The 21st century’s boldest democratic experiment is faltering. On it hinge the hopes of the world’s aspiring democracies.
The celebrations on the streets were familiar, with people waving flags, honking horns and shouting slogans. This is how Tunisia’s cities looked in early 2011 when the Jasmine Revolution forced the country’s autocratic leader Zine El Abedine Ben Ali to flee the country after 23 years in power.
The protest movement against Ben Ali was the opening shot of the Arab Spring that would spread across the region, spanning the Middle East and North Africa, eventually bringing democracy to Tunisia.
But the scenes on Sunday night in Tunis, the country’s capital, weren’t a celebration of democracy. Tunisian President Kais Saied had dismissed the country’s elected government and suspended parliament amid public protests against corruption and the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those on the streets were rejoicing over the ouster of that government — not through an election, but by the executive decision of the president.
Since then, Saied has doubled down on his power grab, enforcing a curfew and rejecting growing concerns that he had effectively orchestrated a coup. Tunisia, after all, has a history of such bloodless takeovers. Ben Ali, the prime minister in 1987, himself had assumed the presidency by getting doctors to declare then-President Habib Bourguiba medically unfit to rule. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Saied on Monday, asking him to “adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights that are the basis of governance in Tunisia,” according to a State Department statement.
But Saied’s move will echo well beyond Tunisia, across the world wherever autocrats are in power or where fledgling democracies are trying to fight off attempts at dictatorship.
The Arab Spring that dawned in Tunisia also saw the downfall of dictators in Egypt and Libya. It sparked similar movements for change in Syria, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. That spring turned to winter in most nations, with a fresh dictatorship in Egypt, seemingly never-ending wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, and brutal crackdowns in Bahrain and the UAE.
But Tunisia bucked the trend, establishing a modern democracy that over the past 10 years has birthed a vibrant movement for women’s rights while also emerging as Africa’s most attractive hub for startups. And even though the other revolutions of 2011 fizzled out, Tunisia has since served as a model for fresh movements, with massive citizens’ protests deposing despots in Sudan and Algeria in 2019.
And it’s not just its neighborhood. In many ways, Tunisia represents the world’s boldest democratic experiment of the 21st century so far, much as South Africa’s post-apartheid transition in 1994 served as a global beacon of hope for an earlier generation. Tunisia brought in a new constitution and has held two national elections since 2011, including a peaceful transfer of power in 2019.
Many of us live in countries where we take these basic elements of governance for granted. But the edifice of democracy is fragile — and not just in the developing world. From France to Brazil and from South Korea to Greece, some of the world’s biggest and most advanced nations have witnessed coups over the past six decades, leading to the suspension of democracy for periods ranging from a few years to decades. The U.S. witnessed an attempt at an insurrection in January.
That is what makes Tunisia’s stumble particularly worrying. For individual political leaders to seek more power for themselves is not surprising. Institutions of democracy must be built to guard against those instincts.
But there’s no greater force than the will of the people. Does the outpouring of support for Saied’s move mean that Tunisians are so fed up with the levels of misgovernance and corruption in the country that they’re willing to set aside the democratic gains they fought for a decade ago?
For authoritarian administrations that promise law and order in exchange for the denial of civil liberties, the latest developments in Tunisia will serve to bolster their fundamental argument — that it’s the people who prefer their rule to living in messy democracies. To repressive regimes — including many in the Middle East — a failure of Tunisia’s experiment will be used to remind those seeking change that democracy isn’t the panacea they think it is.
And for committed activists on the front lines of the fight against these governments, the collapse of the Tunisian dream robs them of an example to look up to and to cite to those unsure of whether change is indeed possible.
Still, there’s hope. The same Tunisian protesters who brought down Ben Ali and instituted democracy and have now forced the resignation of their prime minister are unlikely to put up with dictatorial edicts from a new leader for too long. If Saied does not commit himself to Tunisia’s democracy, including fresh elections soon, don’t be surprised if the public mood turns against him swiftly.
Ordinary Tunisians now know their power. The world will hope they use it to hold Saied and anyone else who tries to undermine democracy to account. Tunisia could yet herald a new spring.