MESA Banner
Tunisian Democracy in Crisis

Panel V-9, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
Tunisia’s multiparty democracy is in a crisis. On July 25th, 2021, President Kais Saied froze the parliament to later dissolve it. Tunisians subsequently passed a referendum that granted him extensive powers, and Saied redrew the electoral law to relinquish the role of parties. Parliamentary elections, held in December 2022 and January 2023, saw one of the lowest turnout rates among the global parliamentary elections. The underlying conditions of Tunisia’s democracy crisis were visible even prior to Saied’s coup. The revolution failed to deliver on the socio-economic front, and in the past decade living conditions worsened for many. Between the first elections in 2011 and 2019, the electoral turnout dropped substantially as trust in the political class plummeted. The Tunisian Labor Union (UGTT) and bureaucracy continued to remain prominent actors, whereas COVID response illustrated the vulnerability of state institutions. While the number of civil society groups grew exponentially, they could not build upon their independent power to create viable state-civil society partnerships. In this session, we aim to bring a multi-disciplinary perspective to examine the different factors that can help us better explain Tunisia’s democracy crisis. We will answer questions such as: What are the structural and institutional reasons that perpetuate the Tunisian political crisis? What role do political elites and political culture play in the failure to safeguard Tunisia’s democracy against backsliding? How can we better understand the dynamics of everyday politics in post 25th July 2021? Why and to what degree did Tunisians support the measures of Saied? What can we learn about the future of democracy in Tunisia and the MENA? What can the Tunisian experience tell us about democratization and backsliding? Scholars from different backgrounds, such as anthropology, sociology, and political science, will bring their unique contributions to this session.
Political Science
  • Matthew Gordner -- Presenter
  • Dr. Aytuğ Şaşmaz -- Discussant
  • Salih Yasun -- Organizer, Co-Author, Chair
  • Mr. Bedirhan Mutlu -- Presenter
  • Haifa Souilmi -- Presenter
  • Ihsan Mejdi -- Presenter
  • Haifa Souilmi
    Why do citizens support democratic backsliding? And how do elites’ divergent understandings of democracy in nascent democracies influence the ability to prevent democratic backsliding and oppose it? Tunisia has been upheld as the exception in the Arab World for its successful democratization. However, since the declaration of the state of exception, it has been witnessing deliberate acts of democratic subversion. Polls show an overwhelming support for the president despite his acts of democratic subversion. Ethnographic evidence in the rural community of “Vaga” where the “yes” vote for the referendum was 80% shows that emotional voting, illiberal values, and the paradox of nostalgia and fear can explain the support for Kais Said and his executive aggrandizement. Yet, the support is conditional and contested. Tunisians have not given up on key democratic practices. Also, elites’ divergent understandings of democracy contribute to complacency with executive aggrandizement and fragmentation of the oppositions.
  • Matthew Gordner
    While many cited the robustness of Tunisia's civil society as a key factor in building a new democratic polity, widespread initial support for president Kais Saied's July 25 2021 coup and the weak mobilizations on the street in the weeks following led many academics and analysts to question the role of civil society in forming a bulwark against democratic backsliding and authoritarian return. Leading up to July 25, the repression of social movements like Manich Msemah ("I will not forgive") and Fech Nestanaou ("What are we waiting for"), increasing populist rhetoric including references to "foreign interference" through civic organizations, and a leaked draft law that would return Tunisia's civil society governance approach to a "security first" orientation all constituted significant attacks on associational life. The presumption by students of Tunisia's democratization was that civil society in Tunisia was strong, while in practice significant divisions played out following the 2010-2011 uprisings that militated against a concerted response to Saied's coup. Through a cross-national survey of youth participants in civil society (2016), two actor mapping exercises (2016, 2022), and in-depth interviews with non-profit executives, donors, head-hunters, and political and economic elites (2012-2021), my research examines the impact of international aid on the Tunisian transition. I argue that the NGOization of Tunsia's civil society exacerbated social divisions, leading to widespread distrust between “new” and “old” organizations, a fissure between “secular” and Islamist orientations, and deep regional divides between "interior" regions and the coastal Tunis-Sfax axis. I argue that NGOization in Tunisia had five major effects: First, NGOization diverted responsibility from the state to provide for social welfare as NGOs filled this critical gap in service provision, technical training, and access to basic goods. Second, NGOization caused a diversion of resources away from social movements and into formalized non-profit organizations, leading to a reform-oriented (rather than revolution-oriented) set of claims. Third, NGOization entailed a concentration of funding on issues like migration and deradicalization that the EU and US prioritized, rather than addressing needs-based issues such as socio-economic development and employment. Fourth, the “projectization” of civic space concentrated donor funding in a few major secular and youth-led organizations that were first out the gate, ultimately reproducing regionalism and exacerbated conditions of “multiple marginalization." And fourth, through a lack of donor or governmental oversight and a loose regulatory framework, NGOization led to corruption, misappropriation of funds, and other forms of exploitation and abuse in the industry.
  • Mr. Bedirhan Mutlu
    Co-Authors: Salih Yasun
    Why do party systems continue to remain weak in transitioning countries? We analyze this phenomenon through a case study of Tunisia, which was described as the only success story of the Arab uprisings yet has been experiencing democratic backsliding since President Saied’s presidential coup in 2021. Utilizing an historical institutionalist framework, we propose a dynamic model bridging historical, institutional, and party characteristic related explanations. We conducted interviews with 14 leaders from the major political parties and civil society organizations. We find that the weak party organizations inherited from the authoritarian era could not connect with the masses whereas the segmented institutions, such as the labor union and bureaucracy, hindered initiating reforms. Clientele expectations remained prominent among the masses while the scarcity of public funding weakened the parties or forced to bargain with business lobbies. The disagreements within non-Islamist parties about cooperating with the Islamist Ennahda contributed to splinter movements, which was further encouraged by an electoral law that rewarded small parties. Our findings contribute to the debates on party weakness in new democracies.
  • Ihsan Mejdi
    Over the last decade, and despite the socio-economic challenges, Tunisia’s transition to democracy remained in progress. In July 2021, however, the north African country’s nascent democracy faced a serious political crisis following a series of drastic measures taken by the president Kais Saied. The measures consisted mainly of the reshaping of the political system and the drafting of a new constitution. Since 2021 polls have shown public support for Kais Saied and distrust in political parties and elites. Though distrust in political elites or consecutive governments since 2011 is not new, and it has been reflecting the sense of the public’s dissatisfaction with decision makers who failed to meet the economic demands of Tunisians, Saied capitalised on it to further consolidate his power and exclude his opponents. Most political parties opposed Saied’s measures considering them a coup which put an end to democratisation in Tunisia. The president’s supporters, however, believe that the decision is a needed corrective measure in line with the ethos of the 2011 revolution. Saied was perceived both as ‘revolutionary’ and inqilebi (coup leader). In this paper I draw on my ethnographic fieldwork conducted in southwest Tunisia during the December 2022 legislative elections. I specifically examine the discourses and practices of candidates during electoral campaigns to show how the ongoing changes at the state level in Tunisia (Saied’s newly introduced electoral law, for instance) reconfigure local politics and redefine it along the lines of arouchiya (kinship relations).