The Success of Tunisian President Kais Saied’s Neofascist Populism

If there was any doubt that Tunisian President Kais Saied is building a new autocracy on the rubble of Tunisia’s imperfect and short-lived democracy, that doubt was dispelled during the last weeks of February when he moved to decapitate the political opposition. Indeed, the arrest of more than a dozen political leaders and figures from the business and media arenas telegraphed the Tunisian president’s resolve to silence his critics. But a far greater shock came on February 22, when Saied asserted that opposition parties had secured foreign funding to change the demographic nature of Tunisia. The “undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration,” he asserted, “is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations.” After human rights activists criticized his remarks, the president insisted that his opponents had distorted his words to spread discord. When the African Union then officially condemned Saied’s “racialized hate speech,” Tunisian Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar rejected this interpretation of what he said was the president’s very legitimate effort to address the problem of illegal immigration.

It is not surprising that Saied’s minions are proffering such lame excuses. And yet, this episode also provides a microcosm of a wider project that now appears far more coherent than many ever imagined. This project is not only fueled by the president’s paranoia, but also by his endless claims that foreign forces are plotting with a domestic fifth column of corrupt business leaders and politicians to destroy Tunisia’s economy, society, and identity. While meant to detract attention from mounting economic woes—and from the president’s failure to mobilize more than 11 percent of the population in the second round of voting for a new parliament—these conspiracy theories have a kind of strategic potency because many Tunisians, who are exhausted by their everyday struggles and fed up with the ruling elite, believe him. Saied’s manipulation of their suffering has been amplified by the internet, and by Facebook in particular. The result is a system of mass fearmongering and fantasy diffusion that has a popular base. Saied is creating a postmodern neofascism rooted not in one “Great Lie,” but in dozens of fictions, the most recent of which has caused grief, not only in the Sub-Saharan African migrant community, but also among Tunisia’s African minority. In the name of unity, Saied—like all autocratic populists—is fomenting a politics of division and conflict that could escalate beyond his control.

Online Populism

To fully appreciate the threat posed by Saied’s populism, we must consider both its distinctive nature and the particular political and social context that has weaponized his message. That context goes back to a power sharing system that was created via elections in 2014, but which ended up providing space for rival elites to engage in contests to control or dominate every public institution, including the parliament, the electoral commission, and the judiciary. Divorced from the everyday realities of most Tunisians and alienating the wider populace, these struggles paralyzed any effort to produce coherent economic, penal, or judicial reform

Saied has used these failures to build his populist project. His efforts in the realm of the judiciary have proven especially effective. Elected president in 2019 after multiple failures by rival members of parliament to create a supreme court, he had no serious judicial barriers to what emerged as a systematic purge of the judiciary that essentially put his cronies in power. Thus, in sharp contrast to the populism of former US President Donald Trump—whose “Big Lie” was ultimately exposed by the courts—Saied has depended on a revamped Ministry of Justice and judiciary to pursue his opponents using indictments that constitute a legalized regurgitation of his own conspiracy theories. This almost complete subordination of the judiciary to his whims and fantasies has been undergirded by a state security apparatus that was never reformed during the country’s post-2011 democratic period, and by a professional military whose leaders the president has openly courted, and whose courts have been used to imprison Said’s critics.

Saied has depended on a revamped Ministry of Justice and judiciary to pursue his opponents.

The system that has allowed for these abuses—and those that are sure to follow—is both vast and somewhat mysterious. Saied’s project does not depend on the organized mobilization of his followers, be it in street protests or even through the electoral process. Indeed, he does not see the fact that no more than 11 percent of voters turned out for the first and second rounds of the recent parliamentary elections as a failure. On the contrary, his assertion that “ninety percent of Tunisians didn’t vote because parliament doesn’t mean anything to them any more” is not farfetched. As disdainful of liberal democratic institutions as his devotees, Saied is looking to his followers to acclaim both him and his project without stepping into the streets or even looking beyond their front doors.

The vehicle for this magical form of popular acclamation is the internet, which appears to play a key role in a strategy that has four steps: First, in the presence of TV cameras recording his ponderous meetings with ministers and his more animated encounters with Tunisians in markets and health clinics, the president asserts that “enemies” of the people are behind various plots, be it to raise prices, divert medical supplies, bribe officials, or even threaten “state security.” Second, these vague accusations are then spread, repeated, and embellished via Facebook. Those whose job it is to amplify Saied’s allegations also name specific individuals, thus setting them up as political targets. Officials in the Interior Ministry, the police, and the judiciary then arrest and charge individuals with various alleged crimes. In short, by diffusing fantasies to an enormous virtual audience, Saied and his allies are sustaining a propaganda campaign of dread, repression, and revenge that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He has created a species of neofascist populism that, as one analyst notes, seems oddly absent of people yet has nevertheless created a bond between the president and a not insignificant swath of Tunisia’s dispirited society.

A Political Vanguard

If the people’s role is unclear in Saied’s project, it plays an even more ambiguous part in the struggles of the political elite. Saied’s verbal assault on African immigrants—as well as the threat of strikes from the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT)—may change this equation. But thus far the opposition leaders have not galvanized a mass constituency. Their isolation is partly due to a perfect storm of social, economic, and health crises that have hit the urban middle class. Fragmented and beleaguered, it has rarely generated public demonstrations of more than several thousand, even in Greater Tunis, a vast area encompassing the Tunisian capital that has nearly three million inhabitants. While there have been some displays of unity, observers who reported from the January 2023 Tunis demonstration noted that “Many parties still reject a role for the biggest party, the Islamist Ennahda. The powerful UGTT labour union seeks a national dialogue but will not invite any party that accuses Saied of a coup.” This visible exhibition of division underscored the limited reach of the National Salvation Front. As its leader, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, warned in February, “It is necessary to unify the position and build bridges between all to overthrow the coup and restore constitutional and democratic legitimacy.”

If from the earliest days of the July 2021 self-coup Saied and his allies manipulated these splits, their efforts were boosted by the alacrity with which some leading liberals embraced the president, and the UGTT avoided a head-on collision with him. The October 2021 assertion by a prominent group of liberals that Tunisia “hardly lives under the boot of a dictator” underscored their hopes (and perhaps those of the UGTT as well) that Saied would either ban or severely restrict Islamist parties, but without precluding a return to some kind of pluralist democracy. Throughout 2022, Saied cleverly indulged these dreams by focusing his wrath on Islamist political leaders. However, he has since changed his tune by widening the net of repression to signal that no dissent from any quarter will be tolerated.

One indicator of this shift came on January 30, when Saied appointed Mohamed Ali Boughdiri as minister of education and Abdelmomen Belati as minister of agriculture. A former secretary general of the UGTT, Boughdiri—who has openly backed Saied since late 2021, is a bitter foe of the union’s leader, Noureddine Taboubi. Belati, meanwhile, is a brigadier general with no experience in agriculture. Coming only one week after the UGTT had joined the National Salvation Front, these two appointments triggered fears that Saied was preparing to go after the union. These worries grew when the police arrested Anis al-Kaabi, the general secretary of the union’s highway branch. Alluding to the union, but without naming names, during a visit to the L’Aouina military base in Tunis, Saied stated that, “Those who block the road and threaten to block the motorway cannot remain outside the circle of accountability and punishment.” In response, UGTT Assistant Secretary General Hafidh Hfaiedh asserted that, “The Tunisian presidency is targeting the union,” while the UGTT’s newspaper, Ecchab, ran a headline in red that read: “L’Aouina Speech: A Declaration of War.”

Those who have been scooped up in Saied’s dragnet present a wide range of agendas and ideologies

This clash presaged a wave of arrests that began on February 11. What is most notable about the men and women who have been scooped up in Saied’s dragnet is that they present a wide range of agendas and ideologies: secular liberal, leftist, and Islamist. They include Noureddine al-Behairi, a senior Ennahda leader; Abdelhamid Jlassi, a former leader of Ennahda who left the party last year; Noureddine Boutar, a left-of-center secular liberal and director general of the influential private radio station Mosaique FM; Kamal Ellatif, a prominent businessman who was closely tied to the former president, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali; Khayam Turki, a liberal businessman whose great sin appears to have been his efforts to foster an Islamist-secular dialogue; Lazhar Akremi, a prominent lawyer; Said Ferjani, a veteran Ennahda leader; Chaima Issa, a prominent activist and leader in National Salvation Front; and Jaouhar Ben Mbarek, who has played a very visible role in the front from its very inception. Tunisian law allows the government to imprison these individuals for up to one year without going to trial or even filing a formal indictment. Several of them are accused of conspiring against state security, which is a capital crime. Their arrest followed vague accusations from the president and media campaigns that in some cases had been going on for months.

Will the UGTT Lead the Opposition?

Now that Saied has shown that he is an equal opportunity autocrat, what chance is there that this escalating battle between him and his opponents will spark the kind of mass opposition that might compel the president to back away from his authoritarian project? The regime’s expanding net of repression may have finally concentrated the minds of opposition leaders on the need for unity. But this has come very late, and in the maelstrom of an emerging system that still leaves veteran political activists—as well as most of Tunisia’s civil society groups—isolated from the wider base that they need to galvanize.

The regime’s expanding net of repression may have finally concentrated the minds of opposition leaders on the need for unity.

The UGTT remains the only organization that has the nationwide network needed to mobilize resistance. Its leaders—and Taboubi in particular—have spent the last year sitting on the fence, a stance that has proven not only uncomfortable but also ineffective. Still, the outburst of protests led by local UGTT branches in Sfax and seven other towns on February 18 suggests that the union may now be willing to take on Saied in a more forceful manner. And the government’s expulsion of Esther Lynch, the Irish general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation who had joined the Sfax protests in an act of solidarity signals that Saied is determined to head off any such confrontation. The union has promised further protests in Tunis itself, but it remains to be seen if Taboubi will follow through or will instead use the threat of strikes to negotiate some kind of understanding with the regime.

However, it is worth noting that it was strikes in Sfax back in January 2011 that prompted the union’s national leaders to finally join Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. A similar dynamic may now be underway, and could even intensify with the expected decision of the International Monetary Fund’s board to approve a $1.9 billion bailout plan. Having twice rejected the austerity measures set out in this plan, and facing Saied’s relentless obstinance, Taboubi will be under tremendous pressure to demonstrate to the union’s base—and to the political opposition—that he is now ready for the kind of clash with Saied that he has long avoided. And yet, if Saied offers concessions on the economic front—and if the IMF decides to live with such a scenario rather than see the agreement collapse—Taboubi could push for conciliation over confrontation. This possibility was suggested by his January 3 meeting with Tunisian Prime Minister Najla Bouden, who stressed “the need to take into consideration the country’s general interest.” This, of course, was before Saied took measures that UGTT leaders declared were tantamount to war.

US Strategy: Too Little, Too Late

Leaning on words rather than actions, the Biden administration’s tepid response to Saied has been noted by many observers. It is clear that criticism from the State Department’s official spokesperson, and even from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has only prompted Saied to push back. But to have any real effect, the US must forge a multidimensional strategy that is suited to an authoritarian project that has become complex, strangely coherent, and systematic. Saied’s populism has thus far prevented the kind of mass movement that might compel the US and European partners to envision such a strategy. Moreover, Tunisia’s Arab neighbors near and far, including Gulf states, are backing Saied, and might even offer funding if the IMF backs off from the agreement or tries to use it as leverage to halt Saied’s assaults on the opposition. In the context of a regional security system to which the US is firmly wed, the White House is unlikely to rock the boat by reducing, much less eliminating, military funding. If anything, Tunisia now fits into the realist paradigm that currently frames US Middle East policy.

Tunisia’s Arab neighbors near and far, including Gulf states, are backing Saied, and might even offer funding if the IMF backs off.

When it comes to Tunisia, this approach may ultimately make the country less rather than more stable. It is hard to see how the country will tackle its economic woes without the government securing a consensus with political leaders, business leaders, and trade union officials. And foreign investors, very nervous about the prospects for more instability, may pull out or not pursue possible new opportunities. As Saied’s caustic comments on African immigrants illustrate, a politics of paranoia and innuendo can also spark internal conflicts beyond his control. Finally, dragging the military into the mechanics of internal repression could undercut its capacity to carry out its main job, which is to secure the borders and protect Tunisia from foreign threats. But despite all these many risks, he is prevailing in ways that few anticipated. Whatever strategy the US and its allies might now envision will probably prove too little, too late.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Facebook/Présidence Tunisie