Were there early warning signs of Tunisia's authoritarian turn? In the face of numerous challenges, there were actually some hopeful indicators as late as 2017. Drawing on an original, nationally representative survey of Tunisians, I find that the structure of political tolerance at that time actually boded well for the then-nascent democracy's short-term prospects. Specifically, rather than targeting major political actors, Tunisians focused their intolerance largely on those groups agitating for social change from outside the formal political arena. To be sure, this is neither ideal nor sustainable if the long-term goal is broad-based pluralism. Yet, in terms of the more acute threat of authoritarian backsliding, it would be far less desirable if large swaths of the public wished to curtail the rights of entities participating in the (still quite fragile) political system. The experimental findings further buttress this result. When presented with counter-arguments for their initial position toward a group they strongly dislike, initially intolerant respondents were significantly more likely to be persuaded to tolerance if their target group was a formal political actor rather than a social agitator.
Yet, there were also some worrisome signals. Specifically, all respondents, regardless of their target group, were equally likely to move away from an initially tolerant position and, moreover, did so at a rather high rate (with nearly three in four swayed toward intolerance). Thus, even though the analysis supported cautious optimism at the time, the malleability of Tunisian attitudes underscored the public's susceptibly to stark shifts should conditions on the ground or elite discourse upset the precarious equilibrium—as Kais Saied appears to have done.
To probe the ex ante potential for a top-down unsettling of democratic norms, I also present findings from an original elite survey in Tunisia (n=250) fielded in the weeks leading up to the country’s fall 2019 elections. I demonstrate that tolerance is exceptionally high among civil society personnel and political party members, although there are notable divergences from this general pattern in terms of elite type and target group. Beyond these descriptive findings, I outline the key determinants of tolerance among this sample, noting the deviations from the mass-level model and discuss the implications of these results for both short-term fluctuations in Tunisian democracy and the study of political tolerance in non-Western settings.