Tunisia’s Kais Saied Enters 2023 Cold with Alarming Instability

  • Kais Saied’s path towards one-man rule is challenged as political and economic frustration grows among the Tunisian population. 
  • Lowest-ever parliamentary voter turnout for recent election as the opposition called for its boycott. 
  • Tunisian democracy reversed as Saied isolates the country from the West and aligns himself with regional authoritarians.
Kais Saied - President of Tunisia
Houcemmzoughi (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Why is Kais Saied’s heat level Cold?

Answer: Kais Saied has failed to uphold the political legitimacy of his regime as Tunisia is facing a deepening political and economic crisis.

In September 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied announced that he would rule the North African state by decree after having dismissed the government and frozen the legislature. Since then, he has extended the country’s state of emergency numerous times and ultimately to the end of 2023

Saied’s path to one-man rule gained new momentum as Tunisia voted in favor of a new constitution in June 2022. The new constitution grants Saied ultimate authority over the government and the judiciary. In the new constitution, Saied removed checks to the President’s powers, therefore, weakening Tunisian democratic institutions – which were hailed as a success story of the 2011 Arab Spring. Although over 90% of ballots were in favor of the constitutional referendum, the vote recorded a turnout of 30.5%, with the opposition boycotting and challenging the legality of the vote and branding it a ‘coup’.

Saied’s consolidation of power has significantly affected the country’s democratic integrity, resulting in isolation from Western leaders and investors. The opposition bloc and the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) have challenged Saied legitimacy on multiple occasions. The UGTT is a powerful actor within Tunisian politics and helped broker a deal for a new constitution in 2014. Yet, they have failed to present a united front as ideological and personal fissures remain unresolved. 

Tunisia under Saied has also seen a rise in inflation and public debt. However, due to his undemocratic actions, the prospect of receiving help from the IMF is almost impossible to access. Unpopular on the economic and governance fronts, Saied remains cold as his legitimacy is put into question by international and domestic actors.

What is changing Saied’s heat level?

Answer: Increasing political and economic instability.

Previously, Saied was blazing after having solidified his one-man rule in Tunisia. However, since then, things have taken a turn, as when he looked to cement his legitimacy through the constitutional referendum, the electorate shut him down. His constitutional referendum last July was highly boycotted and the most recent parliamentary elections were also skipped by most eligible voters in Tunisia. Additionally, Saied also faces several other challenges that pose challenges to his rule in Tunisia. 

Economically, Tunisia is struggling. To make matters worse, the 2023 Finance Law that was proposed by Saied has further enraged working-class Tunisians and has been rejected by the UGTT. Due to the looming threat of economic collapse, obtaining the requested  $1.9 billion rescue package has proven to be vital but talks with the IMF for the release of the loan have stalled over Saied’s reforms. 

The parliamentary elections held between December and January 2022/23 recorded the lowest turnout ever registered in the country’s history at 8-11%. The elections were a way to legitimize Saied’s regime, though they were boycotted by most opposition parties and the UGTT in rejection of the 2022 constitution. The Union called on workers to mobilize and be ready to defend their rights and freedoms in any form of struggle. With over a million members, the UGTT has proven its ability to paralyze Tunisia by engaging in strikes.
On January 14, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, demanding Saied’s resignation. A symbolic date as it marked the 12th anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution which brought democracy to Tunisia and is often regarded as the sole success story of the Arab Spring. However, due to the challenges that Saied faces, he needs to tread on water very carefully to not spark a revolution but to also attain his geopolitical goals as the country’s leader.

What is driving Kais Saied? 

Answer: Saied is driven by his desire to reform Tunisia according to his political agenda.

In July 2021, Saied assumed the role of the sole executive. The justification for his actions lies in Tunisia’s battle with the Covid-19 pandemic and difficult economic conditions. A year later, in September 2022, Saied decreed a new electoral law that limits political parties’ ability to campaign for parliamentary seats. This law essentially grants him the right to ban candidates at will and, thus, provides a means to further advance his path toward one-man rule. 

Although the opposition has proclaimed Saied’s consolidation of power to represent a coup, Saied himself denies any allegations of reversing the democratic progress made since the Jasmine revolution. He argues that increasing his presidential powers was needed to break a “cycle of political stagnation and economic decay”. According to Saied, the extremely low voter turnout in the parliamentary elections is a sign that Tunisians no longer trust the Tunisian Parliament and that it is widely unpopular due to its fragmented and ineffective nature. He, therefore, believes that a strong executive is essential. 

Saied is driven by the fact that he can present himself as the preferable choice among an array of unpopular options. Post-revolution politics was marked by corruption and cronyism, leaving the previous administrations extremely unpopular among the Tunisian population. A fact of which Saied is aware and is able to play into. Although frustrations have grown, Saied’s opponents and their parties remain highly unpopular; even more than he is. They, therefore, do not seem to provide a viable alternative to Saied’s regime at this point.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Saied leads Tunisia to an increasingly authoritarian and isolated state, resulting in the reversal of democratic progress made since the Arab Spring.

As mentioned, Tunisia is in dire need of a financial bail-out. The IMF seems to be withholding the requested loan until Saied commits to reforms. Saied has also not shown any sign of willingness to reverse the direction of his “New Republic” to please the West and the IMF. During his meeting with Saied in December, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized the importance of strengthening democratic institutions in Tunisia. Later, the US State Department called upon the Tunisian government to “adopt inclusive and transparent reforms” after observing the parliamentary elections. 

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has become an increasingly critical partner. Despite their obvious cultural ties, the two presidents also seem to be tied by a shared worldview as both are committed to a strong executive office. In August, Tebboune reiterated his support for Saied as he announced that Algeria stands behind Saied’s mandate. Furthermore, on Thursday, Saied announced a rekindling of diplomatic ties with Syria and President Bashar al-Assad. Diplomatic relations between the two states had been cut off since the Arab Spring. These relationships for Saied are two cases of the Tunisian president aligning himself with undemocratic leaders, turning his back on the West.  

Since Saied’s power grab in 2021, the US has slashed its military and civilian aid to Tunisia by more than $30 million with further cuts expected in 2023. Although seemingly a logical measure, cuts in economic aid fail to reflect the US’s agenda of advancing democracy and addressing the country’s economic crisis. The Tunisian military has been labeled as the US’s “critical regional security partner”  as it has been effective at addressing the country’s security threats. Cutting aid would, thus, damage the US’s leverage in Tunisia as it would be turning its back on one of the last institutions that enjoy credibility among the population. 

It would not come as a surprise that reduced US aid could be pushing Tunisia into the arms of the Gulf States, Russia, and China, countries that do not have an interest in promoting democracy. Last week, during his meeting with the Chinese Ambassador to Tunisia, Wan Li, Saied reiterated his wishes to further strengthen cooperation with China in various fields. If needed, it will likely not be too difficult for Tunisia to fill the void left by the US.