A Withering Jasmine: Examining Right-Wing Populism in Tunisia

Nathaniel Catlin, Dec 18, 2022

On December 17, 2010, a fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi would set himself on fire after being harassed over his lack of a merchant’s permit and ignored by his local officials when he applied for one [1]. Bouazizi’s self-immolation cemented him in the annals of Tunisian history as a symbol of defiance against the authoritarian Ben-Ali regime that controlled Tunisia for 20 years. It also marked the beginning of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution and the Arab Spring. Ten years later, Bouazizi is no longer a celebrated symbol of freedom that ignited the pursuit of a better tomorrow. Instead, he has been blamed for bringing about a weak democracy that has done little for its people and lacked the depth to weather the tides of authoritarianism once more [2]. 

After an arduous process of drafting legislation, countless protests and riots, and multiple (sometimes violent) changes in power between parties, the Tunisian parliament passed a constitution that turned Tunisia into a democratic republic with a system of proper checks and balances. This delicate process was largely facilitated by The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, which was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize [3]. While it seems as though the West was confident in Tunisia’s progress, widespread corruption and a lack of economic mobility have continued to plague the country well into the late 2010s. In 2016, more than half of Tunisians believed that democracy was linked to political instability or indecisiveness — which is about a 30% increase from their responses to the same question in 2011 [4]. For many Tunisians, it appeared as though the regime change was, alarmingly, nothing more than that. To quote a Tunisian waiter in 2021, “If someone like me stayed stuck in the same situation he was in before, why did we revolt?” [5] 

In order to understand Tunisia’s grievances with democracy before the 2019 presidential election, one must examine its issues with corruption, economic progress, and passing legislation. Under the Ben-Ali regime, corruption was mostly concentrated in the hands of Zine Ben-Ali and his family members, which resulted in them benefitting from 21% of net private sector profits [6]. Instead of disappearing when Ben-Ali and his family fled the country, this corruption became “democratized” or spread out across corporations, families, and people as a result of increased competition over positions of power and the removal of informal constraints on who benefitted from the corruption that was created under the Ben-Ali regime. The most common types of corruption include abuses of political impunity, bribes paid to government officials, and the perpetuation of a malicious informal economy [7]. Moreover, public perception of corruption also remained high despite the revolution and the ratification of the 2014 constitution. In a 2018 report by Afrobarometer, 55% percent of respondents said corruption has increased a lot over the year, whereas in 2015 this number was only 42% [8]. There was also a marked increase in perceived corruption regarding Parliament members and traditional leaders [9]. High levels of actual and perceived corruption paired with Tunisia’s stagnant economy explain why Tunisia was eager to turn over a new leaf even if it meant upending their political organization once more.

Since 2011, Tunisia’s economy has been heavily criticized for its lack of economic improvement regarding poverty and unemployment as well as its staggering interregional disparities. A 2018 World Bank report on Tunisia stated that both the poverty and extreme poverty line have been reduced by negligible amounts over the span of a decade. The report also noted how the Western interior region’s poverty rates were twice the national average [10]. Additionally, unemployment rates for youth and women were relatively unchanged at around 35% and 25%, respectively, while unemployment rates for college graduates remained over 30% [11]. This steady level of poor economic mobility and performance sullied public perceptions about the significance of Tunisia’s democratic gains and reinforced negative sentiments about Tunisia’s short-lived democracy.

Tunisia’s issues with corruption and its economy have remained relatively unchanged because of the political instability that has plagued Tunisia since the Jasmine Revolution. Since Ben-Ali fled the country, there have been 6 different prime ministers, most belonging to separate parties, and three presidents elected under various forms of governance [12]. This perpetual state of political change has made both enforcing current policies and passing new ones exceedingly difficult throughout Tunisia’s time as a democracy. For example, the inefficient management and regulation of Tunisia’s gas, oil, and mining sectors have not been resolved since 2011 [13]. Moreover, the Constitutional Court and Supreme Judicial Council are not yet fully functioning despite being ratified in 2015 and 2016, respectively [14].

 These issues played a crucial role in the discourse and platforms of Tunisia’s 2019 presidential election. The election came down to two candidates: Nabil Karoui, a media multi-millionaire, who campaigned from prison after being convicted of tax fraud and money laundering, and Kais Saied, a law professor who conducted his campaign mainly through social media and door-to-door visits. Both candidates ran on a populist platform that promised to alleviate the economic woes of the people and eradicate the corrupt elites that plagued the government. Saied’s die-hard stance against corruption and widespread support from young voters transformed him from a political dark horse into Tunisia’s second democratically-elected president. On the day of his inauguration, he vowed to “safeguard its permanent institutions'' [15]. 

However, these words would soon prove to be a farce as Saied radically reformed the constitution and refashioned the Tunisian state to achieve his political ends. On July 25, 2021, Saied suspended the Parliament indefinitely, citing Article 80 of the 2014 constitution, and dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in what was eventually considered a coup [16]. This came after months of consolidating power by appropriating responsibilities assigned to other departments, restricting the appointment of ministers, and blocking the creation of the Constitutional Court. After seizing power, Saied appointed his own Supreme Court, began arresting prior political opponents, dismissed nearly all the heads of other ministries, and rewrote the 2014 constitution to install himself as the head of the state after a referendum involving only 25% of eligible voters [17].

While politics have radically changed under Saied, Tunisia’s corruption and crippling economic disparities persisted. Tunisia was hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused its GDP along with construction, transport, and tourism sectors to decline by roughly 50 percent according to a 2020 IFPRI report [18]. While consolidating his political power and ratifying his constitution, Saied has delegated little time towards addressing Tunisia’s interregional disparities, high rates of unemployment, and outstanding debts. This has put him in a difficult position of either choosing an IMF loan that would harm his relationship with trade unions and decrease public subsidies or defaulting on the country’s debt. 

By disbanding the National Anti-Corruption Authority (INLUCC) after a police raid on its headquarters in August 2021, Saied has taken on the sole responsibility of fighting “corruption”. He abused this responsibility to swiftly remove 57 judges whom he accused of “protecting terrorists”, which has further threatened the legitimacy of Tunisia’s already crippled judiciary branch [19]. Recently, Saied has offered amnesty to 400 corrupt businessmen if they agree to fund state projects [20]. This policy contradicts his original hardline stance against corruption and reinforced the suspected ulterior motive behind his unequal treatment of corrupt figures – mainly, the consolidation of power and removal of political opposition. 

Saied’s actions, both on the campaign trail and in office, have a familiar ring to them. His populist platform based on removing corruption and restoring his country to greatness bears striking similarities to other right-wing populist leaders who have been democratically elected. Two political leaders are worth focusing on in particular: President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Former President Donald Trump. At first glance, all three leaders were political dark horses with little experience and a strong social media presence, whether it was by their hands or by their followers. On deeper analysis, the type of populism employed by all three leaders follows a distinct set of methods and objectives as outlined by Panayota Gounari in “Critical Theory and Authoritarian Populism.” 

Part of Gounari’s analysis focuses on how Trump’s election and presidency are tied to authoritarianism through six different methods that have consolidated his power, fractured politics, and delegitimize his political opposition. However, these methods are not exclusive to Trump and can also be applied to right-wing populist leaders in other countries such as Brazil and Tunisia. Considering these political leaders, three methods stand out in particular: the concentration of power, the demonization of a political or social “other” to raise political support, and the leader’s use of rhetoric or theatrics to cement their superiority over their opponents [21]. 

The first method is a consistent pattern across the presidencies of all three leaders. For example, Trump’s use of 220 executive orders to pass conservative policies regarding immigration bans and environmental protections as well as his packing of the Supreme Court are all examples of how he has consolidated political power and subverted the system of checks and balances [22]. Bolsonaro also consolidated power by appointing political and military friends to important cabinet positions and repeatedly dismissing any political opposition when possible, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic [23]. Finally, Saied has been more successful than the prior two in consolidating power for himself and a bit blunter with his approach. Rather than sidestepping executive checks on power, Saied has directly consolidated power by eradicating entire institutions such as the INLUCC, appropriating its powers for himself, and arresting any other threats to his power, such as the 57 judges mentioned earlier. 

While each leader has attacked different “elites'' or groups, they have all used the second method to delegitimize their opposition and sow further hatred within political discourse. For Trump, his anti-elitist rhetoric at political rallies and constant denigration of critical media elite have allowed him to wield the dissatisfaction and fears of his supporters to keep them skeptical about every source of information but himself. This rhetoric played a key role in convincing his supporters of election fraud during the 2020 presidential election. Bolsonaro’s most powerful tool for demonizing his opponents is Operation Car Wash, an enormous criminal investigation that resulted in thousands of arrest warrants ranging from corporate executives to government officials [24]. Bolsonaro has used this investigation to attack any opponents involved in the investigation, such as Former President Lula Da Silva, while also absolving himself of any corruption charge due to his lack of investigation. Similarly, Saied’s constant accusations of corruption are a key component of his political platform and have often been used to justify his consolidation of political power. Moreover, it is also the lens through which he attacks his political opposition and calls into question the legitimacy of critical sources of information – if he has not already dealt with them.

While Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s degree of outspokenness is most similar, each leader has used rhetoric to enforce their intellectual, moral, or virtuous superiority over their opponents. From presidential opponents to reporters, Trump’s record of insulting his opponents is abundant and oftentimes consists of developing a catchy phrase in order to reinforce their incompetence compared to himself. Similarly, Bolsonaro’s brazen jokes, rhetoric, and theatrical use of one-sentence solutions have all been crucial in maintaining an image of strength and superiority compared to reporters, presidential opponents, and other government officials. While lacking in the theatrics of his peers, Saied’s rhetoric has similarly been used to disparage his opponents and affirm his role as a benevolent authoritarian leader. For example, during the election he often talked about why he has been chosen by God to become president, allegedly against his own will, and how those that oppose him needed to be purified of corruption [25]. Additionally, he has used his rhetoric to assure the efficacy of his governing even as it continues to struggle with other issues. 

Despite their vastly different backgrounds and political arenas, the similarities between the actions and platforms of these three populist leaders reveal an alarming global trend for democratic countries, young and old. The biggest difference between Saied and the other two leaders is his success in realizing his authoritarian political aspirations while the other two failed in their respective coups. This has made the path toward strengthening Tunisia’s democracy particularly difficult since the democracy itself does not exist anymore. However, it is worth considering how Tunisia might solve the issues that made it lose faith in democracy before other democracies follow suit.

First, it is important to outline how Tunisia could potentially solve the deadlocks that prevented it from tackling its issues with corruption and the economy. One potential way to solve these deadlocks is by creating or reinstating stronger mechanisms or organizations to aid political agenda-setting and dialogue, which has worked in the past as indicated by the 2015 Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. By cultivating a better environment for policy making, Tunisia can finally resolve the corruption and economic issues that have been exacerbated in the years following the Jasmine Revolution. Regarding corruption, this environment would contribute to the cooperation of Tunisia’s executive and legislative branches in fully appointing and providing resources for the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Judicial Court, which would finally establish a proper judicial branch in its government. With the establishment of the judiciary branch, Tunisia’s anti-corruption laws could be enforced, its constitution could be upheld against future coups and false referendums such as Saied’s, and its citizens would be more confident in their government’s fight against corruption.

Compounded with global inflation in gas and food caused by the war in Ukraine, Tunisia’s economic problems have multiplied in recent years. However, Tunisia can still increase the economic mobility of its economy and reinvigorate it with proper legislation and policies. In the 2022 Systematic Country Diagnostic for Tunisia, the World Bank recommended several provisions for increasing the efficacy and stability of its economy. For example, it recommends strengthening current antitrust agencies and removing vestigial licensing laws from the Ben-Ali regime to reinvigorate competition and innovation amongst Tunisia’s firms [26]. Also, it recommended shoring up interregional disparities by creating better economic networks amongst secondary cities to reach the lagging regions of the interiors [27]. By addressing these issues through proper policy-making, Tunisia can rejuvenate faith in the efficacy and validity of its democracy while also making substantial progress toward solving these issues.

While economic and partisan issues will vary widely across democracies, the relationship between corruption and democracy is far more consistent and must be addressed if countries are to remain democratic. In a 2019 Transparency International report, Dr. Eliska Drapalova examines the adverse effects of corruption on the functioning of democratic countries and advocates for an approach to corruption that is focused more on the enforcement of anti-corruption measures rather than just passing extensive anti-corruption laws [28]. For example, she advocates for stronger judicial autonomy free from the influence of the executive or legislative branch. Also, she points out how enforcement of freedom of the press and protection of whistleblowers are crucial to curbing corruption by offering trusted sources of information and promoting a political environment of accountability. By properly addressing corruption, young and old democracies can eliminate a problem that is slowly eroding their systems of checks and balances, maintain a healthy relationship with their citizens, and prevent populist surges from arising.

Drapalova also notes that citizens tend to abstain from political participation, such as voting when perceptions of corruption are high [29]. A degree of resignation and tiredness plague Tunisia’s current political discussions in a similar manner to those in the United States. Tunisia has shown that democracy often fades away with a whimper rather than a bang. Hopefully, the jasmine flower will blossom once more over the long nights of the Arab Winter.


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