What’s the problem?
12 years after the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime, Tunisia is still facing many problems from high unemployment, political chaos, violence, water shortage, and deep economic problems.
By Nadia Marzouki. May 10 2023 (*)
I remember exactly when I knew that Tunisia was free.
It was February 2011, just weeks after a popular uprising had forced Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s longtime dictator, to flee the country. I was coming home for the first time in 10 years: My father was a prominent opponent of the regime, and it hadn’t been safe to stay. When I lived in Tunisia, I was used to being scrutinized and interrogated at the airport. But in 2011 a border officer welcomed me with an affable grin. In that moment, it was suddenly clear what the revolution had achieved.
In December of that year, my father, Moncef Marzouki, was elected president by the Constitutional Assembly. I felt immense pride and some disbelief. I remembered, with a smile, how my sister and I had to push his old Peugeot every morning to get it to start (and to get us to school on time). My father had dedicated his life — as a doctor, human rights activist and politician — to democracy, at great personal cost. And here he was, the first president of a democratic Tunisia.
That feels very long ago. Now we have a president ruling by decree, dismantling the judiciary, fueling hate against Black migrants and attacking opponents, all supported by a supine Parliament. The country’s prisons are filled with journalists, activists and political prisoners — detained unjustly and held in inhumane conditions — and many others have fled the country to avoid the same fate. In little more than a decade, Tunisia has gone from democracy to dictatorship, from hope to terror.
The current president, Kais Saied, came to power democratically. After a populist campaign in 2019 in which he presented himself as an outsider who stood for the people against the elite, he was elected with 72 percent of the vote. Systematically, Mr. Saied set about dismantling the country’s democracy. He dissolved Parliament, pushed through a new constitution that gave him enormous powers and repressed those who opposed him.
Many of my friends and family were among the nearly three million people who voted for Mr. Saied. Better him than his opponent, they said, a candidate supported by a mixture of the previous regime and corrupt business networks. Yet from the outset, I found Mr. Saied’s project terrifying. As a scholar of religion, I paid particular attention to a lecture he gave in September 2018, when he was still a law professor, on the relationship between Islam and the state. His political vision wasn’t just antidemocratic. It was an anti-modern form of nativism, with everything subservient to the ruler.
Given his obsession with purity, the president’s crackdown on migrants is hardly surprising. In February, he invoked the great replacement conspiracy theory to accuse the country’s small sub-Saharan migrant population of plotting to remake Tunisia’s identity. His remarks set off a brutal wave of violence against Black people in the country, in which scores were injured, arrested and expelled from their homes.
Mr. Saied’s goal is to purify society from corrupt influence: Social hygiene, not social justice, is the point. The project is purely moralistic, rather than procedural and political, and its terms are defined by Mr. Saied himself. He has methodically targeted the independence of the judiciary, for example, issuing decrees that give him the authority to dismiss judges. In another decree, he ordered the prosecution of dissenting voices that would harm “public security or national defense.” Civil liberties, political opposition and free speech are to be dispensed with, recast as menaces to society.
To me, this all feels so sadly familiar, recalling the dark days of Mr. Ben Ali’s dictatorship. In April the children of numerous political prisoners, speaking from Geneva, called on the European Union to impose sanctions on Mr. Saied’s regime. Their testimonies struck a chord with me. I remembered the depressing Sunday evenings in the spring of 1994, when my mom and I prepared the one basket of food we were permitted to take to my dad while he was in prison. I remember how it felt to talk to him separated by bars and armed police officers.
And yet this time around, it feels even worse. The goal is not simply to crush dissent but also to dehumanize political prisoners and their families. In Geneva, Kaouther Ferjani delivered a chilling account about how her father, a former member of Parliament who has been detained, is being treated. Made to share an overcrowded cell with 120 inmates, he has fallen ill and been repeatedly taken to a hospital. The fate of Rachid al-Ghannouchi, a former speaker of Parliament and head of the Ennahda party who was arrested in April, is unlikely to be much better.
A friend of mine whose father was arrested and whose house was raided told me the lowest point occurred when, after all the upheavals of that awful night, she went to the bathroom and turned on the tap to wash her face. She had forgotten that there was no water: Water access is currently restricted every evening, thanks to severe drought. “Is this what we gave up democracy for?” she asked.
So here we are, with no freedom, no water and not enough food. The economy is close to collapse, and unemployment is endemic. Rather than confront the crises afflicting the country, Mr. Saied prefers to rant about loyalty and conspiracy. For Tunisia, it is nothing less than a tragedy.
(*) Nadia Marzouki (@nadiamarzouki1) is a research fellow at Sciences Po in Paris whose work focuses on the relationship among religion, citizenship and democracy. Article first appeared in New York Times.