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Democratic Backsliding in Tunisia

Panel III-26, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
  • Dr. Youssef Chouhoud -- Presenter
  • Ms. Alessandra Bonci -- Presenter, Co-Author
  • Dr. Moritz Schmoll -- Chair
  • Dr. Fabrizio Leonardo Cuccu -- Presenter
  • Moutaa Amine El Waer -- Presenter
  • Mahmoud Tharwat El Hewaig -- Presenter
  • Dr. Hatem Sebei -- Presenter
  • Ahmed Elbasyouny -- Presenter
  • Mahmoud Tharwat El Hewaig
    The arrival of Kais Saied to the Tunisian political scene and his consequent autocratic decisions indicated a major “setback” to the revolution. The phenomenon of Saied and his initial wide popular support represented a wide dissatisfaction with the revolution’s political and economic outcomes. Hence, it is important to analyze why people’s aspirations did not materialize and what was the root causes of the failures of the political system that emerged after the revolution. This paper analyzes the Tunisian revolution from its very inception and surveys the key different stages that undermined its potential. It asks the question of why electoral democracy failed to produce a system that can lead a socioeconomic change. It also investigates how neoliberal norms managed to hijack the revolution from its inception and changed its trajectory. While there are multiple papers that provide reasons for the failed democratic transition, this paper focuses on the revolution itself and the ideas that motivated it. It argues that the Tunisian revolution was destined not to be radical enough to bring a satisfying change. The paper analyzes a legacy of lousy revolutionary fundamentals. It looks at the facade of ideological contestation that was encapsulated in the competition between the Islamists and the secularists in a critical fashion and in consideration of the idea of the “deep state.” The paper utilizes the concept of Refolution as adopted by Asef Bayat to describe the revolutions of the Arab spring to explain the current phenomenon of Saied. It concludes that the revolution bore the seeds of its setbacks from its inception. Though the political elites are publicly condemned and seen as responsible for the current situation, they were just a natural part of the historical process that unfolded. The situation that has been reached was the most probable outcome that could have been achieved by the “refolution.” However, the revolution, for what it was and for its limited trajectory, was successful in bearing positive outcomes. Those positive outcomes hold some seeds of hope if it is seen as part of the democratic learning process. That process should not be seen in a linear fashion. It should not be binarily categorized as success or failure. However, it is important to address the roots of the arrested transition for the benefit of feature movements. For that purpose, a discussion of the negative aspects of “refolutions” and how to avoid them is needed.
  • Dr. Youssef Chouhoud
    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.
  • Dr. Fabrizio Leonardo Cuccu
    Co-Authors: Alessandra Bonci
    The State control over religion is rooted in Tunisia's history, since Bourguiba elaborated a specific idea of a Tunisian Islam after independence (Hibou 2009, Webb 2013). It has been common practice for the two authoritarian rulers to portray themselves as protectors of the country and creators of a state-led Islam (McCarthy 2014). In order to do this, they employed a highly repressive security apparatus depicted as the only defence against radical Islamists. The 2011 revolution led to a temporary break of this cycle of control and repression and demonstrated, among other things, how many people were excluded by this mainstream idea of a Tunisian Islam. After a few years, however, the democratically elected governments reappropriated techniques and narratives similar to the ones used by Bourguiba and Ben Ali, depicting themselves as an example of a successful and moderate Islam and using the pre-revolutionary system of security and control. National governments before and after the revolution maintained strict control over religion and religious authorities through the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Created in 1991, the Ministry is in charge of the functioning of mosques and religious education, the nomination and the training of imams and preachers, and the supervision over religious narratives and practices in the country (Frégosi 2003). Imams became state-appointed officials working under the Ministry, and under the supervision of wa’dh and wa’ydhat, workers under the Ministries of Interior and Religious Affairs whose duty is the surveillance of religious figures such as imams and koranic teachers. Through ethnographic interviews, this research examines how controllers respond to the strategies of surveillance put in place by the security sector and to the narratives utilized to legitimise the control of specific suspect categories of individuals, in order to examine how micro-practices of security shape the larger security sector and how security practitioners negotiate their role within it. By examining how security measures take advantage of the work of female civil servants (wa'ydhat), we highlight the way in which “practical security measures are experienced, felt and managed by individuals” (Crawford and Hutchinson 2016), explaining how these practitioners respond to the gendered dynamics existing in the security sector, and to the narratives used to legitimise the existing system of state control over religion.
  • Ahmed Elbasyouny
    Once celebrated as the only success story of the Arab Spring, Tunisia’s democracy and constitutionalism came under stress on the 25th of July of 2021. Since then, the government was sacked, the parliament was suspended, the judiciary was purged, and a new constitution was introduced disrupting the agreed-upon, and popularly- approved institutional balance of power. How did the birthplace of the Arab Spring end up there? Constitutional design is one explanation. The paper begins by reviewing prevailing explanations: "democracy not delivering", economic inequalities, failure of political Islam, rise of populism, polarization between secularists and Islamists, and support from regional powers, and end up suggesting that the design of the 2014 constitution should be taken seriously. The paper has two roles. First, critiquing the literature of constitutional design for its over-emphasis on the process itself of making the constitution, by showing how Tunisia’s inclusive and participatory process failed to sustain democracy. Secondly, to add up to existing explanations behind Tunisia’s presidential coup, by focusing on three suspect design choices: (1) the vague articulation of Article 80 on emergency powers which created several legal controversies - and as the paper will show, was deliberately left vague; (2) the multi-constituency selection mechanism of the Constitutional Court which, if there, would have evaded turning the whole constitutional crisis in Tunisia into a full-fledged presidential coup ; and (3) the logic of state structure and the semi-presidentialist system which was adopted in god faith in light of Tunisia's troubled history with authoritarian leadership, yet, disempowered the president after 2014 disallowing him to carry out his functions amid oft-happening parliamentary deadlock and rising post-revolutionary demands.
  • Moutaa Amine El Waer
    The successive political crises Tunisia has gone through since 2011 (2010–2011, 2013, 2016, 2019, 2021) transformed the relationship between the administration and social movements. Accustomed to using the coercive and non-coercive means available to them during the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali, today, these bureaucrats are obliged to mobilize new resources to carry out their functions. In this context, and focusing on the case of the Tunisian university, I argue that the interpersonal relationships bureaucrats build with student activists have become indispensable to the ways in they run the university. Moreover, endemic political instability constrains bureaucrats and activists who must now mobilize, act, and decide within short-term time horizons. I draw on several literatures on everyday statecraft (Olivier de Sardan, 2004; Thelen et al., 2017; Zacka, 2017), on the role of Tunisian University in post-colonial nation building and the historical trajectory that shaped into a major site of politicization (Dhifallah, 2016; El Waer, 2017), and finally on the concept of political crisis (Dobry, 2009) and their effects on rearranging institutional configurations and political alliances. These arguments build on fifteen months of ethnographic observation conducted between 2019 and 2022 on two university campuses in the capital city of Tunis at El Manar University, and in Gabès University, 400 km from Tunis in the south of the country. During this period, I observed formal meetings, informal encounters, and open confrontations between students and the university administration. My data also includes fourteen interviews with street-level bureaucrats and civil servants in addition to forty-seven student activists in 2021 and 2022. Indicative bibliography Dhifallah, M. (2016). Les étudiants tunisiens et les gestations de la patrie au milieu du vingtième siècle. Librairie Tounes. Dobry, M. (2009). Sociologie des crises politiques. Presses de Sciences Po. El Waer, M. A. (2017). Production et reproduction d’un militantisme de gauche au sein d’un syndicat étudiant dans la dernière décennie de règne de Ben Ali [Maîtrise en science politique]. Université Paris Dauphine. Olivier de Sardan, J.-P. (2004). État, bureaucratie et gouvernance en Afrique de l’Ouest francophone. Un diagnostic empirique, une perspective historique. Politique africaine, 96(4), 139‑162. Thelen, T., Vetters, L., & Benda-Beckmann, K. von (Éds.). (2017). Stategraphy : Toward a Relational Anthropology of the State (1st edition). Berghahn Books. Zacka, B. (2017). When the State Meets the Street : Public Service and Moral Agency. Belknap Press.
  • Dr. Hatem Sebei
    Amid widespread anti-government protests, on July 25, 2021, the Tunisian President, Kais Saied, dismissed the Prime Minister and suspended parliamentary activities. Thereafter, political parties’ leaders and key civil actors assumed shifting and, lately, conflating positions in reaction to Saied’s move. Although they often called for the formation of a united front against Saied’s unilateral takeover of state institutions, their actions remained largely uncoordinated in avoiding the risks of authoritarian backsliding. Drawing on a political parties’ perspective, thisarticle seeks to understand why the Tunisian political forces failed to coordinate their actions against Saied’s presidential coup. The article contends that in the post-July2021, the Tunisian opposition failed to unite effectively because political forces were primarily driven by opportunism and their past ideological stands toward Ennahda. As a result, political parties opposing Saied’s move preferred to unite selectively. The article invites us to rethink the historical legacy of Tunisian pact-making and alliance politics by concluding that Saied’s actions set distinct rules from the dynamics of opposition coordination that distinguished the Collectif du 18 Octobre (2005) and the post-Uprisings period. Yet, these rules re-echoe some old pact-making patterns that characterised the Tunisian opposition under Ben Ali’s One Party state.