Tunisia’s Popular Authoritarian
Jon Alterman: Monica Marks is professor of Middle East politics at NYU Abu Dhabi. Prior to joining NYU, she was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She received her Ph.D from St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Monica, welcome to Babel.
Monica Marks: I'm so happy to be here.
Jon Alterman: When did you first hear the name Kais Saied? You were living in Tunisia as an academic starting in 2011. When did his name first reach your attention?
Monica Marks: I first started hearing the name Kais Saied in the early years after the revolution, as the newly elected constituent assembly began debating various constitutional articles. Kais Saied was sometimes interviewed by local newspapers about the constitutional drafting process because he had a background as a constitutional professor, but nobody I can remember ever thought, “hey, this guy might someday run to become president,” or that he could make a coup attempt and potentially derail Tunisian democracy.
Jon Alterman: Did it surprise you at the end of July when he did suspend the parliament?
Monica Marks: It did surprise me, and I think it surprised almost everyone, regardless of how closely they had been watching Tunisian politics. He had a very populist discourse, making sweeping generalizations that demonized all parties on Tunisia’s political landscape. To be clear, Tunisian political parties have not been very popular for the past couple of years. That's largely because of the stasis, the paralysis in parliament, and the perception that things are only getting worse for everyday Tunisians on a socio-economic level. Kais Saied would use this very sweeping language to demonize all parties, so folks who really had their ears smashed up against the ground are a lot less surprised. But, I think even they didn't expect that he would go this far that quickly, and then all at once.
Jon Alterman: You mentioned that there was a lot of hostility to parliament, and it seems a lot of hostility was because of a widespread perception that parliament wasn't performing very well. It wasn't performing very well economically. It wasn't performing very well in response to Covid. Why do you think that the parliamentary system—in which so many people had so much hope as a new way to govern Tunisia when Tunisia had difficult governance problems—wasn't up to the task of fixing them?
Monica Marks: Since 2015, parliament has been locked in a cycle of elite level bargaining, where its main concern has been preserving a careful political alliance that used to be called the Carthage agreement—which was when Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes found a temporary solution to their political problems back in 2016. That agreement in the years since 2016 has really deteriorated, so there's been a constant attempt to work out a form of bargaining that allows the parties to basically avoid taking real accountability. I almost think of Tunisia and political parties as a bunch of sailors who are somehow chained together on a ship, and when the ship takes on water almost all of them suffer simultaneously because almost all of them have been involved in government. So, it's almost as if the buck never stops anywhere. Since the 2019 elections, this problem has become much worse because a number of actors that got elected in 2019—including Kais Saied himself—really played on popular discontent and have sometimes acted as spoilers to the process, throwing additional wrenches in the works of this already very problematic machinery. Kais Saied has often been part of the very problems that he blames unilaterally on Tunisian political parties. I think it should also be pointed out that parties, including Ennahda, have often been more concerned with preserving elite positions in politics for their own leaders than with really advancing a concrete agenda for the Tunisian public.
Compounding all of these problems is the fact that Tunisia has dealt with deep structural obstacles for the entirety of the transition. Some of those structural problems—like youth unemployment, widespread corruption which has got more diffuse after the revolution, a mismatch between the skills that graduates have and what employers need, regional disparities—existed even before the revolution, and they haven't really gotten better. Solving them really requires serious cooperation and serious forward thinking vision on the part of Tunisian political parties and other actors, and I think we've just seen more kind of ad hoc elite bargaining than real forward thinking cooperation to solve those problems.
Jon Alterman: You remember, and I remember, there was tremendous enthusiasm in 2011 that democracy was going to be the answer to decades of autocracy in Tunisia, and that it would provide better outcomes. Is there any remaining enthusiasm for democracy in Tunisia? What is their enthusiasm for democracy in the country?
Monica Marks: One editorial line that I saw in some of the think pieces that came out in the initial week of the July 25 announcement—coalescing all three branches of power in Kais Saied’s hands—was this notion that Tunisians somehow don't want democracy, nor did they ever want democracy or were genuinely committed to this. The subtext was almost: have we in the West been duped? Were we wrong to believe? I really want to caution against that because I think for a lot of Tunisians, one of the reasons why they were primed for that July 25 announcement and quite positive about Kais Saied’s potential to reinvigorate politics in Tunisia is because they were so disillusioned by how things were going that they didn't see anything else really delivering for them. The only tangible fruits of the revolution were freedom of expression, and that's not edible.
They didn't see parties really competing and putting forward representative programs, so there was a section of the Tunisian public for whom Kais Saied’s actions on July 25 were an opportunity to actually resurrect Tunisia’s democratic process, somehow. Kais Saied came to that occasion promising a radical rethinking of government, giving people more direct representation than they ever had to basically restructure government to increase local representation. That really inspired a lot of people. Not many people at all in Tunisia have been sad to see the political parties that were in parliament shut out, but this notion that the entirety of the Tunisian electorate has somehow turned their back on democracy is wrong. I actually think one of the most tragic things about the current situation in Tunisia is that so many people hope that Kais Saied can bring them a more representative form of government, and it's a hope, born of desperation.
Jon Alterman: There also is this issue that you have a leader who is remarkably popular, and a parliament that is remarkably unpopular. If you took a vote, you could argue that the vote would very much be in Saied’s favor and that as a leader who enjoys that confidence of the overwhelming majority of his population, that that's not undemocratic. It's when you have a leader who doesn't enjoy the confidence of his population that it's undemocratic. How do we think about the problem of leaders who aren't elected, but who have the overwhelming endorsement of the bulk of their populations?
Monica Marks: I think one of the really important questions is how do you measure that endorsement? How do you measure their support? Right now, in Tunisia we've had a smattering of opinion polls—none of which, I think, have been very reliably conducted. A lot of them have been conducted by telephone. We know that since July 25 in Tunisia, people are unlikely to tell you what they actually think about politics, via the telephone, especially if they have a critique of Kais Saied. Still, even if we say that Kais Saied has 98 percent of support—none of the polls have shown him that high, but let's say that he does—you have to think about creating a system of government that has sustainable checks and balances moving forward. Tunisia is a country that has experimented more than most with so-called “enlightened autocracy” under the years of Habib Bourguiba—who ruled the country from 1956 until he was deposed by a medical coup in 1987. Bourguiba, especially in his early years, was kind of the poster boy for enlightened autocracy. He arguably had a lot of support, but what do you do when the leader starts making decisions that are born of corrupt personal interest or marginalized large swathes of the population, silence a lot of potentially critical voices, and silence the press? Those are all things that Bourguiba ended up doing, so even in the best of circumstances a popular enlightened despot is not a sustainable form of government. Right now, under Kais Saied, we are far from having the best of circumstances.
We're almost two months into Kais Saied’s one-man rule—in which there are no checks and balances whatsoever. Tunisia, since July 25 of this year, has effectively been a dictatorship, not a democracy, because all the powers are concentrated in one man's hands. He hasn't named a government yet. Since the first week after his announcement, it became very clear very quickly—within just days—that voices of dissent were likely to be marginalized or silenced. Even if a very strong majority—90 percent plus of Tunisians—think and feel that a kind of populist majoritarian, illiberal autocracy is okay, that doesn't change the fact that it's an autocracy. You don't get to then claim that this autocratic form of government is in any way democratic or representative.
Jon Alterman: Everything I've read about Kais Saied suggests that he's an improbable populist leader. He's a constitutional law professor who speaks very formal Arabic. He seems to have a hobby of writing in Maghrabi calligraphy. He comes across as stiff. What's the appeal to the ordinary Tunisian of somebody who seems very academic and other worldly?
Monica Marks: That to me is one of the great riddles of understanding this current moment in Tunisian politics. He's the opposite of a charismatic leader, yet some of the steps he's taken are steps that we would associate with a charismatic leader My read on this is that most Tunisians are more disillusioned with the political paralysis that has seeped into government, especially since 2019. They’re more disillusioned with that than they are excited for Kais Saied. Kais Saied, to the extent that he excited Tunisians, does so because he seems like an alternative. He seems like a change figure right now, and that has a lot to do with how shaabi he seems. Shaabi in Arabic has this idea of: you hang out in popular neighborhoods; you get your coffee from the same old unpretentious hole in the wall that you always went to. He does things like that. That connects with a lot of people. He seems, I think, to a lot of people as really not bending—not caving—into elites. Kais Saied is, in fact, a big anti-corruption campaigner, and it seems, by all accounts—even from his detractors—that he's pretty genuine about that. He has this tendency to malign the entirety of Tunisia’s political class as all being corrupt—all being malevolent—and painting himself as a kind of savior who is reliable different and will not back down. If you're really upset at everything that you've seen so far, reliably different might sound appealing—even if it's leading you to nowhere or in a direction that you can’t clearly see.
Jon Alterman: Tunisia has debt problems. Tunisia has economic problems. Tunisia has health problems. What role are international donors and international institutions playing now? What role do you think international donors and institutions should be playing in the next six months—and next year—in Tunisia?
Monica Marks: I think international donors are cognizant of the landmines that wait. They need to be true to their own principles and interest and objectives, while also not violating the humanitarian interest of Tunisians or being seen as violating Tunisia’s sovereignty. That's very important. As time goes by with every passing week and month passing without any kind of roadmap back to a democratic path or representative form of government, it becomes harder for international partners—be they Western democracies or aid organizations tied to the interests of Western democracies—to make the case that Tunisia is the first and only democracy in the Arab world. It clearly has not been since July 25. It becomes harder to see a lot of hope in this situation if one of your interest or objectives is in preserving a representative form of government—or potentially recreating it in Tunisia.
I can't really describe to you the return of fear and what that felt like for me having done research and interviews in Tunisia since 2011 and before 2011. There were elements of conversations with people there in July and August that really reminded me of the Ben Ali time. For example, people didn't want to discuss politics outside. I would often run into the situation of asking people one or two questions at a café—either on or off the record—and they’d lean over and whisper, “you know Monica, maybe we should go to my house or my office.” There was a lot of not this wanting to talk about politics on the phone, a lot of self-censorship, and a lot of fear—at least amongst people who are more critical of Kais Saied, or people who really remember what the Ben Ali years felt like. All of this has the very discouraging effect on I think a lot of international partners, whose enthusiasm for working with Tunisia has had a lot to do with the fact that it's the Arab world’s first and only democracy.
I think ultimately, it's quite likely that the biggest threat to Kais Saied’s rule in Tunisia vis-a-vis Western donors or Western governments will come more because he seems like a force of unpredictability. He seems like a person who's going to bring a lot of economic entropy to an already incredibly fragile economic situation, but Western democracies have to be careful here. In the rhetoric of Kais Saied and his supporters, there's sometimes a very troubling, almost unifocal, obsession with the role of the outside world. There’s the notion that the outside world has always been against Kais Saied somehow, or against his supporters and what they’re trying to do. I think a risk in all of this for Western actors is that they don't feed into it. The biggest threat to his power and the sustainability of it is domestic, and it has everything to do with people's expectations. There is a gigantic mismatch now between Tunisians expectations and the reality of what Kais Saied can deliver. A lot of Tunisians I spoke to in poor neighborhoods of the capital had really high expectations for Kais Saied. They would tell me things like, “you know, maybe he's going to redistribute the money of these rich business people and actually give it to us,”—kind of like a modern day Robin Hood. I also heard people say things like, “I believe Kais is going to get the police off my back or off my son's back.” I don't know what concretely he has said to make anybody think that, but there's a lot of projecting. Bill Lawrence, an analyst in Washington D.C., has called it the “Christmas tree effect.” There's a lot of Christmas tree effect going on, where you hang all of your wishes on Kais Saied. The expectations in Tunis in July and last month reminded me of how high the expectations were right after the revolution. The one big difference, though, is that now expectations tend to be framed negatively, so a lot of people want to see others hurting as much as they're hurting. This is very dangerous. There are very high expectations framed in a negative, almost retaliatory and punitive, kind of way.
It could go in one of a couple directions. I think if Kais Saied gets to protest season in Tunisia—which traditionally is in the winter, in December and January—and people are still hurting as much economically as they are now and there's no clear agenda, it's very likely that they're going to turn on him. The alternative, another potential scenario that's maybe more frightening is Kais Saied shielding himself from the anger of the people by throwing them more red meat and by finding more enemies of the people—more corrupt, malevolent forces that he can then make examples of. I think in this situation, throwing very condemnatory language into the situation risks playing into the hand of a local populist who quite probably wants to play outside forces. At the same time, there comes a point where governments have to operate on a vocabulary that matches reality, and since July 25 the word democracy has not matched Tunisian reality.
Jon Alterman: You’ve been going back and forth to Tunisia for much of 15 years. I'm sure there have been moments of despair and moments of exultation. How optimistic or how pessimistic are you about where Tunisia will be in three years, based on what you're seeing now? Is it your sense that things are going to get much better? Will things get much worse? Or will things largely muddle along?
Monica Marks: I'm pessimistic. I wish I could say otherwise. I've never been as deeply concerned about the direction Tunisia’s heading since the revolution. We've seen major political crises unfold during this past decade of transition in Tunisia. The one that springs to most people's minds first is the 2013 Bardo crisis that was ultimately resolved with the help of a Nobel Peace Prize winning quartet of Tunisian civil society organizations. It looked like Tunisia was on the precipice back then, and they clawed themselves back through negotiation and dialogue. Tunisia has quite a history of doing this. Edging up to the precipice and clawing their way back through negotiation and dialogue. Since July 25, there has been precious little negotiation and dialogue, and none of it includes Kais Saied himself—the one person in the country who holds all the power in his hands, essentially. There have been some percolating conversations amongst Tunisian civil society actors but nothing approaching getting the old Nobel Peace Prize winning quartet—the trade union (UGTT), the employers association, the Tunisian League of Human Rights, and the Bar Association—back together again. You know, a lot of people are wondering, “will the old band get back together again?” The answer, so far, is not really. It's been almost two months. It's hard for me to believe that Tunisia is going to emerge from this anytime soon, or with anything that isn't substantially worse than the political paralysis and infighting that it experienced before July 25—which very understandably made many people extremely upset and primed for Kais Saied’s action.
Key democratic norms in Tunisia norms that were young and just in the process of concretizing have been demolished, for the time being, by Kais Saied. What concerns me more than anything is the economy. The economy, more than anything, lead Tunisians to the point of despair, where they found themselves on July 25 and they've remained at that point. Kais Saied has unveiled nothing approaching an economic plan. I think that even with the very best-case scenario—if he came out with a wonderful economic plan now and path back to elected representative form of government that would somehow be more efficient and solve all these problems—would still have at least a full year of intense capital fear and capital flight from Tunisia. That would be based on the actions that Kais Saied took in the first few weeks after the July 25 announcement, making Tunisia a country where businesspeople feel uniformly demonized as corrupt malevolent actors. You can only imagine that people who have much money and options right now are looking for any way. They’re looking to hedge—to get some other money outside of Tunisia. Even people I know who have nothing to do with businesspeople who are technocrats, academics, or civil society nerds—have told me off the record, “you know, Monica I labored for 10 years in this country. I really believed. I really hoped, but now let me know if you hear about a job opening.” That is extremely
disheartening to see. You have a number of highly intelligent Tunisians now starting to vote with their feet, and Tunisia needs those people. Tunisia can't afford to have more of a brain drain—or a financial drain—that it already has. I wish that I could tell you, Jon, that I'm more hopeful, but I don't see a single reason for hope since July 25. I think what initially looked like a very deeply concerning moment for democracy has turned into not just a trickle but an entire parade of red flags.
A lot of the young people that I spoke to in Tunisia did not share my pessimism. Some even called it cynicism about the current situation. One common refrain that I heard again and again from Tunisian young people was the sense that we are going to go out on the street and get rid of this guy the second that he shows signs of being a dictator. I think he's already showed shown a number of signs that are dictatorial, but in my heart, I want to believe in what these young Tunisians are telling me. As you can imagine 2011 was one of the most inspiring moments I've ever seen. I'll never forget the day that the constitution passed in January 2014— there really wasn't a dry eye in the house—but I don't think this vision is realistic. A lot of teens and young people have a vision of Tunisia—of the Tunisian people—as this kind of Teflon-proof super race that is somehow completely inoculated against dictatorship because of their experience toppling Ben Ali. There’s this idea that they toppled one dictator, so they can do it again and that the West has no business being concerned about Tunisia. I sympathize with it very deeply, but never in human history has there been a group of people who are fully inoculated against the reemergence of dictatorship. There are always ladders down. Kais Saied has reminded me of a cat stuck in a high tree and everybody's trying to hand him a ladder. It seems quite clear now going on two months that he doesn't want to get down. I think wherever we land—if we're lucky enough to get ladders down from the situation—is going to be lower
than we started, unfortunately. We're going to have the expectation problem to deal with. I don't think the prognosis looks good any way you slice it, but I hope that changes. I hope more than anything that I'm wrong.
Jon Alterman: Despite a dark outlook, we’ll continue to hope. Monica Marks, thank you very much for joining us.