12 years after sparking Arab Spring, Tunisia backslides to autocracy ahead of vote


To the outside world, Saturday’s elections in Tunisia raise several red flags.

Many opposition parties are boycotting them, foreign media are banned from talking to candidates and critics say the new electoral law makes it harder for women to compete.

But many Tunisians believe their country’s decade-old democratic revolution has failed, and are exasperated with its political elites. They welcome their increasingly autocratic president’s political reforms and see the vote for a new parliament as a chance to solve their financial crisis.

“The last 10 years have been disastrous for all Tunisians,” said 41-year-old Aymen Yaakoubi, who works as a chef. “It was not a revolution, but a quagmire, because the state disintegrated.”

The elections will take place 12 years to the day after Tunisian vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in an act of protest over economic conditions that sparked the Arab Spring.

Two men in suits are shown, one wearing a COVID-19 mask.
Tunisia’s President Kais Saied is shown on Feb. 17, attending a European Union- African Union summit in Brussels, Belgium. (John Thys/Reuters)

The North African country was the only nation to emerge from the Arab Spring protests with a democratic government, which replaced longtime autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But there’s been much backsliding since.

Parliament last met in July 2021. President Kais Saied then froze the legislature and dismissed his government after years of political deadlock and economic stagnation. He dissolved parliament in March.

He also curbed the independence of the judiciary and weakened parliament’s powers.

Saied — who was elected in 2019 with great fanfare due to his outsider status — still enjoys the backing of more than half of the electorate.

In a referendum in July, Tunisians approved a constitution that hands broad executive powers to the president. Saied, who spearheaded the project and wrote the text himself, made full use of the mandate in September, changing the electoral law to diminish the role of political parties.

Weakening of parties

The new law reduces the number of lower house of parliament members from 217 to 161, who are now to be elected directly instead of via a party list. And lawmakers who “do not fulfil their roles” can be removed if 10 per cent of their constituents lodge a formal request.

Saied’s critics accuse him of an authoritarian drift and of endangering the democratic process.

A person walks past electoral posters on a wall displaying candidates running in the Tunisian national election scheduled for Saturday.
A person walks past electoral posters displaying candidates running in the Tunisian national election scheduled for Saturday. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

Sghaier Zakraoui, like the president himself, is a prominent law professor. He was one of the first to come out in support of Saied’s moves to concentrate power in his own hands. But over the past year, he has changed his mind.

Zakraoui describes Saturday’s polls as a “non-event.” The election is part of the president’s “personal adventure,” he said. “He imposed his constitution and his electoral law, which will lead to a failure of the president.”

Critics say the electoral law reforms have hit women particularly hard. Only 127 women are among the 1,055 candidates running in Saturday’s election.

Neila Zoghlami, president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, said the electoral law “does not meet the aspirations of Tunisian women.” She argued that using lists of individual candidates — instead of party lists — boosts male candidates, because many Tunisians are still reluctant to vote for women.

“We know very well the social and cultural environment in which men dominate,” Zoghlami said. “We are acutely aware that Tunisian or Arab women still suffer from discrimination and inequality before the law.”

Economic strain

Many see Saturday’s vote as a chance to elect a local candidate who will tend to their community’s needs in the national legislature, thus breaking a circle of broken promises from central candidates who care little for their constituents’ fortunes.

“Many candidates came from afar asking [us] to vote for them, and we elected them,” said Faouzia Tlili, 60, who runs a fast-food restaurant in Ariana, a northern suburb of the capital, Tunis.

“They promised to employ our children and repair the roads, and when they became lawmakers, they forgot their promises,” Tlili said. “We want a person from the region who is known to all the inhabitants of the neighbourhood and is close to the citizens.”

LISTEN | From June 2022:

The Current23:58Tunisian president seeks to consolidate power a decade after Arab Spring

During the Arab Spring, Tunisians were excited about the apparent dawn of democracy in their country. But a decade later, that hope is being dashed as the president seeks to consolidate power. We learn more from Ghaya ben Mbarek, a journalist for the independent news site Meshkal; Aya Riahi, an anti-corruption activist with the youth-driven NGO, I-Watch; and Sami Hamdi, the managing director of the global risk and intelligence company International Interest.

Malika Mahfouf, 43, another Ariana resident, said she was more concerned with soaring food prices and shortages of basic goods than with deteriorating rights for women — who she said prove themselves equal to men in the daily battle for survival.

“They both work and they fight, especially in the current situation of economic crisis, which is severe,” Mahfouf said.

With many opposition parties boycotting the polls, including the Salvation Front coalition that the popular Ennahda party is part of, it’s not clear that the elections will lead to the political and economic stability that the president is seeking to create.

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