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Tunisia is among the African countries that have experienced the most precipitous decline in democratic governance since its last electoral cycle—rivalling the military coups against democratic governments in West Africa. President Kaïs Saïed’s dissolution of Parliament in 2021 and subsequent rule by decree, in fact, can best described as an auto-coup (the dismantling of democratic institutions by an elected leader).
As a candidate in 2019, the former legal scholar ran as an outsider not affiliated with any political party. Saïed won in the second round of voting, earning him legitimacy and demonstrating the growing maturity of Tunisia’s democracy, which facilitated an uninterrupted transition of power from the Nidaa Tounes party.
Attempts to restore democracy will be front and center in the Tunisia election.
As an outsider, Saïed was forced to work with a parliament controlled by opposition parties. Key among these was Ennahda, which won more seats than any other party and has been a leading actor in Tunisia’s reform since the ousting of dictatorial ruler, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. As popularly elected representatives, these parliamentary parties had also earned legitimacy to lead the nation.
In fact, Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution created a semi-presidential system whereby the parliament elects the prime minister, who then selects ministers and leads the government. The president serves as head of state. This arrangement was a direct response to the executive overreach and impunity that typified Ben Ali’s 24-year rule.
Frustrated by this power-sharing arrangement, Saïed declared an emergency and suspended Parliament on July 25, 2021—sending in tanks to do so. He dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and took control of the functions of government and state—in direct contravention of the Constitution—and began to rule by decree. In October 2021, Saïed installed Prime Minister Najla Bouden, answerable to him without parliamentary approval.
He has subsequently pursued a systematic and ongoing assault on all of Tunisia’s hard-earned democratic institutions. His approach has seemingly been to dissolve any institution that serves as a check or balance on his power.
When a majority of parliamentary members convened an online meeting in March 2022 (during COVID) to vote on the legality of Saïed’s emergency measures, he formally dissolved Parliament.
Recognizing the Constitution was a barrier to his style of governance, Saïed suspended it in September 2021. He oversaw the writing of a new constitution in 2022 that recreated a unitary presidential system with the president serving as head of state and government. Taking the stance that Saïed’s actions were illegal and illegitimate, opposition parties boycotted the constitutional referendum that was marked by only 31-percent turnout. Subsequent parliamentary elections, which the opposition again boycotted, delivered Saïed the rubber-stamp parliament that he wanted.
Saïed dissolved the professional Supreme Judicial Council in February 2022, and replaced it with an appointed body. In June, he issued a decree allowing the president to unilaterally dismiss and appoint magistrates—an authority the controversial 2022 Constitution codifies.
In the lead-up to the constitutional referendum, Saïed replaced the executive committee of the respected Independent High Authority for Elections. The referendum voting was subsequently marked by a lack of transparency, computation errors, and inability of referendum opponents to campaign freely.
Feeling little compulsion to demonstrate the transparency or fairness of the upcoming elections, Saïed has already prohibited international electoral observers from monitoring the 2024 polls.
When media, civil society, or business leaders have been critical of the government, they are accused of “plotting against state security” or being “terrorists” and arrested. In the process, Saïed has politicized state security actors who are effectively executing his political agenda against domestic rivals. This reverses another key reform of the post Ben Ali period—the creation of a more apolitical and professional military.
Kaïs Saïed has pursued a systematic and ongoing assault on all of Tunisia’s hard-earned democratic institutions.
In November 2023, the Saïed Parliament put forward a bill to severely restrict civil society in an attempt to further limit democratic space.
Saïed has been especially disdainful of dissent from political leaders. In dissolving Parliament, he revoked lawmakers’ legal immunity and dozens have been imprisoned, some following military trials. This includes Rached Ghannoushi, the 81-year-old Ennahda leader and democratically elected Speaker of the dissolved Parliament, who was arrested at his home by 100 police officers in April 2023 for comments critical of the government.
International arrest warrants have been issued for perceived opponents living in exile. This includes Nadia Akacha, a former close confidant of Saïed who served as director of his office until her resignation in 2022, when she moved to France. Leaked videos later revealed her strong criticism of Saïed, presumably prompting the arrest warrant.
The attacks against rival political parties accelerated in 2023, with raids on the headquarters of Ennahda and the National Salvation Front. Both parties have also been banned from holding meetings.
The breadth and systematic nature of the dismantling of democratic institutions is noteworthy. Typical of other coups, Saïed’s actions have not been a one-time aberration but rather a purposeful effort to consolidate power. While not as obvious as a military coup—and therefore not triggering the same regional and international condemnation—the effects are comparable. Once recognized as a coup, however, similar strictures could apply.
The Tunisia case holds regional significance since Tunisia provided a model for democratic progress in North Africa where strongman rule has been the norm. Saïed has benefitted from Russian and Gulf State political support and disinformation messaging aimed at smothering a successful democratic model that may gain traction elsewhere in the region.
It is in this context that the 2024 elections will be held. While Saïed’s crackdown on dissent has had the intended effect of creating a chill around public debate or criticism, opposition party and civil society leaders continue to speak out, organize protests against Saïed’s power grab, and demand the release of all political prisoners. Opposition parties are also now working more closely together with the aim of fielding a single candidate to contend what will surely be a less than free and fair process.
Attempts to restore democracy will be front and center in the Tunisia election. This will play out alongside growing economic hardships. Unemployment is 15 percent and inflation has hovered around 10 percent, with food prices spiking higher for much of the year. Many Tunisians are looking for ways to leave the country. Facing a growing debt, Tunisia is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan. In response to the economic crisis, Saïed sacked his appointed prime minister, Najla Bouden, in August 2023 and replaced her with Ahmed Hachani.
Until democratic checks and balances are sufficiently strong to withstand the determination of an executive actor to consolidate power—that progress is fragile.
Saïed has likewise tried to create a scapegoat by blaming African migrants. This has been infused with dehumanizing characterizations that have triggered widespread violence against migrants. The government has similarly stepped up searches and detentions of African migrants who are, at times, taken to isolated stretches in the desert along the Libyan border and left there.
The Tunisian political environment is far more restricted than it was in the 2019 elections. This holds lessons for other African and international democratic partners. Earning legitimacy does not provide a blank check. Nor is legitimacy static.
Building democratic institutions requires the hard political work of compromises, power sharing, norms creation, and good will on the part of many actors. Yet, until those democratic checks and balances are sufficiently strong to withstand the determination of an executive actor to consolidate power—that progress is fragile.