Until recently Tunisia was seen as the lone success story of the Arab Spring. But on 25 July last year, President Kais Saied summoned the prime minister to the presidential palace in Carthage and dismissed him, declared a state of emergency, suspended parliament and sent the army to block the entrances to the building. Over the next 48 hours, a nationwide curfew was imposed, the head of the national television station was replaced and elected officials were stripped of legal immunity. Saied suspended the much praised post-revolution constitution, dissolved parliament and imposed rule by personal decree. Since then, regional governors have been removed, civilians have been tried in military courts, several opposition politicians have been imprisoned and others have been sentenced to jail in absentia.
Some fled, or tried to. Nabil Karoui, the runner-up in the 2019 presidential election, escaped through mountain passes but was arrested in Algeria. That the president himself was responsible for the coup, rather than its object, isn’t historically unusual. The autogolpe has many precedents, but what was remarkable this time was that, two months before the coup took place, a plan describing almost the exact course of events was leaked to the press. The plot had been rumbled, but it succeeded anyway.
Where was the civil and political opposition? The religious conservative Ennahda Party, still the best organised political movement in Tunisia, didn’t offer much of a challenge. Scattered protests against the coup were too little, too late. Mutual rancour prevented unified opposition. The trade unions seemed ambivalent and called for a national dialogue, which never happened. The internal security forces backed the president’s position, as did the army. It can’t have hurt that a former army chief of staff and a retired chief of the navy were Saied’s national security advisers.
This summer, on the anniversary of the coup, a referendum was held on a new constitution designed to consolidate Saied’s gains. In contrast to its post-revolutionary predecessor, the document was cobbled together by the president’s office, and granted Saied the right to dictate the powers of a new parliament. The ostensible head of the drafting committee, Sadok Belaïd, publicly said that the constitution would lead to ‘a disgraceful dictatorial regime’. The referendum was boycotted by most of the opposition parties and most of the electorate. Turnout barely exceeded 30 per cent and the published breakdown of figures looked suspicious. The 95 per cent vote recorded for ‘yes’ allowed Saied to claim a resounding victory, but since local and international monitors hadn’t been able to observe the voting, it’s impossible to trust the result. Saied had prepared the ground by filling the Independent High Authority for Elections with his own supporters, dissolving the High Judicial Council, and firing an entire generation of judges (57 in all).
The principal achievements of the Tunisian revolution of 2011 – ending 23 years of dictatorship under Ben Ali and bringing in parliamentary politics – seem to have lasted only a decade. Saied’s new order is upheld by force. In central Tunis security forces are present in higher numbers than ever before. Fences restrict access to Kasbah Square, the symbolic heart of the revolution, and police positions and metal barricades are fixtures in the streets. The two armoured vehicles that used to guard the statue of Ibn Khaldun on Avenue Habib Bourguiba have returned. The battered police truck that once sat under the Sea Gate arch at the entrance to the old city is back too. When I visited in September there were long queues at the markets: there is a shortage of cooking oil. Economic malaise is visible in all but the smartest neighbourhoods.
Tunis doesn’t have the extreme privation visible in the slums of Cairo. The closest equivalents are semi-slums with a reputation for being dangerous after dark. These areas have been hit hardest by the rise in the price of basic goods. In Douar Hicher, north-west of the city centre, I saw residents marching through the streets and burning tyres. In Mornag, another working-class neighbourhood, similar actions have been repressed with tear gas. When I travelled north through the city from Bab al-Khadra to Bab Saadoun, street sellers were hawking scavenged electronics, cables and second-hand belts from carts lined with cardboard. In Djebel Lahmar, a collection of narrow streets lined with shacks where roofs are patched together out of old pieces of furniture, shopkeepers told me they were worried about a shortage of sugar. That day the news agency Tunis Afrique Presse reported that a Maltese ship loaded with Brazilian cane had docked in Bizerte. This was good news for the sugar shortage but an unpropitious subject for the country’s main newswire to have to cover. Since the coup, independent sources of information have become harder to come by. In August, a military court sentenced Salah Attia, editor of a news website, to three months in jail for criticising the president on television. In September, Saied announced a new law imposing prison terms for ‘spreading false information’. The editor in chief of the independent news outlet Inhiyez was arrested after police raided his house and confiscated his computers. There has been an increase in random police brutality, and in arrests of activists who have been documenting police violence.
Before he was a putschist, Saied was a constitutional lawyer. In the years after the revolution he made regular appearances on TV as a commentator on constitutional matters; one of his observations was that constitutions tend to become tools of executive power. He won the presidency in 2019 by presenting himself as an outsider. There was some truth in this: before the revolution he had been a minor academic in the capital. But it was also a simplification: he attended the same school in Tunis as three former presidents. His brand of conservative nationalism, paired with an outward asceticism, proved popular. As did his promise to remove venal political contaminants and to restore haybat al dawla, the prestige of the state. Enemies ascribe to Saied the arrogance and intransigence of an apostle. By positioning himself against Islamists he has found favour in Egypt and the Gulf states. In the media, he speaks out about the depredations of the rich and the need for direct democracy. This veneer of revolutionary rhetoric is helpful against political opponents but never seems to come to anything.
The council of advisers Saied has assembled are for the most part inaccessible. His first chief of staff, Nadia Akacha, another constitutional lawyer, spoke for the new regime, but in January the two had a very public split – Akacha is now in exile in Paris. The other members of the presidential council rarely appear in public. In La Marsa, an affluent coastal neighbourhood on the edge of Tunis, I met Hamadi Redissi, a political scientist who has conducted a detailed study of Saied’s rise. He told me that the coup has been sustained by two forces. First, the network of partisans and propagandists who have capitalised on public frustration with the crises of the revolutionary decade. Second, members of the bourgeoisie who support Saied’s moves against Tunisia’s trade unions and religious conservatives. ‘Supporters of the president and the coup care a great deal about taking on the Islamists,’ Redissi said. But another factor has been the brute fact of state intimidation. ‘People are afraid of Kais Saied, and I understand why.’
The Saied project is to shift the country away from the representative democracy won during the revolution and towards autocratic presidentialism, combined – or so it was claimed – with a form of municipal democracy. Predictably, the autocracy has materialised and the municipal democracy has failed to show. The new order is enforced by traditional means. Saied’s director general of security is a secret policeman from the Ben Ali era. The head of national intelligence is said to be close to the Egyptian junta. A personalised presidential system backed by a police state: the obvious conclusion is that Tunisia has reverted to the kind of dictatorship overturned in 2011. But whatever else he may be, Saied is a product of the revolutionary decade, a period that was unambiguously more positive in Tunisia than in any other Arab state. How could that decade have led to this?
Tunisia followed the familiar post-independence path from anti-colonialism under one long-term leader to neoliberalism under the next. The country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, who took office in 1957, commanded respect thanks to his experience in the independence struggle against France. He ruled without serious challenge until his dotage and the effective regency of his second wife, Wassila Ben Ammar. The man who replaced him, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, was a creature of the security state. After seizing power in a palace coup in 1987, Ben Ali made extending that state one of his central projects. He also pioneered the evolution of the Arab republic into a state characterised by crony capitalism, a course Mubarak would also follow in Egypt. Under Ben Ali, Tunisia was run as something close to a family concern. The extended Ben Ali family controlled a remarkable proportion of the economy. Relatives of Ben Ali or of his wife, Leïla Trabelsi, headed the central bank, the largest private financial institutions, ministries of state and the national airline. By some estimates, the presidential clan received as much as a fifth of all private sector profits. The archetypal figure was Belhassen Trabelsi, the first lady’s brother, who combined mafia-style intimidation with spectacular wealth and control over an impressive network of companies and ventures. One obvious goal of the revolt that began in December 2010 was to pull up the marble and the leopard skin rugs from the palaces.
Plenty of countries have corrupt leaders and oppressive police; that doesn’t explain why the Arab Spring uprisings began in Tunisia. Unemployment had been high for two decades, but that could also be said of many other places. Anglophone commentators reached for explanations based on education and technology (the ‘Facebook revolution’ thesis). But they won’t do. For one thing, they don’t account for the fact that the uprisings began in the underdeveloped interior and not in Tunis. And tech theories ignore Tunisia’s history of effective traditional activism. In 2008 there was a mass revolt in the Gafsa mining basin, involving nearly six months of strikes and sit-ins. The protesters included not only phosphate and iron miners but unemployed workers, the widows of men killed in industrial accidents, and disaffected university graduates from the north. What began as a series of riots against local corruption soon spread, taking aim at the state itself. Teachers occupied schools and much of the public sector was brought to a halt. This class rebellion was put down by the national guard, but not before a degree of fragility had been revealed in the Ben Ali system. What the regime didn’t realise was that the situation in the interior had become a genuine crisis. It could be contained for a time, but not finally repressed.
That crisis reached a head on 17 December 2010 with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in the small provincial city of Sidi Bouzid. Harassed by local police for selling fruit from a cart, Bouazizi experienced the common tribulation of the Tunisian underclass, best described by the Maghrebian term hogra – degrading administrative contempt. Partly spontaneous, partly organised by trade unions and disaffected elites of a loosely socialist or religious-conservative bent, demonstrations spread to the capital, where privation converged with labour activism and widespread unemployment. Bouazizi’s death served as a symbol of general brutality and desperation, much like the death in police custody of Khaled Saeed in Egypt.
Outrage at police excesses was soon combined with a demand for the end of the Ben Ali regime. The national trade union organisation, the UGTT, and opposition political parties led demonstrations in Tunis, and the unions organised a general strike in the industrial port city of Sfax. In a televised address on 13 January 2011, Ben Ali tried in vain to reassert his authority. The next morning he fled by plane to Saudi Arabia (where he died in 2019). Belhassen Trabelsi, his brother-in-law, set off for Sicily, by yacht.
The ruling party, the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD), backed by the business elite, briefly tried to keep the show on the road. But demonstrations continued at the RCD headquarters on Avenue Mohamed V, and the party was dissolved by the courts in March. Unlike Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, the RCD was a functional tool of the regime, so its abolition was a major achievement. (The old party HQ, a glass tower opposite the central bank and the ‘museum of money’, now contains a lesser ministry of state.) The sit-in at Kasbah Square was kept up until the prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, resigned on 27 February. In many other Arab states, a military coup would have been inevitable at this point. But among the circumstances in favour of the Tunisian revolutionaries was the weakness of the military, and its relatively small size as a proportion of the population – the army had been gutted in the early 1990s after a false coup scare.
Temporary control of the country passed to the Higher Authority for the Realisation of the Objectives of the Revolution, Political Reform and Democratic Transition, a council of opposition figures and union leaders which oversaw elections in October 2011. The question that dominated the immediate aftermath of the uprising was the role of religious conservatives in national politics. Since independence, they had largely been exiled from public life – Bourguiba had once appeared on television during Ramadan drinking orange juice, something that would be inconceivable in other predominantly Muslim countries. In Morocco and Turkey, political parties influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood were promising ‘justice’ and ‘development’. In Egypt the nominal offering was ‘freedom and justice’. In Tunisia the equivalent Islamist party was Ennahda, or ‘renaissance’, a name that signalled a more abstract rediscovery of lost values. Some of its members had been allowed to run as independents in the parliamentary elections held under Ben Ali in 1989, and were successful enough that the state then arrested 25,000 party members. The movement survived, however, and in the 2011 elections it won a clear plurality of seats in the national constituent assembly.
The first government of the revolutionary period was a coalition between Ennahda and two secular centrist parties, Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic. Ennahda held much of the power, and the prime ministership. Balancing the tensions between the post-revolution factions wasn’t easy, and the economic situation was dire. It was never clear that Ennahda was capable of dealing with either problem. In a bid to placate disgruntled members of the middle class, the government hired tens of thousands of civil servants, most of them in public health or agriculture. But unemployment among the working class couldn’t be brought down. The governing troika was failing to hold things together. I was in Tunis in 2013 when two prominent left-wing politicians were murdered. The unions staged general strikes and the country was approaching terminal crisis. In Egypt at the same time, the army was dispensing with the façade of civilian rule and brutally repressing religious conservatives. Partly from fear that a similar spectacle would ensue, Ennahda agreed to step down from government and give way to a technocratic cabinet.
The national dialogue held in late 2013, which drew together the principal political and civil society organisations, seemed to offer some hope. By January 2014 a post-revolutionary constitution had been agreed in a negotiated compromise between the main factions. Orderly parliamentary and presidential elections were held that autumn. Ennahda’s leaders accepted the loss of their parliamentary plurality to a new formation, Nidaa Tounes, behind which the business elite had thrown its weight. Rached Ghannouchi, Ennadha’s founder and president, agreed that the party wouldn’t take on any major ministries, or field a candidate in the presidential election against Nidaa’s soon to be nonagenarian leader, Beji Caid Essebsi. Essebsi was the face of the establishment that had maintained its position from the early days of independence. After winning the presidency he returned a statue of Bourguiba on horseback to the place du 14 Janvier. But Ennahda was still powerful enough to have a say in the formation of the new government. Ghannouchi and Essebsi had met in Paris during the dialogue, and Nidaa Tounes agreed to make minor concessions to the religious conservatives.
Compared with the brutal developments in Egypt and the civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, the situation in Tunisia seemed promising enough. But the dominant narrative was still of a ‘transition’ to democracy. Ban Ki-moon praised Tunisia as ‘a model to other peoples seeking reforms’. It didn’t look that way to the majority of the population, who experienced economic stagnation and little else. None of this registered in the world at large. What the Anglosphere and Europe wanted was a revolution of democratic liberalism catalysed by Western technology companies. Leave out social media, and this was much the same story that was told about Eastern Europe in 1989, when the idea of a pure democratic liberalism obscured any ethnonationalist blemishes. What was it covering up this time? The Essebsi presidency certainly didn’t fit the story. It was hardly a revolutionary achievement to raise a man who had been minister of interior in 1965 to the presidency. The revolution hadn’t produced a new generation of political leaders: it had brought back the marginalised elites of the Ben Ali era.
In his final years, Essebsi started to blame the constitution for political stalemate and to suggest revising it. After the revolution there had been much talk of reforming the police state, and the political police were partly cleansed. But a jihadist movement was running rearguard actions in the Chaambi mountains on the border with Algeria, providing a ready justification for maintaining the security apparatus. Attacks resulting in mass casualties on the Bardo National Museum and the coastal city of Sousse added further impetus. The military budget doubled between 2012 and 2016, with all the focus on internal security. Tunisia, unlike other Arab Spring countries, was for the most part blessed by the neglect of the great powers, which saw it as marginal to developments in Egypt and Syria. Their major concerns as far as Tunisia was concerned were irregular migration and the terrorist threat. The US increased military aid and John Kerry paid a visit to praise the dedication of the security forces. In 2014, a new internal electronic surveillance body was set up, modelled on the NSA, with support from the EU and other Western embassies. Well-equipped anti-terror police based in the Ministry of Interior’s offices in western Tunis stepped up their activities. By 2018, security officials were threatening to stop protecting MPs unless they passed a law criminalising criticism of the police.
The revolution had unseated a president and dismantled a ruling party without a military coup or civil war. Those were its successes. But the economic system remained almost entirely untouched. Tunisia’s elite were patient, and under the Essebsi settlement regrouped without their more egregious extremities. Ben Ali cronies like the Mabrouk brothers, one of them his son-in-law, still owned the country’s largest private bank. This was the landscape when Essebsi died on 25 July 2019. The elections to replace him were an opening. Many of the presidential candidates – 26 in all – had held office before, including four former prime ministers and one former president. Some voters found Saied’s promise to cleanse the system convincing; others just saw him as the least of 26 evils. In the end, there was a second-round run-off between Saied and the businessman Nabil Karoui. A familiar and powerful public figure, the 0wner of the TV station Nessma, Karoui was the closest thing Tunisia had to a natural successor to Essebsi. By contrast, Saied was such a minor player in the establishment that he could pose as an outsider willing to take it on.
Much was made of the fact that Saied won the presidency without the machinery of a political party behind him. But no one else had an effective party, except Ennahda, which backed Saied in the second round. That decision was contentious. In the modest office above a dental surgery to which he has since confined himself, Abdelhamid Jelassi, who was number three in the Ennahda hierarchy before he broke with the movement in 2020, told me he had opposed the decision to support Saied’s presidency but was overruled. He said that Ghannouchi ‘behaved like a tribal chief’ and ran Ennahda like the underground organisation it had been in the 1990s. But others in the party favoured Saied merely because they thought he was a better choice than Karoui, a slick double-dealer. They believed they could control Saied if they had a strong majority in parliament. In the parliamentary elections Ennahda did win the most seats, but it incurred significant losses in the south to a breakaway Islamist party and elsewhere to social democrats. Even so, the party took control of several government ministries and Ghannouchi himself became parliamentary speaker.
Once again, the balance both within parliament and between it and the presidency was unstable. One of the principal victories of the revolution had been the transfer of power from president to parliament, but now this seemed at risk. The central battlefield was the delay in setting up a constitutional court, which would have provided a route for parliament to remove the president. It became clear that Saied wouldn’t accept such a court. But to the public, the power struggles between political institutions seemed like squabbling in the face of general economic distress. By the spring of 2021, Saied was asserting rights to extra-constitutional presidential powers. A coup seemed possible even before the blueprint for its execution was leaked.
Ennahda put up the most vocal resistance to Saied’s suppression of parliament. The consequences for the party may be severe. Most of its leaders have been called in by the security services or detained by the counterterror department. On 20 September, Ghannouchi was summoned for questioning and not released until the following morning. When I visited Ennahda’s headquarters in the Montplaisir district of the city centre, the party was holding a press conference on the arrests. In a room with walls covered in photographs of martyred supporters, party leaders said that the counter-terror investigation – nominally into members who had left the country to join Islamic State – was spurious: cover for a straightforward attack on the most organised element of the opposition. The former prime minister Ali Laarayedh, who had recently been released from detention, received me in an office on the fourth floor. He said that the security services were operating under ‘phone orders’ – meaning that they were acting on the basis of a call from the top rather than due process. ‘I am certain that if he thinks he can get away with it, Kais Saied will prevent all opposition political parties from operating,’ he told me. He said that while Saied remained in power there was no route back to constitutional government.
Ennahda has called for an escalation of protests against Saied. But the party’s opponents often dislike the idea of joining with its efforts even when they agree with their aims. On the streets of the capital, it’s common to hear people accuse Ennahda of practising siyaset al qatiyaa, or ‘herd politics’. Another of the party’s leaders, Ajmi Lourimi, told me he believed Saied wanted to draw Ennahda into a violent confrontation; their task, he said, was to use the streets in collaboration with other opposition forces to return the country to democracy. At present, that seems a remote possibility. The problem is that the only other national organisation with the capacity to challenge the state, the UGTT, has chosen to negotiate in private with the presidency. In June, a general strike was held to protest at the economic crisis and union leaders talked of the government’s ‘repressive deviation’. But in September Saied and the unions seemed to have reached a deal in exchange for modest wage increases for public sector workers. I went to the UGTT’s temporary headquarters in Lafayette, a building guarded by union toughs, but its leaders kept cancelling meetings with me. Nor did they show up at the offices of the union’s newspaper, Echaab, the ground-floor depot of which was stacked with discarded air conditioners. Saied’s main method of influencing the UGTT has been to threaten corruption charges arising from the length of time senior members have served on its executive board – a similar threat to the one that led to the sacking of the judges. At the moment, as a way of keeping them quiet, it seems to be working.
While the political class has been at war, the majority of Tunisians have been getting poorer. More than half the population now work in informal jobs, if they work at all. On 24 September an unemployed man in his forties set himself on fire on the rue de Londres. Passers-by helplessly threw dirt and water on him to put out the flames. This wasn’t a repeat of Bouazizi so much as another reflection of economic desperation: self-immolations are common in Tunisia – there are as many as a hundred a year. Many workers earn no more than four hundred dinars a month – little more than £100. The situation is without obvious remedy. Tunisia doesn’t have much oil; most of its exports go to the EU, but it’s only a small offshore supplier. After the revolution, negotiations for a limited free trade agreement with the EU went nowhere. In the interior of the country, most people work on farms or mine phosphate; many move to the coast to make textiles for Europeans, in competition with factories in Turkey and Malaysia. Over the past decade, government debt has doubled as a proportion of GDP. International finance has become scarcer since Saied’s coup. Neither the state nor the opposition parties seem to have any answers. Earlier this year a former British ambassador to Tunisia shopped around for ideas on the letters pages of the Financial Times.
Between 2012 and 2020 Tunisia was essentially under IMF tutelage. The IMF called for a reduction in subsidies for food, fuel and energy. Instead, it advocated targeted relief programmes – but those have a way of not getting to the poorest people. Over time, it became more forceful, moving from negotiating with Tunisian authorities to simply issuing orders. In 2017 and 2019 it effectively compelled the government to cut energy subsidies, in the face of strong public protest. According to the latest IMF programme, leaked in January, Tunisia should privatise some state-owned companies and ‘contain’ the cost of civil service wages. Now that the UGTT won’t speak out, only the splintered left parties offer resistance. ‘The only solution Saied has is another IMF loan, which we have tried before,’ Hosni Hamadi of the Workers’ Party told me. ‘With the economic situation as it is, their measures will lead to an explosion.’
The international powers have offered little; the EU has hedged its bets. On 29 March, the day before Saied dissolved parliament, the European Commission sent an envoy to Tunis to finalise €450 million in budgetary support. European countries have maintained a rhetorical commitment to democracy, but in practice they have been more interested in Tunisia playing its part by maintaining a coastguard force to intercept migrants trying to make it to the EU, and by ensuring it is a stable transit country for gas pipelines. Anthony Blinken, the US secretary of state, has acknowledged Saied’s ‘alarming erosion of democratic norms’, but in August an assistant secretary of state, Barbara Leaf, met Saied for a photo opportunity and a discussion about the ‘ongoing military partnership’. The US recently began providing a command and control system to the Tunisian military. In March, Tunisia secured a deal for a supply of American surveillance aircraft. At the end of September, the ambassadors of the UK, France, Germany and Japan met Saied’s prime minister to urge Tunisia to sign on the IMF’s dotted line. On 15 October, the fund agreed to lend $1.9 billion over four years, much less money than the Tunisian authorities had hoped.
Since the coup, Tunisian politics has been a matter of pronouncements from Carthage Palace. In some respects Saied’s rise accords with a global trend towards centralising nationalists – evident from the Americas to Turkey, from India to Indonesia. But in no comparable country had recent history broken so drastically with the tradition of dictatorship. The current order may not represent a terminal state. Tunisia, like most of the non-oil exporting Arab states, faces financial drought, and it’s not clear whether Saied can force through the deeply unpopular austerity programme the IMF demands. In mid-October, as bakeries began to shut down across the country because the state wasn’t subsidising them, two separate anti-Saied demonstrations were held simultaneously in the centre of Tunis. The marches were big enough, but neither group wanted to be associated with the other. The parliamentary elections scheduled for 17 December, which have been designed to exclude real political participation, won’t be mistaken for a return to constitutional government. Should the situation deteriorate, the push will come from the interior or the semi-slums, those parts of Tunisian society that are as distant as can be imagined from the political class.
The fate of the Tunisian revolution matters, both for the Arab Spring as a historical process and for the prospects of peripheral countries constrained by the international system. The revolution had an effect on every other country in the Middle East, but went deepest at its point of origin. For the Arab states closer to the world’s major energy-producing region and neo-imperial protectorate, the interests of the great powers seemed to preclude an independent course. But what about small states on the region’s edges? The question didn’t only apply to Tunisia. There were significant uprisings in 2019 in Algeria and Sudan, in Sudan’s case resulting in a traditional coup. The Hirak protests in Morocco in 2016 and 2017 applied similar pressure. For a time, the Tunisian revolution appeared to offer an encouraging answer. Saied’s coup means it must now be treated as an autopsy rather than a retrospective.
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