A year has passed since the start of President Kais Saied's slow-motion coup in Tunisia. That it was as slow as this was perhaps key to its success. I would rather not write this as a sort of political eulogy. But it seems appropriate to write in the past tense, at least for now. This isn't to say that Tunisians won't be able to wrest their country back from their would-be strongman. I hope and pray that they will. But on a week like this—with Saied moving to enshrine his authoritarian powers in a stage-managed constitutional referendum—it is worth speaking to the gravity of what happened.
In some sense, this is what Tunisians wanted. Not all Tunisians, of course. But most of them, according to various polls. They saw parliamentary gridlock, ineffectual coalition governments and economic collapse and were primed for a leader who could promise a radically different vision. That man was Kais Saied. Interestingly, Saied, a constitutional law professor and self-styled straight-talking populist, hadn't been particularly popular initially. In June 2021, his approval rating was only 38 percent. Yet after he dissolved the government and suspended parliament indefinitely on July 25, with the military's support, his approval rating shot up to 82 percent. For several months afterwards, it hovered around 70 to 80 percent, before declining somewhat. In a survey conducted this past December and January, the political scientists Alexandra Domike Blackman and Elizabeth Nugent found that close to 80 percent of Tunisians viewed the president's seizure of power favorably, while less than 15 percent thought it threatened democracy and basic rights. In other words, there is compelling evidence that a large majority of Tunisians were still at least somewhat supportive of the coup after having more than four months to reconsider the prospect.
To be sure, this survey data shouldn't be taken at face value. It's complicated. These figures do not measure enthusiasm. Or to put it differently, it is one thing to say you support something; it is quite another to act accordingly in real life. Attitudes are not equivalent to behavior. In an overview of various measures of support, Mohamed Dhia Hammami and Sharan Grewal argue that Saied's support is relatively shallow, reflecting a "silent" and largely apathetic majority. Moreover, dissatisfaction appears to have increased significantly in recent months. Nearly all the country's major political parties have been calling for either a boycott of the referendum or a "no" vote against Saied's constitution.
On a week like this—with Saied moving to enshrine his authoritarian powers in a stage-managed constitutional referendum—it is worth speaking to the gravity of what happened.
- Shadi Hamid
Still, the lingering question remains. Tunisia was supposedly the lone bright spot of the Arab Spring. How is it that a country and a people managed to squander such considerable gains so quickly? Again, it's complicated. I remember right after Saied announced the new order last July, various Tunisian friends and acquaintances told me to avoid jumping to conclusions. They felt, perhaps correctly, that I was too influenced by the 2013 coup in Egypt and that to compare Tunisians to Egyptians did a disservice to the former. They said that Tunisians were different. Inculcated in 10 years of democratic practice, they would never countenance a return to authoritarianism.
Unfortunately, this was not too different from what many supporters of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's coup insisted in the days and weeks after he took power in Egypt almost a decade ago. For outside observers and analysts like myself, it seemed self-evident that what happened in Egypt wasn't merely a coup; it was a textbook case of a coup. It was almost as if Egyptians thought they were outside of history, immune to the political machinations that have ended democracy elsewhere. It is true that I, or anyone else writing from the United States or Europe, had the privilege of distance. We didn't have to live with consequences of our own opinions—or, more precisely, the consequences of elections of countries not our own. In this case, however, distance provided a benefit. Proximity, on the other hand, had a distorting effect. It is harder to judge a revolution—or for that matter a coup—when one is experiencing it in the flesh.
As it turned out, Tunisians or Egyptians weren't exceptional. That these coups were popular only reinforced the point. By definition, successful coups tend to enjoy popular support; otherwise, they wouldn't succeed.
Economies aren't something one man can fix alone. Democracy, however, is something one man can destroy—if enough people let him.
- Shadi Hamid
As for why so many Tunisian secularists and liberals—who might have otherwise been expected to defend democracy—found themselves tempted by Saied's strongman routine, part of the explanation lies in the Middle East's longstanding democratic dilemma. Appreciating democracy in theory is different than liking its outcomes in practice. In Tunisia, as in much of the rest of the region, democratization produced Islamist gains. Even as Ennahda, the country's main Islamist party, hemorrhaged support and popularity, it still ended up as the largest parliamentary bloc after the 2019 elections due to the fragmentation of its secular competitors. Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda's controversial co-founder and president, became speaker of parliament, the same parliament that Saied summarily shuttered on day one of his coup a year ago. As Sharan Grewal, Ian DeHaven and Salah-Dean Satouri noted recently in The Washington Post, the prospect of reinstating that dissolved parliament is a sticking point for the opposition, since it would mean a return to perceived Islamist control.
For many ordinary Tunisians, the sources of dissatisfaction were more general and universal. The 2011 revolution, like any revolution, brought with it great expectations. Those expectations were not met, in part because they couldn't be. Democracies, on average, deliver better economic outcomes in the long run. Citizens, however, don't live in the long run. Over 10 years, as Tunisia's economy struggled and then suffered, Tunisians suffered in turn. Kais Saied promised them a better life. What did they have to lose? The answer, sadly, is: a lot. Economies aren't something one man can fix alone. Democracy, however, is something one man can destroy—if enough people let him.