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Tunisia’s president threatened the judicial system. What do Tunisians think about these power grabs?

A new survey reveals support for the president — but also support for democracy

A man stands outside the Supreme Judicial Council building in Tunis on Feb. 6. (Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters)

Early Sunday morning, Tunisian President Kais Saied announced his intent to dissolve the Supreme Judicial Council, the body tasked with ensuring the independence of the country’s judicial system. This move, the latest in a series of efforts by Saied to consolidate power after he suspended parliament and declared a state of emergency in July 2021, comes after months of the president’s attacks on Tunisian judges.

These latest attempts by Saied to consolidate power come less than two weeks after the anniversary of the ratification of Tunisia’s post-uprising constitution, negotiated in the years following the country’s 2010-2011 Arab Spring uprising. While the new constitution was a momentous accomplishment for Tunisia, its future is uncertain at the moment.

Politicians who were instrumental to the constitution’s passage, including Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, publicly celebrated the anniversary but now sit in awkward limbo with other members of Tunisia’s suspended parliament. Saied, a law professor by profession, declared his opposition to the constitution in September. He also called for public consultations and a committee of experts to draft a new constitution ahead of a July 2022 constitutional referendum.

Many Tunisians, increasingly frustrated with the political class, initially seemed to welcome Saied’s attacks on other politicians and political institutions. However, when Saied called on his supporters this weekend to rally after his announcement and demonstrate against the Supreme Judicial Council, only a few hundred supporters reportedly showed up, in the smallest demonstration since his July 2021 moves.

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What happens now to Tunisia’s democracy? Despite their many disagreements, Tunisia’s major political parties are largely united in viewing Saied’s recent seizure of power as fundamentally undemocratic — or even a coup. Many legal and human rights non-governmental organizations in Tunisia warn against the resurgence of authoritarianism. But despite these concerns, Saied and his allies continue to claim high levels of popular support for both the president and his political agenda.

Do Tunisians support Saied’s actions? And do they support these actions at the expense of democracy? Over the past two months, we fielded a nationally representative, in-person household survey of Tunisian adults to find out.

What Tunisians really think

We asked Tunisians which statement is closer to their view of Saied’s July 25, 2021, actions: “The president’s actions hold corrupt politicians accountable and help ordinary Tunisians,” or “The president’s actions undermine democracy and threaten the rights of the Tunisian people.” Nearly 80 percent of the 1,200 respondents in our survey more closely identified with the first statement, while just under 15 percent agreed with the second statement.

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This positive interpretation of Saied’s seizure of power was a surprise. From a political science perspective, the suspension of parliament and the dissolution of the Supreme Judicial Council look like autocratizing moves that concentrate power in the hands of the president. An overly strong executive was a defining feature of Tunisia’s political system prior to the 2010-2011 uprising, and one that the 2014 constitution sought to correct.

One explanation here is that Saied appears to have successfully fashioned himself as a political outsider, positioned to disrupt stalled politics and hold the political class accountable for the slow pace of economic and political changes since 2010.

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Or perhaps support for Saied was more concentrated among those who are less committed to democracy and democratic norms? We looked at how support for Saied’s power grab correlated with respondents’ general support for democracy. We asked respondents which of these statements came closest to their view: “For people like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have”; “Under some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable”; or “Democracy is always preferable to any other kind of government.”

We found that respondents are split nearly equally between the pro-democracy and democracy-skeptic camps. Among those who support Saied’s power grab, roughly 53 percent are committed to democracy, and agreed that democracy is always preferable — the other 47 percent of Saied supporters appear more skeptical of democracy, and either agreed that non-democratic government can be preferable or answered that that it does not matter what kind of government was in place.

What do the results mean?

These survey results paint a mixed picture of the Tunisian public’s response to recent political events in their country and underline the potential political risks facing politicians on both side of the constitutional crisis.

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The public frustration with the political class that provided the pretext for Saied to suspend parliament last summer appears to persist. The survey results suggest that Tunisian political parties’ denunciation of Saied’s July moves may not resonate strongly with a public that overwhelmingly supports the president.

But the survey results also demonstrate many Tunisians remain committed to democracy in the country. Many of these pro-democracy Tunisians perhaps supported Saied’s early moves in the hopes he would improve the situation in the country — but may abandon their support for the president as he asserts greater autocratic power and increasingly governs through executive actions.

In January, anti-Saied protesters turned out on the anniversary of former dictator Ben Ali’s abdication of power in 2011, in one display of popular opposition to the current regime. Our survey was conducted before the anti-Saied demonstrations in which protester Rhida Bouziane was fatally injured. In addition to autocratizing moves, such as the dissolution of the Supreme Judicial Council, that have received high-profile condemnation, a prominent death as a result of police brutality is the type of event that could potentially galvanize the public and shift public opinion against Saied.

While Saied’s power grab appears to be a worrying sign for Tunisia’s democratic consolidation, the president’s current broad support does not necessarily mean that the appetite for democracy in the country is completely gone.

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Alexandra Domike Blackman is an assistant professor in the department of government at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter @AlexDBlackman.

Elizabeth R. Nugent is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Yale University. Follow her on Twitter @ernugent.