Plato asserted in the Republic that pure democracy, without checks and balances, inherently leads to populism, demagoguery, nativism and contempt for experts. Alexander Hamilton noted a similar tendency in the Federalist Papers, speculating that in the absence of robust institutions and cultural cohesion, populism would culminate in an autocratic putsch and possibly the end of a nascent Republic.Tunisia post-Arab Spring has followed Plato’s and Hamilton’s trajectories to a tee. Tunisia used to be the great hope of the Arab Spring: Francophone, with a robust trade union movement, and imbued with over a hundred and fifty years of constitutionalism. As a result of these advantages and its bloodless transition to genuine multiparty democracy, the West plied it with civil society funding and counterterror assistance. Yet, nearly a decade after a street vendor self-immolated to protest the stifling regulations and corruption of an entrenched oligarchy, both had returned, facilitating the rise of a neo-populist strongman, Kais Saied.
And he has truly cribbed every page from the neopopulist playbook. Like Trump, he attempted a “self-coup”. Unlike Trump, he did so successfully – suspending parliament, changing the constitution, and then promptly sacking dozens of judges. This situation leaves Saied able to jail opponents with reckless abandon, including the winner of the 2012 Chatham House Prize Rached Ghannouchi.
Back in 2019, Saied claimed to be running for President with the sole goal of rooting out the corruption of the political class. As a candidate, he favoured the criminalisation of homosexuality, referring to LGBT people as “deviants”. He has claimed that “the undeclared goal” of illegal immigration is to make Tunisia “a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations”.
Despite being a professor of constitutional law, he suspended the Supreme Judicial Council occasioning the protest of many leading jurists. Saied channels his inner everyman by ranting about the IMF and asserting that its proposed bailout package amounts to Western Imperialism. In response to a Tunisian national guardsman’s attack on Africa’s oldest Synagogue in mid-May which killed two Jewish pilgrims, he dismissed allegations of antisemitism in Tunisia, citing the claim that his own family saved Jews during the Holocaust.
I had come to Tunis at the start of May to speak at a book fair to launch the Arabic translation of my book, Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder. Despite unfortunately possessing a garden variety anti-Western strongman, Tunisia is still a fairly open society with high levels of education and low levels of censorship – only one book was banned; unsurprisingly it was a biography of Saied.
At my hotel, the beautiful Movenpick Gammarth by the ocean, I witnessed a groundskeeper fall from a ladder resting on a palm tree whose fronds he was trying to clip. Tumbling more than 40 feet and wearing no safety equipment, he landed face down and stopped moving. His colleagues rushed over to see what had happened. But no one tried to resuscitate him. They merely stared. Ten minutes later the staff were back to making coffees and arranging the pool deck chairs. When I limped to the reception to demand they call an ambulance, I was told there was no need to worry. It was all under control.
It was nearly an hour before the government’s Civil Security team came to take him away on a stretcher – already dead. The metaphor for Tunisian democracy was all too apt. Too little, too late.
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