The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why so many Tunisians voted away the democracy won in the Arab Spring

Tunisians celebrate the exit polls indicating a vote in favor of the new constitution in Tunis on July 25. (Riadh Dridi/AP)

TUNIS — Three days before Tunisians voted on a new constitution their president pledged would propel them into prosperity, Nori Saif sat on a bench downtown, rattling off the prices smugglers charge to sneak young men into Europe.

The cheapest journey, he said, would run him around $1,200. A smuggler with a better guarantee could cost more than $3,000.

As for the vote?

“I only heard about it yesterday,” he said. “We have no hope. Nothing will change.”

Eleven years ago, masses of civilians gathered on this same avenue in Tunis, calling for autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to step down. It worked. Ben Ali fled the country and later died in exile. Tunisia began the long process of remaking itself as a democracy — the only one to survive the turmoil of the Arab Spring.

Now, Saif, who is 27 and recently left his home in a small town south of the capital, was sleeping outside and looking for any work to help fund his migration to Europe. Like many other young Tunisians of his generation, the spark of hope that ignited the Arab Spring has been extinguished. Disenchanted by ineffective politicians and paralyzed by a worsening economic crisis, he sees only one path forward: leaving the country.

At the same time, many others in Tunisia have put their faith in a leader who tells them he can fix their lives if they just vote to expand his power.

The law professor who set out to dismantle Tunisia’s democracy

The sense of despair is a reversal of the shared optimism of 2011, when young Tunisians flooded back into the country to support the revolution. Their collective burst of hope for something better was so contagious that the spirit of change quickly spread across the Arab world.

“In places where there are dictators, people saw a little country that made its revolution and succeeded,” said Mohamed Abbou, a lawyer and politician who was imprisoned during the Ben Ali regime.

Tunisia set an example as a country that accepted Islamist political parties, including the moderate Ennahda, which was long part of coalition governments. As other countries in the region slipped back into autocracy or war, Tunisia wrote a new constitution and secured certain freedoms that left activists elsewhere envious.

But over time, the country’s new and fragile democracy faltered. Political infighting left lawmakers divided and unable to overcome economic crises or deliver on the promises of the revolution.

Then in 2019, Tunisians voted Kais Saied in as president. A little-known candidate who taught law at Tunis University, his supporters saw him as the antithesis of the political elite — someone with a clean record who would root out corruption and move Tunisia closer to its democratic ideals. It soon became clear that he had little time for the checks and balances of the country’s fledgling democratic system.

Last summer, amid worsening economic conditions, constant quarrels with lawmakers and a massive coronavirus outbreak, Saied suspended parliament and fired his own prime minister. He described it as a chance to weed out the corruption that he said was causing the deadlock. Many of his supporters stood by him, even as his opponents decried it as a coup. Taking full control, he promised, was the only way to fix the nation.

But soon even his initial fan base began to view his growing hold on power as a threat to Tunisia’s democracy, especially after he curtailed the independence of the judiciary, dissolved parliament and introduced a controversial new constitution putting even more power in the hands of the president.

Tunisia “was a source of inspiration that was attacked by the corrupt and then by a crazy person,” said Abbou, who supported Saied’s decision to suspend parliament last summer but now vehemently opposes him.

He, like many other Tunisian political thinkers, says Saied took advantage of people’s economic discontent. What he’s advertising is a new and more prosperous Tunisia, Abbou said. But what he is actually selling is a dismantling of the country’s democracy by gradually designing a system of one-man rule.

‘There is no other way’: Tunisian judges on hunger strike for democracy

Anouar Ben Kaddour, a leader in the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union, said Saied was able to undo the existing system by presenting a deceptive set of solutions to young people.

“Young people waited 10 years; they didn’t see anything,” Ben Kaddour said. “Everyone wants to leave.”

“We can’t use populism to say to everyone that tomorrow we are going to resolve the problems,” he said.

It’s not that Saied’s supporters were opposed to democracy, explained Monica Marks, a professor of Middle East politics at NYU Abu Dhabi. They were just convinced that he would be able to tackle the country’s long running problems.

“They didn’t come onto the street [last summer] thinking they were burning down democracy. They came out on the street thinking this was the best shot to deliver revolutionary dreams,” she said.

Some firm believers still think Saied can deliver those dreams, she said. Others, angry at the political stagnation, now acknowledge they are prioritizing stability over democracy.

Many Tunisians have blamed the Islamist Ennahda party for the country’s political failures — claims that party officials say are efforts to scapegoat them for systemic problems.

The party’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, a former political prisoner who went into exile in Britain before returning to Tunisia after the revolution, is now under investigation over allegations he participated in money laundering — a charge he vehemently denies. He acknowledged that resistance to Saied’s agenda has been weakened by a lack of unity among lawmakers and that not enough progress came out of the revolution.

“It is true the past 10 years were not a decade of economic prosperity,” he said, while still maintaining that “10 years of freedom were not erased by [Saied] and that it’s still in the minds and hearts of the people.”

His party immediately declared Saied’s move to suspend parliament last summer a “coup” and continues to decry his actions.

“We stood up and tried to deliver as much as we [could],” said Said Ferjani, an Ennahda lawmaker from the since dissolved parliament who was imprisoned and tortured in Tunisia in the 1980s.

The same people who have been disappointed by Ennahda and other politicians over the last decade, he said, cannot claim their dreams have since been realized under Saied either.

“At the end of the day now, the choice is between accepting dictatorship and bowing down to it, or to stand up against it and fight it … in a civil way,” he said.

The third option is to keep looking elsewhere.

For Saif, that means focusing on finding a way to Europe — and fast.

His mother is sick, and the rising pressure to support her has left him “scared to stay here.”

“This is a country where only policemen and the rich live happily,” he said, making the same complaint of his peers who took to the streets 10 years ago in hopes of something better.