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The last Arab Spring democracy is dying
Tunisia, the only democracy to grow from the Arab Spring, is returning to dictatorship. The West, which is congratulating itself on defending democracy in Ukraine, is letting democracy die elsewhere.
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Thirteen years ago, a disgruntled vegetable vendor in central Tunisia lit himself on fire in an act of protest against a corrupt dictator.
From his ashes grew the Arab Spring, a political upheaval that inspired revolutions, toppled governments, and launched civil wars. The violence and bloodshed, many hoped, would fertilize democracy. Instead, a decade later, most Middle Eastern countries remained shackled by their old dictators. Some, such as Egypt, simply swapped one strongman ruler for another.
Only one country – Tunisia – had become a democracy.
Now, the sole surviving Arab Spring democracy is returning to dictatorship. Since his rise to power in late 2019, Tunisia’s authoritarian president, Kais Saied, has been consolidating power, muzzling the free press, and purging his enemies. He has suspended parliament, held sham elections, and rammed through a new constitution. Using the fig leaf of cracking down on corruption, Saied has instead been settling political scores, systematically eliminating his opposition.
In Ukraine, the West is patting itself on the back for defending democracy, as Western allies form closer ties and echo the same pro-democracy rhetoric. But in North Africa, Tunisia’s fragile democracy is being killed off by an aspiring dictator—and nobody seems to care.
For Tunisia’s older pro-democracy reformers who already lived through the brutality of the old dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s return to autocracy feels like déjà vu. Last week, President Saied imprisoned another wave of political opponents, calling them traitors or criminals.
On Monday, police rounded up the 68 year-old prominent opposition figure Said Ferjani, a senior figure in Ennahda, Tunisia’s “Islamic democratic” opposition party. It’s yet another anti-democratic provocation that demands significant international backlash. And it’s urgent, too. Ferjani was reportedly sent to hospital last week after going on hunger strike to protest his illegitimate detention. His family told me they are waiting for news from a lawyer, but have otherwise not heard from him recently.
Ferjani’s personal story, from dictatorship to democracy, and back again, is a parable for Tunisia’s struggles. He now has a pro-democracy badge of honor: of having been imprisoned by two Tunisian autocrats, on either side of the Arab Spring. If the West is serious about supporting democracy everywhere, now is the time to prove it, by pressuring Tunisia to reverse course—and to release these political prisoners immediately.
I first met Ferjani ten years ago, in Tunis. He told me that he had grown up poor, and when times were tough, he became a devout Muslim. That put him at odds with Tunisia’s modernizing political elite, which had made a point of being secular. The dictator Habib Bourguiba even filmed himself sipping orange juice on national television during Ramadan, breaking the required fast and showing that Tunisia’s politics wouldn’t be dictated by Islamic customs.
Ferjani became increasingly disillusioned by the secular strongman. He decided to do something about it, and joined an underground network of Islamic activists and intellectuals.
In 1987, the 84 year-old dictator fell ill. Ferjani and other co-conspirators decided to launch a coup d’état to remove him from power. They set the wheels of their plot in motion, but they had unlucky timing. As they moved to strike, a palace coup took place first—allegedly with the backing of Italy’s intelligence services. Tunisia’s incumbent prime minister, Ben Ali, took power. And one of the first things he did was to arrest and torture Ferjani and the other coup plotters. Ferjani’s torturers put him in what he called a “roasted chicken” position, suspended from a metal pole. They also beat him with an iron rod, fracturing part of his spine. Eighteen months later, he was released.
Ferjani knew that he needed to escape. Wheelchair bound from the torture, he spent countless agonizing hours training himself to walk short distances through the searing pain, so he could get through the airport without attracting attention. Two years after his initial arrest, Ferjani used a borrowed passport to board a plane to London, where he would spend the next two decades in exile.
When the Arab Spring uprooted Ben Ali, Ferjani returned home and helped build a democratic Tunisia. Early in Tunisia’s transition, many who had suffered under the dictatorship sought to use their new power for vengeance.
Ferjani, by contrast, pushed for forgiveness. As much as he loathed those who ordered his torture, Ferjani told me that he needed their expertise to help build a democratic state. “When you get rid of the head, the rest must remain intact,” he said. After all, most of the opposition had experience not in government, but in prison or exile. “For most of us,” Ferjani told me, “we have spent fifteen years in prison or sipping tea in London.” With Ferjani’s help, Tunisia avoided passing a revenge law that likely would have derailed democracy.
Ferjani’s political party, Ennahda, took power in 2011, winning Tunisia’s first democratic elections. Then, in 2014, the party did something remarkable; it decided not to field a candidate for the presidential elections, suggesting that it would be healthier for democracy to give others a turn. Ennahda willingly gave up power. Ferjani worked to rebrand the party as the chief defender of a democratic Tunisia – a group of, as he put it, “Muslim democrats.”
But by 2019, Tunisia’s economy was in shambles, with young people facing the same economic despair that had driven the disgruntled vegetable vendor to light himself on fire back in 2011. Instead, in the presidential elections, Tunisians burned down the establishment. Outsider candidates dominated both rounds of presidential elections. Kais Said, a conservative law professor, took power.
For a brief time, many in Tunisia felt the same sense of euphoria that had characterized the 2011 revolution. It was a moment of abrupt change – and with change came hope. But it didn’t take long for the red flags to appear. In July 2021, President Saied deployed tanks, suspended the elected parliament, fired the prime minister, and got rid of courts he didn’t like. Many critics have referred to his blatant power grab as a coup, or more precisely, what political scientists call a “self-coup.”
A year later, Saied pushed through a new constitution, which gave him far greater powers, in a low-turnout referendum that many opposition parties boycotted. In December, Saied held sham parliamentary elections. Turnout was just below 9 percent. It was the second lowest turnout in a national election since 1945 (the lowest, Jamaica in 1983, failed to crack 3 percent). Absurdly, the United States government praised the vote as an “essential initial step toward restoring the country’s democratic trajectory.”
The White House, which has expressed renewed rhetorical enthusiasm for democracy in the post-Trump era, is sitting back while Tunisian democracy has died, says Monica Marks, a leading expert on Tunisia’s politics and a professor at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus. She argues that Saied tested Western officials by imprisoning some less well-known opposition figures and they failed the test. “He’s doing more now because he knows he will get away with it,” Marks says. “Not a single Western democracy had a word of criticism with early imprisonments.”
Now, at least 17 more influential figures have been rounded up and put in jail, purely because they oppose the president.
Some in the West wonder if Tunisia really matters. It’s a country of 12 million people and it’s hardly a geopolitical powerhouse. But Tunisia is much more in the fight for global democracy. It’s a test case – an experiment for a major Arab democracy and the last democratic rallying call of the Arab Spring. “Tunisia’s democracy provided hope to young people in a region scorched by oppressive dictatorships and the lure of jihadism,” Marks says. Now, that hope is gone, the rallying call silenced.
To restore democracy, Marks points to two immediate actions that would put pressure on Saied and deter further dictatorial consolidation. First, condition all further American economic and military aid on democratic reforms. Taxpayers aren’t aware, Marks says, that “their money is being repurposed now in service of dictatorship.” Second, key figures in Tunisia’s authoritarian networks should be subjected to Magnitsky Sanctions.
Said Ferjani’s daughter, Kaouther, agrees that more needs to be done—and fast. As she waits for word from her Dad in prison, she has a message for Joe Biden – and for everyone in America who cares about democracy: “Tunisians deserve democracy too,” she says. “We deserve for governments like the US not to stay silent or to give ambiguous statements when our government descends into authoritarianism.”
It’s a message the White House and other Western governments should heed, to prove that their support for democracy doesn’t only apply where the geopolitical spotlight is shining.
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