Economic Neglect and Political Instability Unraveled Tunisia’s Democracy

TUNIS — Nearly 12 years ago, Tunisians fed up with corruption, repression and a lack of opportunity poured into the streets and toppled a dictator, chanting for bread, freedom and dignity. Those chants soon echoed across the Middle East in a chain of Arab Spring uprisings, kindling hopes that democracy could bloom in Tunisia and beyond.

Six years later, Tunisia’s freely elected government granted an amnesty to corrupt former officials who had looted the country before the 2011 revolution. To those who had battled for change, as well as those who had never gotten justice for the former regime’s crimes, the 2017 amnesty came as a slap.

“I felt like, how can you expect me to look my mother-in-law in the eye?” said Sayida Ounissi, a former minister in one of Tunisia’s post-revolution governments whose father-in-law had been tortured under the deposed dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

“You’re actually pardoning people without trials?” she said, recalling the amnesty. “Their victims are still around.”

As the revolts withered over the past decade and authoritarian leaders across the region regained their grip on power, Tunisia remained the Arab Spring’s greatest hope for democratic change — until now, that is.

Disillusioned with the failure of their elected political leaders to make good on the revolution’s promises, Tunisian voted overwhelmingly for an inexperienced outsider for president in 2019. Two years later, in 2021, that president, Kais Saied, swept aside Parliament and most other checks on his power to establish one-man rule.

Last month, he solidified his power grab in a new Constitution approved by a national referendum. More than a decade after Tunisia threw off authoritarian rule, the only surviving democracy to have emerged from the Arab Spring was all but dead.

Though swift, Mr. Saied’s dismantling of Tunisia’s hard-won democratic gains was years in the making. In interviews with veterans of this democracy-building experiment, they pinpointed a series of missteps that erased Tunisians’ faith in the system.

“You’re actually pardoning people without trials? Their victims are still around,” said Sayida Ounissi, a former government minister whose father-in-law was tortured under the country’s ousted dictator.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

The democratically elected leaders failed to right the former regime’s wrongs or achieve economic progress, leaving Tunisia with greater corruption, higher unemployment, widening poverty and deeper debt a decade after the revolution. The country cycled through 10 prime ministers in 10 years, a constant drum of instability that throttled progress. And it never bridged deep religious-secular fault lines.

“Most of the public still supports the revolution,” said Abdellatif Mekki, a former health minister. “But they’ve been switching from one political party to another, or to a person like Saied, looking for someone who can achieve the revolution’s goals.”

When the ousted dictator, Mr. Ben Ali, fled the country amid mass protests in January 2011, euphoria reigned. But economists at the time sounded a note of caution: The country’s finances needed close attention.

Protesters had demanded action on socioeconomic inequality and high unemployment, especially among young people who made up nearly a third of the population. But with the focus on hammering out a new political system, those demands were largely ignored.

Rejecting the ruthless repression of the previous six decades, Tunisians in 2011 elected a transitional assembly dominated by the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, which had been brutally suppressed and demonized under former regimes.

The party’s main constituents were the poor, rural, conservative Tunisians who had first powered the uprising. For the moment, at least, Ennahda seemed to stand for the revolution itself.

Demonstrators climbed the walls of the Interior Ministry in Tunis during the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011 as thousands gathered outside to demand the resignation of the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.Credit…Holly Pickett for The New York Times

But as the country began writing a new constitution over the next two years, debates about how prominently Islam should feature inflamed longstanding divides in the society. Under Ennahda, secular Tunisians feared, freedoms such as drinking alcohol and women’s rights — among the strongest in the Arab world — could be lost.

“There would’ve been a lot more attention focused faster” on economic and political overhauls without the growing rancor toward Ennahda, said Monica Marks, a Middle East politics professor at New York University Abu Dhabi who lived in Tunisia after the revolution.

Instead, those priorities took a back seat to concerns that Ennahda, despite its avowals of moderation, would transform the country into something more akin to a theocracy than a secular, liberal democracy.

Most of Tunisia’s post-revolution leaders barely even realized they needed an economic plan.

Their solution to address unemployment and fatten household budgets was speedy, if shortsighted: hiring hundreds of thousands of civil servants, raising government salaries and borrowing from abroad to pay for it all.

That proved a costly mistake, stoking inflation as money poured in and burdening the country with ever-growing national debt. The government became the country’s largest employer, spending half its annual budget on the public payroll.

“It was a race among parties to buy support and votes,” said Ezzeddine Saidane, an economist. Later, when the need to cut the wage bill became obvious, “politicians lacked the political courage to fire thousands of people at once,” he said.

Laborers waiting around for work on the outskirts of Tunis this month.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

At the time, the country had more urgent problems.

In the years after the revolution, young Tunisians began flocking to join the Islamic State, which had seized large parts of Iraq and Syria. In 2013, two well-known secular politicians were assassinated.

Ennahda, which ultimately rejected mentioning Islamic law in the new Constitution, advocated a moderate, nonviolent form of Islam. But Tunisians’ rising sense that radical Islam was rampant, combined with the former regime’s decades-long vilification of Ennahda, cast a pall of suspicion on the party nevertheless.

By August 2013, tens of thousands of protesters were clamoring for Ennahda’s ouster. The threat of violence loomed.

The crisis ended after Ennahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, and a leader of the secular opposition and former Ben Ali regime official, Béji Caïd Essebsi, met in Paris to resolve their differences. After participating in a national political dialogue, Ennahda ceded power, paving the way for the new Constitution to be drafted and adopted in January 2014.

The world hailed Tunisia as a shining example of peace through consensus, and the two politicians as true statesmen. The quartet of unions and civil society groups that oversaw the national dialogue won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.

In December 2014, Mr. Essebsi swept to the presidency. His secular party, Nidaa Tounes, won the most parliamentary seats after running a virulently anti-Ennahda campaign.

But Tunisia’s electoral system, which had been designed to prevent Ennahda from gaining too much power, limited any party’s ability to claim a majority even after winning an election. Nidaa Tounes needed a coalition partner — and Mr. Essebsi, saying it would stabilize the country, chose Ennahda.

His party members were aghast; 32 lawmakers later resigned.

“Tunisia was headed toward collapse, just like the rest of the region,” Mr. Ghannouchi said in an interview. “Consensus saved Tunisia for five years.”

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda party, in his office in Tunis this month.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

But the coalition’s shaky foundations dominated the next five years, with neither camp willing to make unpopular economic or political changes that could threaten the consensus.

“What is happening now is a result of all of that,” said Mondher Bel Haj, a co-founder of Nidaa Tounes who resigned over the decision. “Because of the coalition, Tunisians no longer believed in the elections. And we couldn’t make the necessary reforms.”

The fractious coalition could not agree on members of the constitutional court, a Supreme Court-like body that could have declared Mr. Saied’s 2021 seizure of powers unconstitutional. It was never formed.

And all the while, the economic hits piled up.

Turning to the International Monetary Fund for help, successive prime ministers proposed the same neoliberal fixes again and again: Cut the public wage bill, reduce subsidies and sell or overhaul failing state-owned companies.

But they all fizzled.

Lining up to receive salaries and pensions at a post office in the capital Tunis this month. After the revolution, the government became the country’s largest employer, spending half its annual budget on the public payroll.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Sharan Grewal, a Brookings Institution fellow who studies Tunisia, said that had a domino effect.

“Tunisians blamed the poor economy on the political parties and the political system,” he said.

Perhaps no one moment disappointed Tunisians more than Parliament’s approval of the amnesty to former officials accused of corruption — the only legislation that Mr. Essebsi proposed in five years as president.

It showed that Nidaa Tounes “had no interest in democratic or economic reform,” said Amine Ghali, the director of the Tunis-based Al-Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center.

Ennahda, once seen as a champion of the revolution, lent votes to pass the law.

“I congratulate you on the return of the dictatorial state and reconciliation with the corrupt,” the opposition lawmaker Ahmed Seddik said when the amnesty was approved by Parliament in 2017. “Tunisians will not forgive you.”

They never did, for that and much more.

By the 2019 elections, called after Mr. Essebsi died in office, Tunisians had grown even more disenchanted with democracy. Rejecting a field of well-known politicians, voters went in a landslide for Mr. Saied, an austere constitutional law professor with a reputation for championing the poor and underrepresented.

A market in Tunis. According to one analyst, Tunisians “blamed the poor economy on the political parties and the political system.” Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

In parliamentary elections that year, Ennahda came first, but resentment of the mainstream secular and religious parties gave rise to destabilizing far-left and far-right parties. For the next year and a half, Parliament was mired in dysfunction.

Palpably disgusted, Tunisians hurled insults at lawmakers in the street and on Facebook.

The economy hurtled toward disaster. Regional disparities sharpened. Youth unemployment rose. Tunisians’ purchasing power fell about 40 percent and the currency, the dinar, lost 60 percent of its value from 2010 to 2022.

Public debt is now five times what it was in 2010. The government cannot pay salaries or for grain shipments on time, let alone invest in the infrastructure that might juice economic growth.

In July 2021, with Covid further hobbling the economy, Mr. Saied fired his prime minister and suspended Parliament. Tunisians spilled into the streets, cheering, and Ennahda offices across the country were set ablaze.

“Kais Saied is now using the hate a big part of the population has against the political class, especially Ennahda, to say, ‘I’m the savior,’” said Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s first post-revolution president.

“For the average Tunisian, they lost faith in everything.”

A street in Tunis this month. Public debt is now five times what it was in 2010. The government cannot pay salaries or for grain shipments on time, let alone invest in the infrastructure that might juice economic growth.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
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