF and World Bank to fund—a comprehensive program of infrastructure development, social support, and job retraining. This program must unfold in tandem with economic reforms such as reducing subsidies, realigning exchange rates, liberalizing trade between Tunisia and the EU, or restructuring public companies.
This much needed partnership with the international community will have no chance of emerging unless Tunisia’s leaders muster the political will to replace a consensus-based power-sharing democracy, which had produced a nearly paralyzed parliament, with a reinvigorated democracy—one that assigns real legislative authority to a government derived from an elected majority. President Saied seems resolved to prevent a revitalization of parliamentary democracy by imposing a presidential system in which the will of the people will presumably prevail through a strong executive backed by a compliant judiciary, legislature, and military.
The allure of this kind of populist project endures in Tunisia (and many other countries as well, not least of which the United States), because many Tunisians view democracy as little more than a corrupt enterprise that has only enriched a narrow elite. As 2022 unfolds, both new and established democracies urgently need leaders who can advocate for political and economic reforms that are at once inspirational and pragmatic as well as visionary and feasible.