Tunisia's constitutional system collapsed on July 25, 2021, when Kais Saied, an austere former law professor elected president in 2019 as a dark horse candidate, abruptly suspended the democratically elected parliament, without warning or legitimate constitutional justification. He deployed army tanks at parliament's gates and commenced ruling through personal fiat in a dramatic usurpation of all governmental powers. Given the magnitude of Saied's actions, and the speed with which critics of Saied's presidential coup were targeted with arrests and travel bans, a significant minority of Tunisians seemed initially stricken in a pall of silence. Some hesitated to air their concerns about Saied on the record during the summer, but privately worried his seizure of power could signal the death knell for Tunisia's fledgling, fragile democracy, which—despite its numerous and well-documented challenges—remained the sole system of representative government to emerge from the Arab Spring.
In the days immediately after Saied's total power grab, however, a vocal majority of Tunisians in the capital, Tunis, including many friends and close contacts whom I had known for years, seemed unfazed and even exhilarated by Saied's actions. Pulsing with a heady mixture of exuberance and righteous rage, many celebrated what Saied had done, justifying it as a necessary correction to place Tunisia back on the course of revolutionary justice from which it had swerved under various consensual but dysfunctional post-revolutionary governments. In their view, Saied stood beyond petty political ambitions—a pure, punctilious law professor who disavowed any desire to create a political party of his own, a man possessed of enough unswerving authenticity and incorruptible honesty to thwart the corrupt "devils," "traitors, "microbes" and "viruses" he claimed comprised the entirety of Tunisia's political class.
"He should throw all of [the politicians] out, all of them!" stressed Donia, a middle-aged mother of two grown sons living in Tunis's hardscrabble Douar Hicher neighborhood in late July. She hit her palms hard against the table each time she stressed the word "all." Unintentionally echoing the slogan of protests in neighboring Algeria that swept away a longtime authoritarian president and sought a total replacement of the political system in 2019 and 2020, she repeated, "They all must go." In eight years knowing Donia and her sons, I'd never seen her this animated about politics. In the 2019 presidential elections, Donia, fed up with Tunisian politicians, had not even voted. But Saied had dug into a visceral seam of her anger, planting in it the unlikely seed of hope that solving Tunisia's systemic challenges, including its perennial nightmares of economic malaise and security sector reform, could be as simple as tossing the fish from a polluted swamp.
"Ten years in power and these administrations haven't achieved a single thing except harassing my sons with their policemen," she said, almost snarling. "Kulhum keef-keef"—they're all the same. "Throw them in a basket and chuck them in the sea, as far as I'm concerned. I don't want to see any of their faces ever again."
Saied had said and done nothing during his 2019 presidential campaign or his two years in office to redress Tunisia's deep-rooted police brutality or jump-start its long-stalled reforms of the economy and the security services. Yet Donia was ready to back him, hoping against hope that he could succeed where other politicians had failed. Saied, she stressed, and not any of "those corrupt ones in parliament," would finally "pull the police" off her sons' backs and "let them live normal lives like young men in nicer neighborhoods." Her tone conveyed a febrile confidence, the voice of a sturdy but deeply cynical woman who had finally found faith in someone whose promises might be delivered.
What about reports that Tunisia's security forces were expanding the circle of repression to include members of parliament, like the anti-corruption MP Yassine Ayari, whom they dragged out of his house in an unmarked van just yesterday, I asked, despite sensing no question could crack the confidence she felt in Saied. "To fix things in Tunisia, you have to break this bad system 100 percent. That's just how it is," she replied, adopting the matter-of-fact manner a mother might employ to say there are times in life when you can't make a cake without breaking a few eggs. "Kais's way is the only way. He is what the people want. You can see that. It's clear, isn't it?"
Fast-forward five months to January 2022, and Donia's confidence in Kais—like that of most other Tunisians I interviewed since the summer—has dampened considerably. The vibrant, nearly intoxicated enthusiasm she and many others once evinced for Saied, which cast him in heroic terms as an unblemished, revolutionary savior, has morphed into a muted sense of confused optimism flecked with deep frustrations. Over less than six months, Saied seemed to transform in her eyes from an almost messianic figure capable of making Tunisians' long-deferred revolutionary dreams come true, to just another disenchanting politician whose nebulous promises might never materialize.
"What's his plan? What's he doing?" Donia asks now, her eyes drained of the white-hot evangelism she seemed to feel for Saied this summer. "Groceries are more expensive than ever. The police beat my youngest son again just last week. Nothing changes."
No person or coalition in Tunisia has yet emerged to dislodge Saied from his self-appointed role as almighty decider-in-chief.
- Monica Marks
Polling, though often methodologically unreliable in Tunisia, indicates Donia is part of a larger trend. According to Insights TN, a Tunisian pollster, Saied's support with the general public nearly halved since late July. In the same poll, the percentage of Tunisians who believe what happened on July 25 was a coup has risen from roughly 40 percent to 65 percent. Saied's clear steps toward dictatorial consolidation over the past six months—including imposing blanket travel bans in late July on businesspeople and all parliamentarians elected since 2011; deciding in mid-September to suspend the constitution; and unilaterally imposing in November an unconstitutional Cabinet of his choosing, instead of one approved by parliament—have cost him much of the goodwill he had among political parties and civil society groups.
With the exception of one small Arab nationalist party, Harakat al-Chaab, or the People's Movement, leaders of Tunisia's political parties changed how they spoke about July 25 between my visits last summer and in January. According to several dozen new interviews, they now casually refer to Saied's power grab as an "inqilab," or coup, and decry his "personal rule" over Tunisia as a resurrection of dictatorship. This rhetorical shift is important in part because the question of whether Saied had undertaken a coup was the focus of intense debate among Tunisians and human rights and democracy advocates last summer.
Yet despite his supporters' increasing disillusionment, and the growing consensus that what transpired on July 25 was a constitution-incinerating coup rather than a salutary course correction, Saied has emerged, as the Middle East scholar Clement Henry Moore once wrote of former President Habib Bourguiba, a "presidential monarch." There are zero institutional checks, and no powerful societal checks, on his power. An alarming number of civilians, including multiple members of parliament, have been hauled before military courts for "insulting" and "defaming" Saied, as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented. Even Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia's interim president from late 2011 to 2014 and a lifelong human rights advocate, has faced the wrath of Saied's narcissism. In November, fed up with Marzouki's denunciations of July 25 as a coup, Saied labeled him a "enemy of Tunisia," revoking his diplomatic passport. Tunisia's courts have since issued an international warrant for his arrest, as Marzouki is now based in Paris, and authorized a spurious four-year prison sentencing of Marzouki in absentia, effectively making Tunisia's first democratically appointed president a political refugee and international symbol of Saied's nascent dictatorship.
Though Saied faces pockets of ongoing resistance from cohorts of the country's political parties and its increasingly beleaguered judiciary, no person or coalition in Tunisia has yet emerged to dislodge Saied from his self-appointed role as almighty decider-in-chief. Tunisia's democracy, unique in the Arab world, effectively ceased to exist on July 25, replaced by rule through unilateral presidential decrees—a form of government with which Tunisian history is all too familiar. It took many people months, though, to discern what had happened, and it appears that others will need more time.
On Dec. 13, likely driven by a desire to silence domestic skeptics and reassure international donors, Saied declared that Tunisia will chart a path through this morass by following a nearly blank "roadmap." This announcement was ominously met with a combination of mystifying credulity on the part of important outside actors, including the Biden administration—just days after its Summit on Democracy and declaration that democracy is "the defining challenge of our times"—and insufficient counter-organizing on the part of Tunisia's fragmented opposition. This opposition, whose leadership is indispensable for Tunisia to course correct away from Saied's consolidated dictatorship, has not yet coalesced around a way to resuscitate the constitution that could steer the country back toward representative government.
So far, despite Saied's totally exclusionary approach, and despite his hemorrhaging of support at both the popular and elite levels, the opposition has been unable to thwart the dictatorial actions of a retired law professor who never actually finished his PhD and whose proposals for shaping Tunisia's 2014 constitution were rejected. In exacting his own revenge, Saied has sabotaged the constitutional democracy that some opposition politicians labored their whole lives to create. Saied has hijacked not only Tunisians' very legitimate popular grievances, which reflect the manifold failures and inadequacies of Tunisia's 10 post-revolutionary governments—he has also hijacked the Tunisian state itself. And there is no end in sight.
Back in 2019, the vast majority of Tunisians and their political leaders supported Saied's candidacy, as a populist outsider, over the runner-up, Nabil Karoui, another populist but one who was widely perceived as highly corrupt. This has constrained the formation of an opposition coalition against Saied, an uncorrupt president who won the 2019 runoff in a landslide. Today, although the opposition to Saied is growing, it is split into three main parts, broadly speaking.
The first, embodied by the recently formed civil society group Citizens Against the Coup, unequivocally recognizes Saied's July 25 power grab for what it is and proposes swift, clear action to restore constitutional order. Its core demand is to bring back Tunisia's still-frozen parliament for a limited time period, possibly six to eight months, or as little as weeks or even days, to organize new parliamentary elections. Tunisia's 2014 constitution clearly stipulates elections as parliament's prerogative, not the president's, though the Biden administration's positive response to Saied's so-called "roadmap" suggests that the U.S. government, at least, has tacitly accepted Saied's usurpation of all constitutional powers.
Beyond organizing elections, Citizens Against the Coup believes that parliament should oversee other desperately needed pieces of business, such as passing Tunisia's new elections law, appointing its long-delayed Constitutional Court—the absence of which is enabling Saied's unchecked executive authority—and appointing an interim, technocratic government. Hopefully, should this scenario play out, fresh new faces in leadership positions would replace the paralytically malfunctioning pre-July 25 parliament and its ineffectual governments.
By design, none of the 11 members of Citizens Against the Coup's Executive Committee belong to the center-right, religiously rooted Ennahda, which Saied and many Tunisians hold chiefly responsible for governments' failures over the past decade. Instead, they form an innovative coalition, hailing from independent leftist, Destourian—that is, center-right and so-called secular—and other pro-revolutionary ideological backgrounds. Nevertheless, Citizens Against the Coup's leaders stress that they are glad to team up with Ennahda and its supporters against the extraordinary threat to Tunisian democracy posed by Saied and his "roadmap," which they see as a smokescreen concealing his autocratic ambitions. When Ennahda's president, Rached Ghannouchi, visited a number of its members days into their hunger strike protesting Saied's rule, which started in December and lasted into January, they greeted him, as they greeted other leaders who visited during the strike, with warmth and even cheers. "Solidarity was why," said one member who was present, explaining that all critics of Saied's one-man rule, regardless of their past disagreements, should be welcomed as allies.
Citizens Against the Coup is explicitly endeavoring to transcend the history of ideological suspicions that have helped Tunisia's dictators divide and rule for decades. "We are not Ennahda," said Jaouhar Ben Mbarek, the de facto leader of the group, seated in a crowded, chilly café in Tunis last month. "We never have been. My father"— Ezzedine Hazgui, chief spokesperson of Citizens Against the Coup—"and I are leftists; this is well known in Tunisia," Mbarek added. "He was tortured as a leftist for more than six years under Bourguiba. We have never agreed with Ennahda's policy goals. But we are democrats, and we understand that the chief goal right now—the goal that has to unite the opposition at this historical moment—is ending Saied's coup regime." He insisted, "Nothing else, no ideological struggle, not talk of Tunisia's old 'secularist-Islamist' divisions—nothing else is that important."
Despite repeated such assertions from Citizens Against the Coup that the opposition must unite across ideological divides against Saied's coup to restore Tunisia to constitutional rule as soon as possible, they have not yet convinced the second group of Tunisia's opposition to join them. I characterize this second group as the "both/ands."
Unlike Citizens Against the Coup, the "both/ands" are directing their criticisms against both Saied, the president-turned-putschist they view as a danger to democracy, and the dysfunctional system of self-serving, seemingly interminable parliamentary bickering that preceded his power grab. This dysfunction is blamed nearly entirely on the largest parliamentary party, Ennahda, whose political machinations they alternately decry as too corrupt and self-interested, or too Islamist or ideologically suspect. Leading this group are a smattering of small political parties who have limited or no representation in the now-frozen parliament—including al-Tayyar, Afek Tounes, Ettakatol and Joumhouri—but who can act as kingmakers in a parliamentary system expressly designed to diminish big party power and check it with broad participation.
When Tunisia marked the eleventh commemoration of its revolution, on Jan. 14, a coalition of these parties—the trio of al-Tayyar, Ettakatol and Joumhouri—were physically present on the capital's main streets, protesting what they described as Saied's coup. Notably, however, these parties—along with Afek Tounes, which issued a strongly worded statement instead of joining the demonstrators who were blasted with police water-cannons—are refusing to work directly with Citizens Against the Coup precisely because of its purported links to Ennahda. "Al-Muwatanun [Citizens Against the Coup] is a front for Ennahda. We know this," said Ghazi Chaouachi, the head of al-Tayyar, over glasses of orange juice in his Tunis office. "We're against Saied's personal dictatorship, but we're also against Ennahda and the disastrous decade of rule that came before July 25. Tunisians want an alternative," he declared, "and to provide that, we can't stand against only one side of the equation."
For Citizens Against the Coup's leaders, on the other hand, including Ezzedine Hazgui, a leftist imprisoned under Bourguiba for over six years, the second camp's insistence on "both/and" reasoning amounts to a dangerous form of false equivalency—one that plays directly into Saied's hands. "He wants to divide and rule his opponents, like Ben Ali and Bourguiba before him," Hazgui told me on the phone while recovering from a mild case of COVID-19. By reproducing decades-old refusals to organize alongside Islamists like Ennadha's members and leaders, he said, components of Tunisia's opposition who are staunchly anti-Ennahda are "only hurting ourselves, because it's all of us—all the democrats and critical opponents of Saied's coup—who will be oppressed as microbes and viruses when he has his way."
Yet for party leaders in the "both/and" camp, allying with Ennahda, even indirectly, comes at potential political cost. Eminently pragmatic leaders like Joumhouri's Issam Chebbi, whose brother Nejib famously helped lead a cross-ideological coalition of leftists and Ennahda members for a high-profile hunger strike in 2005 to protest Ben Ali's dictatorship during a major U.N. summit held in Tunisia, spoke of potential blowback to any perceived partnership with Ennahda. That blowback could occur both from within their own parties and from the Tunisian public at large should the country actually manage to hold free and fair elections. Concerns about negative reactions to any perceived coordination with Ennahda are so strong that, when the second camp trio merely agreed to march in Tunis on Jan. 14 at the same time of day—2 p.m.—as Citizens Against the Coup, that decision alone was described by those with knowledge of the negotiations as a huge victory on the long road toward cross-ideological coalition building.
The third category of Tunisia's opposition can be called the soft underbelly of resistance to Saied, since its criticism of the president focuses less on his anti-democratic ends than on his exclusionary means. Members of this loose bloc are particularly worried not about Saied's exclusion of Ennahda, which they tend to support, but rather his exclusion of Tunisia's entire political class and civil society. Among its leading voices, criticism of Saied's actions centers on the how, chiefly Saied's radically exclusionary modus operandi, rather than on the what, meaning his democracy-dismantling end goals. Were Saied to pick up the phone and engage these players, like Ben Ali attempted to do in his 1988 National Pact—a formal consultation with some important Tunisian political and civil society actors that ultimately helped Ben Ali consolidate his dictatorial powers—they might endorse him.
This third group includes fragments of smaller political parties like al-Tayyar who have not yet given up hope of receiving the long-awaited presidential invitation. Far more crucially, it has also consistently included, in part or whole, Tunisia's legacy civil society groups, such as the quartet of organizations that received the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize as recognition for their negotiating work to resolve Tunisia's 2013 constitutional crisis. These Nobel laureates include Tunisia's leading human rights organization, employers' association and bar association. By failing to invite any of them to consultations at Carthage Palace, Saied has isolated potential allies, inadvertently nudging them into the opposition.
Tunisia today is an ex-democracy, unmoored from any semblance of constitutional order, hurtling down Saied's freeway in the direction of consolidated authoritarianism.
- Monica Marks
The most important among these legacy civil society actors in the third camp is the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union, or UGTT, whose support could likely make or break Saied's rule. But the union has not taken a clear or consistent position on what transpired on July 25. Privately, its Executive Bureau has moved from enthusiasm to dismay with Saied over the past six months, largely because of his stubborn refusal to negotiate with them. UGTT's inability to stake out a clear position on Saied could also connect to the fact that its leader, Noureddine Taboubi, wants to avoid alienating pro-Saied members of the union in the run-up to the leadership election at its February congress. Union insiders speculate that a recent meeting between Saied and Taboubi on Jan. 15, the first since Saied's power grab, could work in both men's favor. In Saied's case, since cozying up to the union may help him stave off both diminishing support and pushback against the security forces' harsh crackdown on the Jan. 14 commemorations, and in Taboubi's, since positioning himself as an adept strongman in his own right could help him retain his post. For the time being, UGTT remains the opposition's sleeping giant, incapacitated by its internal politics and shifting perceptions of whether Saied will or won't extend a hand.
Without a clear, unified front and riven by differences over political positioning and decades-old ideological divides, Tunisia's opposition remains—for now—fractured and therefore weak. The bulk of Tunisia's political parties are split between camps one and two, and the bulk of its civil society is split between camps two and three. Unlike the parties to the 2005 anti-Ben Ali coalition, and to the Carthage Pact that governed Tunisia's "pacted transition" from 2015 to 2019, post-2011 Tunisian civil society groups have generally been unwilling to work with Ennahda. Many now remain split on whether to continue waiting for the proverbial presidential phone call. Given Saied's radically exclusionary approach to governing, their phones have been deafeningly silent.
Meanwhile, Ennahda, the largest political party in Tunisia and the most full-throatedly opposed to Saied's coup, is hamstrung. Pathologized from the outside as a caricature of greedy Islamists led by its president, Ghannouchi, who is broadly perceived by his Tunisian critics as a malevolent Machiavellian puppeteer, and traumatized by decades of persecution under Ben Ali and Bourguiba, Ennahda responded to July 25 by swiftly circumscribing itself to the position of leading the opposition coalition from behind.
Recognizing that its leadership would likely toxify such a coalition, but so far unwilling to depose Ghannouchi from either the helm of parliament or of the party, Ennahda has been of two minds. So far, it has supported cross-ideological opposition fronts like Citizens Against the Coup and will muster its members to provide peaceful mobilizational ballast. But it has steered clear of presenting its own roadmap with actual steps back toward democracy. It has not taken the initiative—despite many fervid, frustrated calls for such action within its own ranks—to dislodge Ghannouchi from either of his two leadership posts. There is hope that if Ghannouchi were to step aside, such symbolic action could communicate enough goodwill and clear recognition of the party's failures to rejigger Tunisia's opposition puzzle into a more unified formation. Ghannouchi, however, is unlikely to make any big-ticket concessions unless he gets a big guarantee in return—possibly an agreement to bring parliament back. And so the standoff continues.
Without an alternative mechanism to shepherd Tunisia back to constitutional order and to free and fair elections, however, the country risks sleepwalking into a consolidated dictatorship. Saied has continued to rule by unfettered decrees since suspending parliament. Checks and balances are nonexistent, and Tunisians have ceded all political rights, without many realizing the full peril of what happened.
To derail Saied's plans, Tunisians have at least two options. First, parliament can be unfrozen for a limited time, as Citizens Against the Coup demands, in order to approve and organize elections constitutionally. This would require opposition groups currently located in camps two and three to move toward camp one, shelving their criticisms of Ennahda as second-order problems to be resolved after resurrecting Tunisia's constitutional order and putting its constitution and democracy back on life support.
A second option would require camps one and two of the opposition—Citizens Against the Coup and the "both/ands"—to switch from boycotting Saied's derisory roadmap and move into a new fourth camp, which would back his referendum and parliamentary elections only on the explicit stipulation that such votes be conducted freely and fairly with the full participation of all legal political parties. To stand any chance of swaying Saied into abiding by this stipulation, it would need to be amplified by clear and specific messaging from Tunisia's international partners, most importantly France and the United States.
Saied's alleged roadmap contains only one fixed date: an unconstitutional referendum on Tunisia's constitution scheduled for, but unlikely to actually take place on, July 25. This crude plebiscite will allow for neither legitimate amendments to the current constitution, nor the creation of a new constitutional assembly to write a new one. The unstated goal? To replace Tunisia's democratically formulated 2014 constitution with the more autocratic constitution that Saied likely wanted all along, which was previously rejected. Much less certain to ever transpire are the parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for December 2022—"inshallah," as Saied loudly emphasized when making the announcement, with the intonation of a parent tentatively promising a reward to a child that might not deserve it.
Given this context, the most obvious downside of the second exit ramp is that elections held without the organizing presence of parliament will be unconstitutional, delegitimizing them both from the outset and in perpetuity. The upside of this second option is that by corralling the opposition and enlisting the international community to emphasize red lines for fair voting, an exit ramp from the coup could be found that avoids reopening the unpopular parliament. This is more politically palatable to opposition groups currently located in the second and third camps.
As difficult as it would be to reach the first exit ramp, however, the second one is even more remote. That's because it hinges on two highly unlikely propositions. First, that an unconstitutional referendum on a new constitution for Tunisia would ever be deemed legitimate. And second, that free and fair elections for a new parliament comprised of the same political parties that Saied has so obsessively demonized could happen on his watch, while their leaders and other members of parliament are being placed in incommunicado detention, trotted out before military courts and convicted in absentia. Red lines that Saied would have to respect to make such elections materialize—an unlikely proposition given the aforementioned realities—include the requirement that all political parties be allowed to campaign freely. A second red line for any elections in Tunisia should also be that its regular election body, the Independent High Authority for Elections, or ISIE, organize the vote, rather than any other branch of government. Disturbingly, though, Saied derisively dismisses the ISIE as "neither high or independent" and has not consulted with a single one of its members since his presidential coup. Rumor has it that Saied has even tried to tap the Ministry of Interior, part of the security services, to organize the elections—a throwback to the Ben Ali era of unfree and unfair elections.
Pursuing this second potential off-ramp is a higher stakes gamble than the first. That's because this plan would be forced to contend with the devil in the non-existent details of Saied's roadmap: his fundamental demonization of all Tunisian political actors. This basic contradiction makes reaching free and fair elections exceedingly unlikely, even if one accepts Saied's unconstitutional plan.
For the time being, Tunisia's opposition has not coalesced into a critical mass that supports either of these two options. Tunisia today is an ex-democracy, unmoored from any semblance of constitutional order, hurtling down Saied's freeway in the direction of consolidated authoritarianism. Free and fair elections, accountable governance, and the most rudimentary checks and balances are nowhere in sight. The likeliest outcome may be that Saied—bereft of any economic plan and stubbornly unwilling to dialogue—drives Tunisia's already flailing economy into a deeper ravine and is forced out of power by some combination of popular unrest and behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
This remains the sobering reality even though Citizens Against the Coup has submitted an alternative, actionable roadmap that could restore Tunisia's constitutional order, which enjoys the tacit support of the three dominant parties in Tunisia's still-frozen parliament—Ennahda, Qalb Tunis and Karama. But without the amplifying force of Tunisia's smaller parties and powerful civil society organizations, most crucially UGTT, that plan will be a dead letter.
Tunisian democrats have, since July 25, been trapped in a hostage situation, characterized by a combination of literal and metaphorical and voluntary and involuntary house arrests, reinforced by successive COVID lockdowns. Every day and week that passes without a real, consensual roadmap toward reinstating the country's constitutional order makes it harder for Tunisians to rescue their democracy. Every sleepless night that passes without even a hint that there may be truly free and fair elections contested by independent political parties, which Saied consistently dismisses as "demons," increases the odds that a full restoration of Tunisian democracy will become a pipedream.