Following a steady output of authoritarian measures since he took office in October 2019, Tunisian President Kais Saied’s 21 February 2023 racist declarations depicting Sub-Saharan migrants as “hordes of illegal immigrants…arriving, with all the violence, crime and unacceptable practices that entails” and accusing them of “criminally” threatening the national character of the country by seeking to limit it to “purely an African country” revealed how far the promising Tunisian democratisation process has drifted.
The episode reminds us of the inherent uncertainty of political transitions and underscores the current worldwide reactionary context.
Promptly denounced by Tunisian opposition, civil society and public figures alike, as well as the African Union, which censured the racialised hate speech, the head of state’s diatribe – elsewhere applauded by a French polemicist and former presidential candidate convicted of hate speech – was a smokescreen incorporating the Great Replacement thesis to cement post-Arab Spring neo-authoritarianism (there are but 21,000 undocumented migrants in the 12-million country according to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights).
In the winter of 2011, kick-starting the regionwide long-awaited Arab revolts, Tunisia had embarked on an ambitious political transition process. Following a spontaneous uprising against his 30-year autocratic rule, former president Zein El Abidine Ben Ali had been deposed peacefully. Under a transitional government and a constituent assembly, national committees were set up to comprehensively review legislative, judicial and executive arrangements. In June 2014, a 15-member Truth and Dignity Commission, which eventually heard some 11,000 individuals in public sessions, was established to address human rights violations over the previous six decades (the commission’s mandate was subsequently expanded to include economic crimes, and a 2,000 page report issued in 2019).
As economic woes piled, the hardships of national social contract rewriting materialised and insecurity grew with violent attacks and assassinations, notably in 2015, the transition process held painstakingly and with a certain exemplarity in the Arab world. Tunisia, for instance, became, in October 2018, the first Arab country to enact a law explicitly penalising racial discrimination and allowing redress. The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.
Yet, by the end of the decade, societal impatience for better days grew stronger, notably amongst youth, and the Tunisian population gave signs of falling for that time-tested illusory ‘strong man’ solution, allowing Kais Saied to step in and reroute towards authoritarianism what had been a slowly-maturing, time-needing transformative process necessitating continued generational investment. Reversing those fragile gains, Saied sacked the government in July 2021, froze the parliament, assumed executive authority and subsequently arrested several opposition leaders.
Saied’s autocratic rule has now led to the atrophication of the Tunisian transition process, as witnessed in the 89% abstention rate to the legislative elections of January 2023 and the 70% who abstained from voting on a new constitution in July 2022. Ultimately, however, it is a wider combination of instrumentalisation of national security imperatives, international indifference and normalisation of racialised international politics that has led Tunisia to the crossroads where it stands today, as it tries to forge ahead with its quest for representativity, accountability and justice.