Tunisians go to polls in election set to cement rule of strongman president

Tunisians return to the polls on Saturday, 11 years to the day since a vendor’s self-immolation sparked the fall of their ruling tyrant and triggered a wave of popular revolts across north Africa and the Middle East.

In the troubled decade since, other regional states that once cracked under the strain of popular revolts have been increasingly smothered by counterrevolutions that clawed back civic gains and political freedoms championed by their citizens.

Although Tunisia was the only nation to emerge from the Arab spring protests with a democratic government, there are fears that Saturday’s election will cap its dalliance with democracy and cement the return of strongman rule.

The current president, Kais Saied, who in July last year ousted Tunisia’s ruling government and has since revamped the constitution to give himself largely unfettered powers, is exected to preside over a new legislature with little aegis, and weakened political parties.

That the elections fall on the anniversary of Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself alight to protest against his treatment at the hands of the authorities is highly symbolic, and brings down the curtain on an era that came to be known as the Arab spring – in the place where it all began.

Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, has revamped the constitution. Photograph: Johanna Geron/AP

Opposition groups and the main political parties have said they will boycott the vote, calling it undemocratic and a fig leaf of legitimacy for a power grab that would shred hard-won freedoms.

Nejib Chebbi, head of an anti-Saied coalition including the Islamist Ennahda party, said the election, which is taking place during an economic crisis that is fuelling poverty, amounted to a “a still-born farce”.

Saied, however, says a referendum held on constitutional reform in July provided a mandate to push through the changes and claims that Tunisians are seeking political certainty after a decade of stumbling and often crumbling democracy.

“Tunisia is the last domino to fall in the region,” said Hamish Kinnear, Middle East and north Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft. “Looking forward, however, nothing is inevitable. Saied may be dominant now – but could face heavy domestic opposition to his plans to introduce structural economic reforms.”

For the time being, however, those who support Tunisia’s new strongman appear to gravitate to the certainty that he offers.

“What made Saied popular, and fortified his presidential powers, is that Tunisians had lost patience with their elected leaders as they watched nine successive governments in 10 years issue big promises and consistently falter, particularly on the economic front,” said Prof Safwan Masri, dean of Georgetown University in Qatar and author of Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly. “But the economic situation has not improved under Saied, and his popularity, always shallow, has been waning.”

Tunisian demonstrators take part in a rally in Tunis last week against the president, Kais Saied.
Tunisian demonstrators take part in a rally in the capital last week against the president. Photograph: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

In nearby Egypt – whose leadership supported Saied’s grab for power – a revolution ignited by the ousting of Tunisia’s Zine Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 has long since reverted to the type of oppressive state rule that characterised the era of its long-ruling tyrant, Hosni Mubarak. Alhough Egypt’s revolutionaries were among the loudest and largest in the region, their quest to forge a political ecosystem in which citizens shaped their destinies was largely swamped by a resurgent police state that seized on the failings of the short-lived government of Mohamed Morsi, who was forced from office and jailed in 2013.

“Forging democracy from the rubble of authoritarian states is a herculean task,” cautioned Kinnear. “Hosni Mubarak may have been swept aside in a popular revolution and replaced with an elected leader, but other parts of the old regime – such as the military – remained intact and later helped to restore authoritarian rule. Democracy remains fragile even once it is established.”

Masri said the jury remained out on whether Tunisia could still succeed in its democratic experiment. “The social bedrock of democratic Tunisia – its strong civil society and labour movement, along with its commitment to women’s rights and the visible role women play in public life – cannot be overlooked. As tempting as it is to look at all countries in the region through the same prism, that can be quite misleading. The situation is quite different than it is, say, in Egypt, where the army and labour movement have inverse strengths compared to Tunisia.”

HA Hellyer, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the election would not necessarily mark the end of an era. “The post-2011 era has seen revolution and counterrevolution, but not a final chapter by any means. What we’re seeing are cycles that keep on unfolding, where populations insist on pushing, and then retreating, and status quo systems try to manage. Kais Saied is another note in the story in that regard, but I don’t think he’s crystalised anything yet.”

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