The EU must act to keep Tunisia on the path to democratic transition

In the birthplace of the Arab spring the great hope for a Tunisian democracy dies in the darkness as President Kais Saied completes the final stage of his evolution to repressive tyrant
Thousands of protesters have marched against the seizure of near total power by Tunisian president Kais Saied | Photo: Alamy

By Tarek Megerisi

Tarek Megerisi is a senior policy fellow with the North Africa and Middle East programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations

29 Mar 2023

The early 2010s was a heady time for Brussels and the spread of so-called “European values” in its neighbourhood. Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab spring, represented the crest of a democratising wave, while the Euro-maidan protests in Ukraine showcased the irrepressibility of the European promise. 

Now these values are under fire in Ukraine, with the European Union invoking them to drive the defence of the country from Russia’s invasion. In the south, the great hope for a Tunisian democracy dies in the darkness. 

Tunisia’s President, Kais Saied, the curmudgeonly constitutional law professor turned populist, is completing the final stage of his evolution to repressive tyrant, which could result in grave consequences for Tunisia and Europe alike.  

Tired of political gridlock and a failing economy, many Tunisians initially supported Saied’s power-grab. Some Europeans also welcomed it, clinging to the belief that a strongman would be useful in managing migration, as well as other EU interests.  

As it turns out, empowering a truculent personality with no experience of public administration to become an autocrat was not a wise route to stability and reform. 

Having taken a convoluted path to autocracy, involving a constitutional reform process to dilute the powers of parliament and the judiciary while strengthening his own, and parliamentary elections with embarrassingly low turnouts, Saied is now out of ideas as Tunisia’s economy and administration fail exponentially.  

The humiliating response to his pet political project and his intolerance for dissent has triggered a startling arrest campaign of more than 50 politicians, businesspeople, trade unionists, judges and media personalities in recent weeks.

Worse, he publicly ordered his interior ministry to ignore all due process in punishing those arrested as “traitors” and “terrorists”. 

Meanwhile, he is avoiding economic reform, clinging instead to conspiracy theories that blame his critics and speculators for all problems. In a desperate deflection tactic, he has embraced a Tunisian version of the right-wing “great replacement theory”, prompting a racist crackdown on Black Africans living in and migrating through the country.

In addition to large police sweeps, there has been a shocking rise in vigilante violence against these communities. 

When faced with criticism from western countries that once backed him and which continue to keep Tunisia afloat, Saied has essentially branded these detractors as neo-colonialists – an attempt to burnish his populist credentials – while at the same time courting Russia and China.  

Tunisia is approaching a dark place as Saied rules with a mixture of vindictiveness and incompetence. The coming months will inevitably see more destitution, protests and state repression – a recipe for chaos or another coup by a more competent authoritarian. 

This presents a strategic and existential threat for Europe. Yes, Tunisia’s collapse will unleash a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences and predictable problems like migration. But the “European values” so often espoused yet so rarely felt beyond European shores will also be fatally wounded. 

Tunisia is approaching a dark place as Saied rules with a mixture of vindictiveness and incompetence

The crisis in Tunisia is fundamentally a failure to create an accountable government. What the country needs is values-based support.  

Europeans should also be cultivating options for when Saied’s rule becomes untenable. Member States could leverage their close relationships with Tunisian security services and support human rights organisations in their efforts to pursue accountability for recent abuses.  

This should be supplemented by financial assistance to prevent a complete economic collapse. If Tunisia goes bankrupt and food imports cease, the situation could easily become unsalvageable.  

The European Union can help to keep hope alive for the democratic revolution. The other option is to continue doing nothing and give the predatory cynicism of authoritarianism a new foothold on Europe’s southern border, right when the bloc is fighting so hard to push it back in the east.