Understanding the Unraveling of Tunisia’s Revolution


For years, Tunisia’s democracy, born of an Arab Spring revolt in 2011, endured as others in the region faded. But in July 2021, President Kais Saied unilaterally fired the country’s prime minister and suspended parliament. He’s subsequently ruled by decree, appointed his own government and sidelined the judiciary. He’s also spearheaded the adoption of a new constitution that permanently dilutes the powers of the lawmakers and the courts and returns the country to the days when authority was concentrated in the hands of the president. 

1. What drove the president’s actions?

The coronavirus pandemic has had devastating effects both on Tunisia’s tourism-dependent economy and on its people, causing relatively high human losses on a per capita basis. Last year, the health crisis inflamed public anger at the government, which was already stoked by a sluggish economy and a popular belief that the political changes over the past decade had served a nepotistic elite. On July 25, 2021, groups of youths staged demonstrations in several cities and in Siliana they sacked the offices of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that held the most seats in parliament. Later that day, Saied made his move after months of accusing the government of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, a technocrat, of failing to address corruption and the properly manage the economy and the post-pandemic fallout. While Saied cited thoses shortcomings as justification for his actions, his critics accuse him of taking advantage of the parlous state of the country to cement control. 

A former constitutional law professor who’d never held office before, Saied, 64, emerged as the surprise winner of the 2019 presidential election after running as an independent candidate on an anti-party and anti-corruption agenda, vowing to fight poverty and trumpeting as his chief slogan “The People Want…” His stern anti-establishment tone, delivered in classical Arabic, attracted young Tunisians keen to punish a political elite they perceived as opportunistic. Saied suggested eliminating the directly elected legislature in favor of elected local councils that would, in turn, select national leaders. He has been likened to former US President Donald Trump in that, although he’s in power, he behaves as if he’s in the opposition, and he calls on his supporters to rally around him.

3. What happened during Tunisia’s revolution?

It was the first of the so-called Arab Spring revolts. Starting in late 2010, Tunisians engaged in weeks of civil resistance and disobedience, resulting in the toppling of longtime autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. A staunch ally of the West with a government record of human rights abuses, he’d led one of the most vibrant economies in the region, albeit one with persistent structural inequalities. News of Ben Ali and his inner circle hurriedly leaving the country in 2011 galvanized many citizens in North Africa and the Middle East to set in motion a series of popular uprisings. None of the others produced lasting democratic changes.

4. What changes did the revolution bring? 

The so-called Jasmine Revolution widened political participation to a variety of political currents, including the once-banned Ennahda Islamists and radical left-wing activists. Parliament was granted a degree of oversight and an ability to hold the executive branch to account that was rare in the region. The judiciary’s independence was strengthened and civil society was empowered to stand up to police brutality, which was previously prevalent.

5. How has the constitution been changed?

A panel picked by the president drafted the revisions to the 2014 constitution, which was the result of painstaking negotiations among the nation’s myriad factions after the revolution. Its proposals were approved in a July 25 referendum, the credibility of which was undermined by an opposition boycott and voter turnout of just over 30%. The changes introduce a national council of regions and provinces to share legislative duties with the parliament, which along with the judiciary is relegated to a status akin to that of the civil service. The president assumes “executive functions” and be “helped” by a government and a prime minister he will name. 

6. How are investors likely to react?

Investors are likely to focus on whether a now-omnipotent Saied manages to effectively implement painful reforms that the International Monetary Fund says are necessary to ward off a debt default, rather than the political ramifications of his power play. But the relatively low turnout in the referendum illustrates how support for Saied has flagged since he assumed greater powers — which could provide greater leverage for his opponents such as the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, the nation’s largest labor union, to resist drastic state spending cuts.

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