Tunisia’s Three Post-Referendum Political Scenarios

The outcome of Tunisian President Kais Saied’s July 25 referendum on the new constitution that he appears to have largely drafted himself was never in doubt. Nearly 95 percent of voters approved the constitution, leading Saied to believe that he has now secured the blessing of the Tunisian people. However, voter turnout was quite low; only about 30 percent of registered voters actually turned up to the polls. And most of those who voted in favor of the constitution were the disaffected masses who have grown disillusioned with the rules and institutions of democracy that were ushered in after the country’s 2010–2011 revolution. Although Saied certainly galvanized enough of this constituency to prevail in the referendum, some 70 percent of the registered electorate essentially rejected the constitution by either voting against it or by staying home. Still, the approval of those who did vote was enough for the president to proclaim victory.

But the anger of his followers alone will not supply Saied with the building blocks for a new political system. The Tunisian president is a populist who governs “from above” the people. He has no political party, no organized base, and is hostile to formal institutions. Moreover, the constitution that he wrote provides no clear road map for the country’s political future. Yes, indeed, it concentrates power in the presidency. But it also spells out a long list of rights and freedoms, and provides for elections and a parliament consisting of the current People’s Assembly and a new regional council. However, these two legislative bodies will be subordinate to the president, as will the judiciary. In addition, the constitution provides numerous loopholes that will make Saied the ultimate arbiter of the very rights it supposedly guarantees. These inherent contradictions will generate much uncertainty, thus ensuring that much of this story must still be written. Between now and the holding of legislative elections in December, Saied will rule by decree. But the battle to determine the details of whatever semi-autocracy, or semi-democracy, he will tolerate is yet to be fought.

Between now and the holding of legislative elections in December, Saied will rule by decree. But the battle to determine the details of whatever semi-autocracy, or semi-democracy, he will tolerate is yet to be fought.

This contest will be waged against the background of an economic crisis and repeated failures to advance market reforms. Even the prospect of a $4 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has not been sufficient inducement to break the political logjams that have previously blocked said reforms. Saied may now have the power and even the authority to push forward. And yet if he does, he will probably antagonize the very social groups that constitute his political base. Charisma alone will not overcome this contradiction. Saied needs functioning institutions and he needs them quickly. Even if he succeeds in coopting the military and gives the police more freedom to operate than they already have now, the president will still face the challenge of ensuring what political scientists term “organized consent.”

Three Scenarios: Qadhafi Lite, Presidential-Military Rule, Liberalized Autocracy

With the referendum on the constitution having approved what will be a new national charter, and absent a unified political alternative, three scenarios await Tunisia under Saied, only one of which will actually be fathomable or workable in the foreseeable future.

Qadhafi Lite

The least likely option for Tunisia going forward is a version of late Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi’s system of rule, one that could easily be called “Qadhafi lite.” This would be a political system based on a supposed dispersion of power among an array of locally or regionally based “people’s committees” organized through tribal patronage networks. Such a system would be based on a “weak state, strong society” model of governance, meaning that the state would not have institutional or legal control over the entire country, and that local political structures would provide decentralized arenas of political participation. Between state and society would be a vast patronage network that would give the president and his allies the means to manage the people’s committees to ensure their compliance. Such a system’s coherence (to the extent that it is coherent) would require an ultimate-authority strongman with charismatic allure, backed by an extensive security apparatus ready to repress any signs of real dissent.

At first blush, Kais Saied seems to possess the personality and skill set to build this system. He has advocated a utopian, locally-based “popular” democracy. He also projects a kind of charisma that is telegraphed by his rejection of all formal political institutions and his mystical faith in his own judgment. A one-man show whose public performances are choreographed to display his personal authority, he may not be the ruthless leader that Libya’s Qadhafi was, but he exudes just the right mix of idiosyncratic impulses, ego, and arrogance to qualify as a kind of Qadhafi lite.

A Qadhafi lite scenario is not possible. Tunisia is not Libya; it is not a tribal society with an economy based on distributing oil income to regionally-based strongmen.

But Tunisia is not Libya; it is not a tribal society with an economy based on distributing oil income to regionally-based strongmen. While Tunisia’s economy has long been dominated by regime cronies, it still enjoys a large, educated urban sector replete with political leaders, professionals, and businesspeople who are linked to the global economic order, and to the European Union in particular. Tunisia also boasts a long tradition of state institutions consisting of professionally trained cadres, some of whom have already resisted Saied’s efforts to capture state institutions in the judiciary and in other arenas. In addition, the country has numerous active civil society groups and political parties that, however weak, do have sizeable constituencies.

The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) will undoubtedly also resist. It may have been fence-sitting over the last year, but the union will surely defy any robust effort to isolate it or to create alternative mass organizations such as locally-elected councils. Both the police and the military, meanwhile, will see the specter of local authority as a prescription for national fragmentation and penetration by domestic and foreign terrorist groups, and will therefore also oppose such a measure. Another factor standing in the way of such a shift in Tunisian governance is the fact that the international community, and the IMF in particular, may very well walk away from Tunisia entirely if it goes Qadhafi lite. In short, the costs are simply too high for Saied to pursue this course.

A Presidential-Military Regime

This would be a version of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s regime, but perhaps with less outright repression. The concentration of power in the executive that Saied’s constitution sets out would support this system. But fully aligning the military with this project would require an even closer relationship than Saied has managed to establish so far. With a military that has largely kept itself out of the formal political realm for decades, creating this kind of tight alliance would not be simple. To have any chance of success, Saied would need to create additional openings in the business and industrial sectors, giving the army the kinds of pecuniary incentives that the Egyptian military enjoys and thereby ensuring that it would protect the regime and identify with its ultimate fate. However, such an enterprise would take time, which is something that Tunisia does not have. Moreover, any bid to create a business-military infrastructure would undercut economic reforms, unless such a venture were subsidized by the Gulf countries, which is indeed a possibility.

With a military that has largely kept itself out of the formal political realm for decades, creating a presidential-military regime would not be simple.

A presidential-military regime would certainly provoke resistance from almost all of the country’s political parties and civil society groups, as well as the legal community and independent media. But the capacity of these groups to effectively oppose Saied would ultimately depend on the UGTT. If faced with a choice between being completely co-opted or opposing the regime, the union might choose co-optation. Or it might divide into two parts, one aligning with Saied and the other defying him. But if the regime embraced the austerity measures toward which Saied’s government has so far tiptoed, the UGTT might end up fully backing the opposition.

As for the international community, it might tolerate a shift to a presidential-military system if it appeared the only way to advance economic reforms. On this score, it is interesting to note that the IMF has already indicated that it is no longer expecting the regime to reach a consensus with opposition groups on the terms of a reform project. It is possible that the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and even Qatar would provide aid to soften the blow that key sectors would undoubtedly suffer following an international disengagement—including those sectors that benefit Saied’s base—thereby giving a presidential-military regime space to breathe. As for the United States and the European Union, neither are likely to impose any real costs on Saied unless a major crisis threatens the entire political system.

Such a dire scenario is indeed possible. A worsening economic situation could give Saied the authority and pretext to crush dissent and decimate any hint of competitive politics. The inexorable logic of a fully authoritarian regime, meanwhile, could invite more domestic conflict and unrest, especially if Saied tried to mobilize his rural supporters against the urban sector. This strategy could provoke escalating civil conflict between rival groups, and between the regime and the urban middle class and/or the UGTT. In short, imposing a presidential-military system of governance in Tunisia could invite internal instability and prove politically and economically costly. This is therefore an option that Saied will most likely try to avoid, although he might be tempted to go in this direction if the final scenario, a liberalized autocracy, does not work.

A Liberalized Autocracy

While allowing for a measure of openness and competition, a liberalized autocracy ensures a hobbled pluralism, one that is ultimately limited by a very powerful president. In such a scenario, Saied would be the final arbiter of a political arena that would have just enough contending parties and groups to facilitate a strategy of divide and rule. Some electoral and ideological competition and inclusion would be necessary to play Islamists and secularists off of each other, or to set the rural population against the urban elite, or to encourage competition between the middle-class business community and the UGTT. Similarly, while the media would be heavily dominated by state-run TV and radio, it would still tolerate just enough alternative voices to give elites the space to let off steam while at the same time helping Saied cement his authority as the master of the game, the man who has the answers that—thanks to the regime’s tolerance of some debate—bickering elites have shown themselves to be sorely lacking.

In a liberalized autocracy, Saied would be the final arbiter of a political arena that would have just enough contending parties and groups to facilitate a strategy of divide and rule.

If the president were to play this role as lead arbiter, he would also need police and military forces ready and willing to back him up. Liberalized autocracy would not require the full integration of the military into the regime; indeed, to work well it would need to avoid the trap of forging too close an alliance between military generals and political leaders. But nonetheless, strong—even if more informal—links between the president and leaders of the country’s security apparatus would be essential.

Saied possesses several assets that would help him build this system. First, in addition to giving him nearly unsurpassed power, the constitution sets out an array of “freedoms,” the parameters of which are to be defined by the president via a subordinated parliament and judiciary. Second, the institutional, economic, and even legal materials needed to create these subordinated institutions are already available. By co-opting political elites, legal experts, and business leaders, Saied might indeed foster a measure of openness while retaining ultimate control. Third, the constitution’s provisions for a new regional assembly that is linked to local assemblies or people’s councils would give him an important tool to keep co-opted elites in line while simultaneously limiting the authority of the country’s parliament. No one, including Saied himself, seems to have a clear idea of how the regional assembly system will work. But if he can begin to create even its institutional rudiments, this system might add a touch of Qadhafi flavor to governance in Tunisia, without all the baggage and downsides of the Qadhafi lite option.

Last but not least, the president has already taken control over the country’s electoral commission and its Supreme Judicial Council. Saied would probably utilize these assets while also sustaining the state of emergency that he declared a year ago to try to shape the country’s electoral laws to suit this kind of hobbled pluralistic system. The nature of the competition he will tolerate will probably include some kind of Islamist party built on the remnants of the significantly popular Ennahda Party. Competition may also include a dominant political party affiliated with the president, but this is not a necessary part of the equation.

If a system of liberalized autocracy was formed in Tunisia, the international community, including the US, would certainly be critical. But it would likely still tolerate such a system because of its veneer of pluralism, and because the Tunisian regime would probably advance the market reforms that Western financial institutions have advocated. Meanwhile, the president would still be able to maintain some distance from the previous government, which was charged with implementing a still-stalled deal with the IMF, thereby appearing to keep his hands clean of what is seen by some as foreign meddling.

A Volatile But Perhaps Sustainable Game

The complex dance that a liberalized autocracy entails depends on giving officially accepted opposition groups some room to mobilize support, to compete, and to air grievances, while also ensuring that they never secure enough freedom to threaten Saied and his allies. There is an incentive to play this game, namely that available alternatives are far worse. Some opposition groups will undoubtedly boycott elections, while others will argue that it is better to participate in the process than to stand outside of it. And as noted above, the UGTT is likely to make the case for accommodation.

Forging a liberalized autocracy will involve a volatile contest, with some opposition groups pushing to open arenas of competition and Saied pushing back. This battle will be fought in the courts, the media, civil society, and the electoral system.

Still, forging a liberalized autocracy will involve a volatile contest, with some opposition groups pushing to open arenas of competition and Saied pushing back. This battle will be fought in the courts, the media, civil society, and the electoral system. As this game of chicken unfolds, protests could intensify. The task facing Saied and his allies in the security services and army is to make sure that these clashes do not intensify to the point at which the regime feels compelled to use overwhelming and deadly force. Doing so could open up different possibilities. Excessive state violence could lead the military to intervene instead of siding with the police, thereby forcing Saied to accommodate his opponents. Or it could instead give some generals an incentive to push Saied to shutter all remaining arenas of competition, which would usher in a presidential-military regime. Alternatively, a dire social and economic crisis could open the door to a fully military regime that would sideline the president or force him to resign. The generals backing such a move would surely promise to eventually return to the barracks, though, of course, it is unlikely that they would do so willingly.

To avoid going down any of these dangerous paths, Saied and his advisors would have to use the levers of liberalized autocracy to diffuse and contain, rather than intensify, conflict or opposition. It is anybody’s guess whether they will have the capacity and skills to sustain the balancing act that such a political system requires. Indeed, it is possible that some of the institutions Saied hopes will defend him—such as the regional people’s councils—could turn against him. But what Saied has going for him is an opposition that is still fragmented. And if his rivals cannot overcome their long-standing divisions, he may indeed prevail.

The Biden Administration’s Own Balancing Act

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sharply criticized the referendum, stating, “We share the concerns expressed by many Tunisians that the process of drafting the new constitution limited the scope for genuine debate and also that the new constitution could weaken Tunisia’s democracy.” He also urged Tunisian authorities to adopt “an inclusive electoral law” in preparation for the December elections. In response, Tunisian Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi reportedly gave Chargée d’Affaires at the US Embassy in Tunisia Natasha Franceschi a dressing-down. Blinken’s statement, he argued, represented an “unacceptable interference in internal national affairs.”

In doing so, the foreign minister, who is a close ally of the president, telegraphed Saied’s intention to continue leveraging western criticism to discredit his opponents and to reinforce his populist credentials. And after President Biden’s recent meetings with some of the MENA region’s leading autocrats, the White House is likely to find that the harder it pushes the more political cachet Saied will accrue—at least for the time being. Figuring out how to encourage this stubborn leader not to emulate his friends in Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh without inadvertently strengthening his hand is no mean feat. But if the US and its western allies ultimately content themselves with a liberalized autocracy in Tunisia, the decision may lead to significant instability. Absent a return to democracy and a real national dialogue, the prospects for civil conflict and even violence could escalate. The destabilizing consequences of Saied’s autocratic project therefore offer a powerful rationale for the argument that in Tunisia, at the very least, security, economic development, and democracy should be mutually reinforcing elements that are at all costs worth pursuing.