Visibly, and with very little pretence, Tunisia is sliding into tyranny. In the last two years, its president, Kais Saied, has frozen and dissolved the country’s parliament, and threatened its former members with prosecution. He has dismissed an errant prime minister. He has ruled by decree. He has quashed the high judicial body attempting to scrutinise his changes to the constitution, and replaced it with a new organisation filled with hand-picked appointees.
Accusing his opponents of planning their own coup attempt, Saied has faced down months of protests over each of these individual changes with uncommon steeliness.
Saied’s hold over the instruments of government, and his comradery with the brass of the army, appears near total. Many Tunisians are now sure that, as last month ended, their country once again became a dictatorship.
Naturally, it was not meant to go like this. Saied was elected in 2019, winning a landslide. He was a professor of constitutional law once, and while many hoped this would keep him rigidly within its bounds, in fact it increased his intolerance for what he considered constitutional obstructions to necessary reform – and the building of his own power. Ironic perhaps, but many would-be constitutional vandals the world over are, or pose as, lawyers and professors.
Saied now acts more like Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela than a professor or ordinary politician. If a legislature stands in his way, it is dissolved. If a court contradicts his judgement, it is illegitimate and must be overawed.
The Tunisian constitution was a new and precious thing: it came after the ousting of the country’s long-term tyrant, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the first head claimed by the Arab Spring in 2011. Political parties have jockeyed for the past decade for the mantle of the revolution. Now Saied appears to have upset the ship of state – and moved the Arab Spring’s most definite success onto the path to one-man rule.
If you live in Europe or the Americas, it’s possible you’ve not heard about any of this. Only a few years ago, Tunisia and its successes were all the rage. In 2015, while the Syrian civil war was being bloodily waged at its highest intensity, an institution called the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was given the most gaudy of baubles, the Nobel Peace Prize. The Quartet was the shepherd of the new constitution, which is now overturned.
Its members are the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT); the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA); the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH); and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. Each have, in their own way, critiqued Saied’s behaviour of late. But none have marshalled the forces to stop him.
America is, as is usual, busy with its own neuroses and plans. Tunisia is not a pressing concern, easily forgotten. But the silence in Europe over the degeneration of a neighbour into tyranny is somewhat stilted and forced.
In France, Emmanuel Macron, has recently received Tunisia’s president. Macron spoke to Saied at the end of last year, as the new tyranny was quite clearly taking shape, and was apparently assured that ‘national dialogue’ would continue, even as Parliament was suspended and opponents of the president threatened with jail.
European countries including France, significantly, are members of numerous intergovernmental bodies that also feature Tunisia. I won’t bore you with the details, but these groups have names like the Summit of the Two Shores, and so on. They bring together Mediterranean states. Nominally, the summits are meant to address poverty and other political and economic gripes on the southern Mediterranean. But in practice, they give rein to European anxieties – chiefly ‘instability’ in all its forms, and migration.
For years now, European states have worried themselves sick about migration. They have agreed collectively that the migrant crises which followed the Syrian civil war, and the Mediterranean exodus in 2015, must never be repeated.
The plan they hatched to achieve this is worth spelling out. European states now actively support partisan warlords and friendly dictators on the Mediterranean shore, which only ten years ago their governments sought to democratise.
Retired Field Marshal Sisi in Egypt is a valued friend. In Libya, that honour goes to a warlord, Field Marshal Haftar. General Aoun in Lebanon, a former commander of the nation’s armed forces – and a member of the creed permitted to hold the office of president – is another. Perhaps soon the same distinction will be conferred on Saied, a man who for the moment does not hold rank. There’s a religious dimension to this, at least in part. The generals pretend to be secular, and the Europeans pretend to believe them.
The Europeans’ theory is that strongmen keep migrants from boarding boats. It’s about that sophisticated, and therefore wrong. And often it means not only supporting unpleasant men; it means backing losing horses in the pursuit of personal quarrels.
In Libya, for example, France has found itself supporting Haftar’s failed offensives alongside the UAE and Russia. It has meant Macron launching fatwahs of his own (alongside Haftar’s jihad) against President Erdogan of Turkey, whom he considers to be the destabiliser sine qua non.
And now it means sitting back as Saied guts Tunisia’s constitution and installs himself as constitutional-lawyer-for-life.
Tunisia was a success story. It was a country which managed to oust its dictator without mass killing and to build a new constitution over years which was broadly accepted and internationally acclaimed.
All this is now at risk. Ordinarily, some among the democracies might have said something. But now, distracted by other things, beholden to a certain idea of Europe, they do not resist a Maduro on the Mediterranean. They will live to regret it in the end.
This piece was originally published in Spectator World