Leo Siebert on the State of Tunisia’s Democracy
Last summer, “Tunisians had really reached a breaking point in their frustration with the previous government” and welcomed President Kais Saied’s dissolution of parliament, says USIP’s Leo Siebert. But that hope “is now shifting to apprehensiveness that things might not be going in the right direction.”
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Julie Mason: Leo Siebert is the United States Institute of Peace's Tunisia country manager. In this role, he oversees design, implementation and evaluation of USIP's programs in Tunisia, which include community policing, security sector reform, preventing violent extremism, inclusive governance, decentralization, support, and synergizing nonviolent action and peace building approaches. Big lift these days in Tunisia. Leo, good morning.
Leo Siebert: Good morning, Julie. Nice to be with you. Thanks for having me.
Julie Mason: Yeah, it's great to have you. So, take us back in time, to last summer in Tunisia. A lot of drama.
Leo Siebert: Indeed. This was around the 10-year anniversary of Tunisia's revolution, which took place in 2011, which started the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. So that was 2011. Ten years later, last summer, amidst two years of a very difficult pandemic, economic crisis, continuous lockdowns related to the pandemic, travel restrictions, record deaths from the Coronavirus, increasing unrest, police violence, and an economic crisis compounded by the pandemic, Tunisians had really kind of reached a breaking point in their frustration with the previous government of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi.
So, the president, who was elected in 2019 on a platform of anti-corruption and bringing the rule of law back to the state and restoring dignity to the Tunisian people, he took abrupt and dramatic action and froze the parliament, dismissed the prime minister, and set in motion a roadmap to revise Tunisia's constitution and political system. And remember, this is 10 years after a revolution where they had just revised their political system and instituted democracy. But he had argued that the democracy that was created after the revolution had been hijacked by the political class and by the elite and had not delivered on the revolutionary demands of the people for freedom, for justice, for dignity.
And so, his claims and his actions last summer really resonated with the people. And he's had a lot of support for these actions. However, more recently, there's growing concern that he is not interested in democracy and is interested in installing himself as a new kind of authoritarian figure, similar to previous dictatorships that Tunisia has had to grapple with.
Julie Mason: It reminds me a lot of Erdogan, you know, talking up a big game, and then like, you know, kind of shifting a little bit and going a little more hardcore authoritarian.
Leo Siebert: Indeed, yeah, there's, you know, growing concern within Tunisia that all of the kind of jubilation last summer, when he froze the parliament and announced this big kind of political reform project, all of that jubilation is now shifting to kind of apprehensiveness and fear that things may not be going in the right direction in Tunisia.
Julie Mason: So, this new president, Kais Saied. Is that how you say his name?
Leo Siebert: Yep. Saied, yep.
Julie Mason: Kais Saied, he's a former law professor. And, as you say, it's not really clear what his intentions are, but there are some warning signs.
Leo Siebert: That's exactly right. So, what's very interesting about this president is that he is a political novice. In 2019, it was the first time that he had ever entered politics. And he was elected in a sweeping majority of something like 75 percent of the vote in the second round. Exactly because of that fact, he was seen as someone not part of the political elite, from the outside, who could come in and clean up politics. And having a constitutional law background, being a constitutional law professor, you know, his kind of vision and view on the ills of Tunisia and the problems with what's been happening in the country, and why no one is happy with what's happening in the country over the last 10 years, to him it comes down to the constitution.
He sees that there needs to be a new constitution that restores a strong presidency. His diagnosis of the ills in Tunisia is that the president was made too weak, he had to share power with the prime minister, there was too much power given to the legislative branch, and there were too many power structures and centers of power within the government such that they couldn't function properly. There was no one who could take direct, decisive action and lead the country in the right direction. And he's claiming that he's the one who can do this now.
Julie Mason: That's never reassuring, is it? When someone takes power and then claims that the problem is other people have power and he needs more unto himself?
Leo Siebert: That's exactly right Julie, and that's what Tunisians are very afraid of now. However, there is growing resistance to the president because he's facing two uphill battles, both on the economy and on his political reform project. The economy is in very dire conditions. Debt is at 87 percent of GDP. The country can't afford to fund its national spending, and it needs seven billion dollars in new debt in order to be able to fund its budget. The main funder for Tunisia for loans is the IMF. And the IMF has been reluctant to provide Tunisia with a new loan because Tunisia has not convinced the IMF and the West in general that it is willing to take the difficult painful austerity reforms that are necessary.
Tunisia is dealing with high inflation, prices are skyrocketing, the middle class is disappearing, the poor are getting poorer, and the rich are getting richer. And in this environment, the prospect of increasing austerity, cutting spending, cutting government jobs, freezing government salaries, is untenable to the Tunisian public. And this is what the IMF is demanding. So, this makes the prospects for getting additional loans from the IMF to fund the budget even more challenging. On the other front, the president has this political reform project that he's undertaking, and he's doing so in a unilateral way, as you mentioned. Truly, he's saying, "I'm the only one with a vision to reform the politics of Tunisia, the political system," and he hasn't let other political parties and other parts of Tunisia's kind of power structure – the business community, civil society, other political parties – join in this process to make it inclusive. And so, because of that, political opposition to the president is growing.
And the national labor union, which is very powerful in Tunisia, has been organizing strikes. And just last week, they were able to organize a strike large enough to shut down the entire public sector for one full day. No flights, no trains, no buses, no public services. Just to demonstrate how powerful they still are, and to demonstrate the public's discontent with the president's approach to reforming the political system.
Julie Mason: Well, but Leo, what recourse do the people have, other than just getting really mad?
Leo Siebert: Well, that's exactly the problem, Julie. There are no viable political alternatives at this point. And this is why the president will very likely be able to kind of push through his political project. On July 25, there's a referendum scheduled for a yes or no vote on a new constitution that is by and large, designed and written by him and his team, basically. And while there's growing opposition to the way in which the president is going about reforming the political structure, there is no viable alternative to the president. Political parties are out of favor because of the kind of economic stagnation and malaise of the last 10 years, which the public holds them responsible for. And in this kind of vacuum of a viable opposition, there is very little that the public can do other than organize themselves and, you know, go out in the streets and demonstrate.
But we have to remember that the president is still popular. Despite, you know, the kind of authoritarian approach that he's taking, his rhetoric remains about fighting corruption, about improving all of the problems, dealing with all of the problems, that haven't been dealt with over the last 10 years since the revolution. And Tunisians still want to believe in something, want to have hope that, you know, a better future is possible. And so, many still put their faith in the president. However, I think it's only a matter of time before, you know, opposition continues to grow and the opposition does organize and present some alternatives to the president's plan. It's just a question of when.
Julie Mason: Wow. Leo Siebert, United States Institute of Peace's Tunisia, country manager. Leo, you stay safe there. Thanks for checking in.
Leo Siebert: Thanks, Julie. Nice to be with you. Take care.