The most ignorant and dangerous responses to Tunisia’s July 25 events came from Western-based pundits, think-tankers, and self-styled “progressive” US politicians. Many Tunisian analysts, social scientists, policy specialists, and activists—who have mostly not been invited to comment on their own country in Western media—are enraged at the selective marginalization of Tunisian voices in favor of overly rehearsed, decontextualized analyses of our country’s current reality and the resulting ill-informed, inhumane, and interventionist recommendations.
On 25 July 2021, Tunisia’s Republic Day, and following day-long protests—some of which were still happening as his speech was broadcast—President Kais Saied (elected in October 2019) invoked Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution which grants him powers to deal with “imminent danger to statehood, national security and the country’s independence.” The article allows him to “take any measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances after consultation with the Head of Government [i.e., the Prime Minister] and the Speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People and informing the President of the Constitutional Court.” In this instance, those measures are: dismissing the Head of Government, freezing the Assembly’s work, lifting immunity from Members of Parliament, taking over the duties of General Prosecution to prosecute MPs facing legal charges, and committing to appoint a new head of government to form a new government.
For months and years before July 25, many Tunisians had been denouncing and protesting a multiplicity of failings by successive governments and/or forms of state repression. The latter includes police violence enabled by Parliament and successive governments, including Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi (r. 2020–21) who praised security forces for their “professionalism” as they responded to protests with violence and arbitrary, sweeping arrests of 1600 people, 600 of them minors—some of them snatched from their homes at night without warrants. For many Tunisians who have been protesting, Saied’s decision was an acknowledgment that something was seriously wrong and needed serious fixing. In fact, multiple groups had explicitly called on Saied to activate article 80 and even dissolve the parliament entirely. These groups include protestors on the street, some political parties, political figures like retired Admiral Kamel Akrout, and various Facebook pages. At the same time, others warned of the dangers of invoking Article 80 as far back as July 2020.
Once Saied announced his measures, there was mass celebration on the streets of many cities across the country—something Tunisians witnessed and felt first-hand with a power no observer who was not there is able to fully understand. Neighborhoods that have been eerily quiet for months in the evenings due to Covid-related curfews erupted in cheers, car honks, and fireworks. Even poorly managed and neglected urban spaces with few parks had their roundabouts turned into impromptu squares filled with dancing, chanting people.
Yet soon after, critical Tunisian voices also appeared on social media, among them primarily the supporters of Ennahdha—an Islamist political party with the largest share of parliamentary seats (52 out of 217). Some other political and civil society actors also had concerns about Saied’s consolidation of power. At issue were the constitutionality of the decision, the powers it offers him, and the precedents it sets. For his part, Saied (who is a constitutional law professor) stressed that he was not breaching the constitution’s text and claimed that he had consulted with both the Prime Minister and the Speaker of Parliament. According to Saied, consultation does not necessitate agreement. Speaker of Parliament Rached Ghannouchi (who is also the president of Ennahdha) denied having been consulted by Saied.
Critics such as Ennahdha sympathizers and at least one D.C. pundit mistakenly claim that Saied is responsible for the absence of a Constitutional Court, which they alleged he blocked purposefully to make use of Article 80 undeterred. The more complex reality is that Saied rejected a bill put forth by Parliament to reduce the minimum parliamentary votes needed to appoint the court’s members. Saied argued that the 2014 Tunisian constitution had set a clear timeline for the court’s creation—now overdue by six years—and that signing the parliamentary bill in the context of contemporary political blockages was inappropriate and could harm the integrity of the eventual court via biased, political appointments. The Constitutional Court’s twelve members are meant to be appointed by the President, the Parliament, and the High Judicial Council—each choosing four. This has led to much calculating, particularly by Tunisia’s leading political parties in Parliament as they were all concerned they might not be able to secure the preferred candidates with the two-thirds majority required. It is ironic that the political calculations of Tunisia’s leading political parties to block the constitutional court since 2014 are set to facilitate Saied’s application of of Article 80.
Saied himself spent the two days following his decision meeting with and reassuring different groups that he has no interest in keeping executive, judicial, and legislative powers consolidated in his hands and that he remains committed to democracy—reiterating his desire to keep the measures limited in time frame while holding dialogues. He has so far met with unions and associations representing farmers, journalists, lawyers, businessmen, women’s rights advocates, human rights organizations, and the State’s High Judicial Council. Most statements released by these groups and institutions after their meetings with Saied reflected varying degrees of support for what they called “popular demands” while stressing that the President should make clear guarantees regarding his commitment to democracy, human rights, and freedom of the press.
Given Tunisia’s experience, traumas, and a legacy of decades of authoritarian rule, skepticism and criticism of Saied’s measures by political and civil society actors is warranted. With less formal institutional checks on his powers now, the sincerity of Saied’s promises will be tested. The fears of his Ennahdha detractors are also to some extent understandable. Not only do they stand to lose the most given they have the most seats in the now frozen parliament, but they have historically been among the biggest victims of state repression along with leftist activists.
But it should also be noted that representatives of Tunisia’s pre-revolutionary (authoritarian) regime have continued to shape contemporary politics in the country through alliances with Ennahdha, in political parties fiercely opposed to Ennahdha, and as state technocrats. This is one reason that the discourse of a “return” to pre-2011 authoritarianism makes less sense as a framing for what is transpiring than the persistence of some core status quo issues.
It is, however, dangerous for outside observers to jump to conclusions, analogies, and recommendations for their own governments. Since July 25, pundits and think-tank careerists in the Global North have written in ways that reflect a rigid, interventionist, and inhumane tendency that has shocked many Tunisians—among them analysts, social scientists, and activists. These hasty interpretations and distorted representation of events have the potential to shape reactions, and as such reality.
While most Tunisians are still grappling with the rapidly evolving situation, a majority of Washington DC think tank professionals have already taken the most pessimistic narratives at face value without critically analyzing it in the context of what is happening on the ground. Area studies and social science afficionados who treat Tunisia as a site of study to test their taxonomies and reproduce their fetishized binaries of Islamist vs secularist, modernist vs. traditionalist, and democrat vs. anti-democrat have largely fixated on one word—“coup”— as can be noted by reading the headlines and first few paragraphs of virtually every opinion piece published in a US newspaper or DC think-tank platform on Tunisia in the week since July 25. It is worth considering which groups in Tunisia are using this term and for what purposes. Aside from Ennahdha, some legal specialists and civil society actors have also interpreted Saied’s steps as a coup. But it is still under serious debate—a debate playing out on Tunisian media and in Tunisian homes, but largely ignored in the West. What has been published largely fails to really examine or think through the conditions that prompted Saied’s decisions and why so many Tunisians celebrated them. The only context provided for Tunisia’s political predicament in such writings is typically severely constrained by the authors’ ideological commitments to economic liberalism or the exhausted trope of the Islamist-Secularist divide. They overwhelmingly ignore the fact that Saied rarely intervenes on either issue and has built his popularity around messages of anti-corruption and direct democracy.
Based on what is an on-the-spot analysis, largely in line with the political position of one set of actors in Tunisia’s debates and struggles, these authors have almost immediately jumped to making recommendations directed at US and European officials. These include sanctioning Tunisia, leveraging their “security support,” and Covid-19 vaccine donations. Tunisia has in recent weeks hit one of the highest per capita death rates, due in no small part to vaccine hoarding by wealthier states who are also unwilling to transfer vaccine technology. Dr. Sarah Yerkes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace disavowed her own recommendation to withhold vaccines, claiming it as an editing mistake—only after it received a wave of critiques from Tunisians outraged at the politicization of public health assistance and who explained to the author that the pandemic is a global threat and that more covid deaths will not put democracy at the forefront of Tunisians’ minds.
Many Tunisians took to social media to state clearly that they did not appreciate the efforts of Western policy specialists to save Tunisian democracy by cutting off security support, foreign aid, and international loans. But the threat of losing aid did not produce shock or worry as many Tunisians have become increasingly aware of the dangers of being trapped in a foreign debt cycle that leaves the country at the mercy of international financial institutions and their impositions of austerity policies, among them currency devaluation. After all, an internationally coordinated reform program for Tunisia has forced the country to limit, and in some cases freeze, public sector hiring and spending on state institutions. In the most recent context, this has had severe consequences on the state’s ability to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. The economic situation has reached a stage so dire as to require alternatives to this system and develop a more self-sufficient, sovereign economic system that does not suffocate public spending so much as to become, in itself, a source of political and social destabilization.
As for programmatic support through international development organizations and agencies, ten years of big-budget projects have yet to prove they can have a lasting, positive impact beyond precarious jobs for Tunisian intellectual elites who are paid far less than their foreign counterparts for the same work and deeper knowledge of the local context, better linguistic skills and wider, more diverse networks. International development funding has also produced rent hikes in seaside neighborhoods that cater to the immigrant, Global North development workforce (who prefer to be called “ex-pats” to distinguish themselves from the largely Global South “immigrant” communities in the North, who in contrast are less welcome.)
Western pundits and internationally focused institutions’ increasingly desperate competition for influence and funding is undermining their credibility to contribute to the fields of policy, development, international relations, diplomacy and political analysis. The latest rush to be relevant on Tunisian events, even in the form of inane or ideologically extreme commentary, has been shaped by at least a decade of the same sterile, repetitive jargon on democratic transitions and what they “should” look like, no matter the context, and how the West “should” react—as though it must always react. In a world of algorithms and social media “reach,” they are encouraged to write “hot takes” before even those based in the country have managed to develop a reaction or understanding of what has occurred.
The dangerous entitlement resulting from large platforms and an institutional culture that allows them to think of Tunisians only as sources, fixers, and local color—but never specialists in their own right—is compounded by a compulsion to fit events into established narratives that “work” within the frameworks of programmatic funding targets and stereotypical views of the region.
Ten years ago, government funding throughout Europe and the United States proliferated for programs focusing on the “Arab Spring” countries’ supposed democratic transitions. Such an approach was itself seen as bold by orientalists and bigots still pondering whether Muslim-majority countries even had the potential for liberal democracy. But funding in this context was increasingly directed toward “countering violent extremism” (CVE) and “preventing violent extremism,” which have helped securitize government and development assistance programs more broadly. Research from these programs often resulted in endless attempts to understand why people join extremist violent groups. These efforts at understanding were always circumscribed by an incapacity to challenge the basic premise that the root of violent extremism might not be hidden in the very essence of Muslim societies and some purely intrinsic and internal weak governance issues but might rather be explained better in the context of huge proxy war industries. As a result, the media language on any event that happens in these countries is necessarily defined in these terms, presented in a neat package inclusive of how [insert Global North country name here] needs to react using various carrot or stick policies.
The apparent Washington consensus around making the term “coup” central to any interpretation of the recent events might be explained by a few factors. Knowledge production is shaped by power and proximity to power. Egypt is more geopolitically significant to US interests than Tunisia for numerous reasons, and so the incentives to study and analyze Egypt in the service of briefing US officials or responding to funders’ priorities are high. This greater familiarity with Egypt among those in DC commenting on Tunisia is clear. Ennahdha’s rise in Tunisia and the desire to juxtapose its study to that of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and to place both within some essentialist readings of Arab societies by certain scholars and journalists brought Ennahdha officials close to those same vectors of power.
This is not merely distorting their analyses; they have adopted frameworks that encourage regional comparative approaches, essentialist cultural analyses, or normative democratization frameworks that produce rigid analyses of events such as those of July 25th at the expense of locally informed or locally produced knowledge. It can even affect interpretations of events by local analysts themselves. With the increasingly heavy presence of well-funded development and research programs, even Tunisian analysts are encouraged directly and indirectly to fit their narratives into such frameworks. As someone who has worked in this field, I was always reminded that my policy briefs, or the “background” and “problem statement” section of my writing needed to be adapted to Washington D.C. readers, whether at think tanks or the United States government, rather than prioritizing Tunisian audiences. The effect of such a standardized approach is pernicious, especially as new, independent, local knowledge production is affected by political and economic factors that keep it lagging behind Western production.
This flattening of Tunisia to a node in a bigger regional picture or as an input variable into a static, inflexible and prescriptive “democratization” school is consistent with and further reproduces an existing hierarchy of knowledge. The Tunisian “exceptionalism” narrative has been produced in part because, despite efforts to force it, Tunisia doesn’t map onto the prescribed frameworks of analyses reserved for North Africa and West Asia (or Middle East to use the British colonial terminology that remains so popular). The simple reality that every material context is unique and every country exceptional in its own way renders exceptionalism a useless framework for social science; however exceptionalism is a shortcut for analysts unable or unwilling to fully explore the breadth and depth of social science phenomena outside of a pre-packaged heuristic tailored to the brevity required by politicians and policymakers. Prescriptive classification and taxonomy methods often lead to problematic simplifications especially when combined with a limited time span spent in the country of study compounded by a lack of familiarity with its language or dialect.
As a result of this, many of the supposed Tunisia or Maghreb or all-knowing MENA specialists in Washington DC, New York, London, Paris, Berlin, or Brussels have been missing—or conditioned to miss—two key realities in their scramble to say what should not have happened and what needs to be done in Tunisia.
First: Tunisia is not Egypt, despite all the efforts being made to equate the two experiences—perhaps due to many of the experts having specialized primarily on Egypt. President Kais Saied has never been a military commander nor a Ministry of Interior official. Tunisia’s army is small and distanced from political and economic affairs. Those confidently asserting that what is happening will lead to an Egypt 2013-like scenario are not only irresponsible, but this narrative is dangerous as it has the potential to foment panic and violence among groups that feel they might be targeted by state violence—despite no evidence indicating this whatsoever. Ennahdha’s official discourse, unofficial discourse via its members’ social media accounts (one even claiming that “he will kill and it is inevitable”), and the politically sympathetic Al Jazeera Arabic media platform have already been engaging in such risky framing about impending violence and the risks of ending up in an Egypt-like scenario. An added layer of such propaganda by Western analysts is far from helpful for maintaining social peace.
Second: Tunisian civil society has proven time and again that it is a force to be reckoned with. It is adept at organizing peaceful demonstrations and facing off against security forces despite great risks. It will not accept abuse, tyranny, or manipulation. Many Tunisians observing what is happening at the moment are doing so with an alert mind. In contrast to those raising the alarms about what they see as a coup and fueling fears of violence, many political parties—even some with members in the frozen parliament—along with unions, human rights groups, women’s rights organizations, lawyers’ associations, and some local elected official have issued statements that often recognize the risks in the Saied’s decision but also note that Tunisia had been reaching a boiling point that would have potentially led to even more violence. As such, many are urging President Saied to begin an inclusive process to develop an action plan and set a time limit to the exceptional measures he has taken. The implication of these statements and countless discussions already underway is that—should the Presidency veer towards authoritarianism—Tunisians will take to the streets once more and fight tooth and nail for their freedom and dignity.
Given the high level of political awareness of Tunisians, the pluralism and strength of civic groups and associations, and the institutional power of unions, the condescending, neocolonial tone of interventionists is jarring. Thus far, official stances by Tunisia’s international partners seem to have been wary, but so far respectful of the state’s political sovereignty. Meanwhile, many Tunisians expect Saied to take action to back up his words and reassure Tunisians—not foreign governments—that he will be communicative, inclusive, and finely attuned to popular demands. He promised in his presidential campaign that he would work to institute a system of direct, localized governance with referendum mechanisms. While this might take time to achieve, he seems to have, for better or worse, taken his cues from the streets of Tunisia.
Tunisia had, has, and will continue to surprise analysts just as it did in 2010–11. Pundits and think tankers should not be overwhelmed when things do not fit neatly into their boxes, demanding that Tunisians be punished via sanctions. They should consider tuning in to what non-partisan Tunisian specialists and experts have to say about what is happening even if it is a humble: “We don’t know yet, let’s take some time to see what happens.”