The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The last, best hopes of the Arab Spring fade away in Tunisia

A woman holds up a banner during a protest in Tunis, Tunisia, against President Kais Saied on April 10. (Hassene Dridi/AP)
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Tunisia, where a 26-year-old street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set off a wave of protests for democracy, was the most important success story of the Arab Spring of 2011, throwing off one-man rule and establishing a new constitution. This achievement is now jeopardized by the work of its increasingly authoritarian president, Kais Saied, a constitutional law scholar who appears to be lately reading dictators’ handbooks.

The self-immolation of Mr. Bouazizi in December 2010 launched a protest movement against poverty, unemployment and political repression that eventually toppled Tunisia’s longtime ruler, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Revolts against autocracy soon swept the Arab world, ousting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but the hopes for a new era were dashed by a return to authoritarian ways. Tunisia was the exception: Along with a new constitution came a new, unicameral parliament, the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, which was often fractious and dysfunctional, but had been elected in free and fair elections, as was Mr. Saied in 2019.

In a seizure of power last July 25, Mr. Saied suspended the chamber and dismissed the government. On Sept. 22, he suspended most of Tunisia’s constitution and granted himself the exclusive right to enact laws by decree. On Feb. 12, he issued a new decree dissolving Tunisia’s top independent judicial body and granted himself broad powers to intervene in the functioning of the judiciary.

Moreover, there are reports that Mr. Saied is preparing a fresh crackdown on civil society. Since 2011, Tunisia had boasted a thriving nongovernmental sector, with thousands of organizations advancing education and culture, helping the poor, advocating human rights and furthering the rule of law. The Arab Spring had brought the ability to freely establish civil society organizations, lobby the authorities regarding laws and policies, speak publicly, and receive foreign funding without government authorization. But recently, 13 organizations expressed alarm about a leaked draft decree that they fear could impose sharp new restrictions, giving the government broad powers over their operations.

Mr. Saied has vowed to reform the constitution and submit it to a referendum, but in an online consultation he organized, only 7 percent of the nation’s 7 million eligible voters participated.

On March 30, members of the suspended parliament — in a major pushback — voted in a virtual session to annul Mr. Saied’s power grab. He then responded by dissolving the chamber altogether, and threatened to have members prosecuted for “conspiracy against the state.”

The United States has repeatedly warned Mr. Saied against the course he is taking. Undersecretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Uzra Zeya visited Tunisia in late March and urged respect for democracy and civil society. In its recent budget submission, the Biden administration proposed to slash military aid to Tunisia as a signal of displeasure over the turn to authoritarianism.

It will need to do more if Tunisia’s democracy is to be saved, because Mr. Saied is not listening. He is too busy extinguishing the last, best hopes of the Arab Spring.