It has been almost twelve years since the infamous “Arab Spring” started in Tunisia, eventually reshaping the whole region. In this chain of events, which by now turned bitter, Tunisia always had a special place. Not only in the Western political mindset, which cherished the idea of a fundamentally transforming Arab world but also in the Middle Eastern thinking. Tunisia was seen as the first country to achieve the unthinkable and remove a long-standing governmental structure, but it was for long also seen as the best, and possibly the only pristine good example of possible change. It embodied the idea that despite all the bitter experiences of Syria, Yemen, and Libya, and the setbacks presented by Egypt and some others, there was a real possibility of “good change”. That there was a chance for the better.
Almost twelve years have passed since Tunisia’s Yasmine Revolution, and since then experts have even talked about a Second Arab Spring reshaping Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria. Yet these events largely brought just as little, or disappointing changes, thought at least less destruction, as the first wave did.
Regardless of all the bitter results of the Arab Spring and even the serious problems Tunisia itself has also experienced, however, there has always been a magical aura around Tunisia’s revolution. For better or worse, it was seen as a successful example. One to be modeled elsewhere.
But on the 25 of this month, Tunisia will hold a crucial referendum. It will be the test of one man’s crusade to bring back the very presidential system, which’s dismantlement was the most celebrated change in Tunisia. The referendum will be about President Qays Sa‘īd’s new constitution. His quest started a year ago by announcing extraordinary measures in the country, practically taking the state over. Much has happened since then, but unlike many similar examples in the Arab world, the Tunisian President’s quest to change his country went on with rarely seen efficiency and resolve. Now reaching its final step. If it goes through it will end the era the Arab Spring brought on to Tunisia. But will it bring back the old system?
The people’s president?
Since the election campaign, President Sa‘īd made a reputation for himself as fighting for the ordinary man on the one side, but also against corruption and for an order based on the state of law. Which coming from a non-partisan law professor indeed echoed well.
Ever since the Islamist an-Nahḍa (Renaissance) rule broke down in 2013 and lost office in 2014, there have been several – mostly Left-wing – politicians, who took up the same banner. Yet in most cases, this campaign either led to personal vendettas or eventually broke down after similar doubts of corruption. So the campaign by Sa‘īd was not at all destined to be credible and popular. His big edge was, however, that he was a non-partisan.
At this point, it should be remembered that in Tunisia after 2011, just like the trend was all over the Arab world at that time, the most radical Islamist elements took the upper hand. In Tunisia, that means landslide victory for the an-Nahḍa Movement and its allies. The an-Nahḍa government of Ḥammādī al-Ğibālī did not collapse by pressure from rival parties, but by two major political assassinations against Leftist politician Šukrī bil-‘Ayd in February 2013, and Muḥammad Brahīmī in July the same year. That is because both assassinations were linked to Islamist extremist groups, at a time, when the involvement of the Tunisian government’s support for extremist groups in Libya, Egypt, and Syria became more and more known. It was alleged even at that time that a secret ring linked at some level to the an-Nahḍa was responsible, but all later prosecutions eventually failed. Nonetheless, after public outrage the government of Ḥammādī al-Ğibālī collapsed, only to give way to the new, short-lived an-Nahḍa, cabinet, which hammered out a new constitution. This is the constitution that outlined the new political framework, as a parliamentary system.
The outrage and the overall inefficiency of the an-Nahḍa government resulted in a vast opposition umbrella led by the Nidā’s Tūnis Party, which proved inefficient to tackle the country’s problems, and eventually fall apart to a number of smaller parties. The result was a series of short-lived governments, and the relative success of the an-Nahḍa in the 2019 parliamentary elections, where the Movement still lost seats but became once again the biggest parliamentary faction.
As result after 2019, by the time President Sa‘īd took office, it was once again the an-Nahḍa that was pulling the strings behind the scenes, carefully manipulating the composition of every government. And that is why most attempts to revise the previous era failed, just like the governments under Sa‘īd.
That is exactly what made him take his struggle not only against the Islamist Movement but also against the whole structure created with the 2014 constitution. During the same campaign as the referendum for the new constitution, the President has already dismissed a number of judges and ineffective judiciary institutions. All the while keeping a down-to-earth persona close to the people, not only regularly addressing the nation about his steps, but also regularly walking the streets in times of major crisis. And thus his quest against the whole political infrastructure, the products of the 2011-2014 an-Nahḍa era started to take form, eventually suggesting a new constitution, and new presidential system cleansing the state.
Is there any chance for the referendum?
This path started a year ago when President Qays Sa‘īd announced the extraordinary measures, took over the executive power, and started ruling the state with presidential decrees. While at that time the international reception was very negative and internally the reception was poor, the president managed to control the situation surprisingly well.
He managed to attract support from several Arab countries. Algeria was the most prominent in this regard, which despite its own problems granted a $300 million loan to Tunis. The negotiations with the IMF were successful enough to gain support for the economic reform package, which might not be popular, but managed to avoid economic collapse. And with Algeria setting up lucrative gas deals with Italy there are positive signs on the horizon.
To keep stability the President launched a massive campaign to crack down on terrorist cells, which in previous years carried out shocking attacks in the otherwise safe country. And the campaign was not only relatively successful, but luckily for Sa‘īd no major attacks have happened since July 2021. Also adding to the stability, after months of direct rule, in September 2021 the President appointed Nağla’ Būdan as Prime Minister, who ironically is by now the second longest-serving person in this post under Qays Sa‘īd’s presidency.
However, despite all these relative successes – at least to avoid collapse – the major question was off he could overcome the opposition. In this regard, he faced three obstacles. The support of the security establishment, the struggle with the political parties, and the position of the Tunisian General Workers’ Union. That later is not only the largest civic organization in the country with a huge membership but a historically strong one with real influence.
In ways difficult to assess, the support by the security establishment firmly established since July 2021. There was no real challenge here. As for the political parties, Tunisia since 2011 has had a very colorful party structure with a large number of parties – some historical, but most newly established ones – ranging from the Left to a number of Islamic parties. After the 2019 elections, the three most prominent parties were the Free Dustūrī Party led by the ‘Abīr Mūsī, which was once the state party and therefore has a significant role; the relatively new Qalb Tūnis (Hearth of Tunisia) Party led by one of Tunisia’s biggest entrepreneurs Nabīl Qaruwī; and the once outlawed an-Nahḍa (Renaissance) Movement, the local version of the Muslim Brotherhood led by Rāšid al-Ġannūšī. The two biggest parties in the parliament were the Qalb Tūnis and the an-Nahḍa, while the latter was practically ruling the Tunisian political landscape since 2011. Again ironic, but while the an-Nahḍa was steadily losing support since it managed to form the government after the revolution, its rivals fell apart faster, thus making them an-Nahḍa achieve a bigger parliamentary role.
After the extraordinary measures were implemented in by President Sa‘īd leader of the Qalb Tūnis Party Nabīl Qaruwī fearing the anti-corruption campaign escaped to Algeria, where he was arrested and later handed over to Tunisia. He was already facing charges of corruption, and with this arrest, his political life – just like the role of his party – practically came to an end.
The Free Dustūrī Party has a historic significance and was the most vocal opposition of the an-Nahḍa, but it has little public support to truly challenge the President. Especially since they both have a very similar public support base.
Thus the real opposition was the an-Nahḍa and Rāšid al-Ġannūšī, especially since the whole political structure created after 2011, just like the 2014 constitution was their product. And it was the very same structure that tried to limit President Sa‘īd’s efforts since he took office. Since July 2021, al-Ġannūšī proved to be incapable of putting up real resistance, and he was also arrested several times. He was briefly detained after the President froze the parliament in July, then in April 2022 again, after the President dissolved the Parliament, for organizing illegal virtual parliamentary sessions. Recently the Anti-Terrorist Department again raised terrorism charges against him, linking him to illegal foreign funds and running a secret cell within the party allegedly responsible for political assassinations. Within the same campaign against the Islamist movement, however, the Tunisian government also issued an international arrest warrant against al-Munṣif al-Marzūqī, who was Tunisian President between 2011 and 2014. He was the president at the zenith of the an-Nahḍa‘s power when Tunisia was heavily involved in supporting the Arab Spring movement in several countries. And the recent anti-terrorist charges did not only involve al-Ġannūšī but also Ḥammādī al-Ğibālī, who was the party’s Prime Minister in 2011 and 2013 and the main architect of the 2014 constitution. So clearly, while running the campaign for the new constitution referendum there is a very clear political campaign against those Islamist leaders, who created the 2014 constitution, and who symbolized the new era after the revolution.
In this light, he gave a tangible anti-terrorist/anti-Islamist flavor to his campaign, not only by marginalizing the most prominent Islamist leaders, and former heads of the country but also by promoting that the new constitution will not make Islam as the official religion of the country. Which is a county with a strong Leftist heritage and political movements, and also having a dark era after the revolution, when a large number of Tunisians with government complicity took part in wars in Syria, Libya, and Egypt is a very powerful message.
With the main political rivals practically taken out of the equation, the real question is how the Tunisian General Workers’ Union would behave. Recently in response to the growing economic hardship managed to organize a general strike, right at the beginning of the tourist season. However, despite the difficulties the Union recently decided to endorse the referendum, leaving the actual vote to the members. Though this does not mean direct support, it is significant, as the main question was whether the referendum would be successful or not.
There are three main campaigns now regarding the referendum. Those supporting President and the current track call for participation and a “Yes” vote. The opposing parties, which means the vast majority of the party elites either campaign for participation with a “No” vote, or, like the an-Nahḍa, call for a boycott. The boycotting campaign is the more significant hoping for a low turnout and thus questioning the legitimacy of the whole process. But with the Union’s support now, the turnout seems to be sufficiently secured.
While a year ago, when the uproar was huge against the President’s decrees the idea of this referendum seemed very unlikely, by now it has a real chance to succeed. And by the looks of it, it will be a vote not only about the President’s initiative, but in a way a vote of confidence in him, and on the 2011-2014 Islamist era of Tunisia.
Just to be on the safe side, President Sa‘īd is now at the peak of the referendum campaign also trying to pull some international support. That means very few counties. But the very same attempt led him recently to Algiers to take part in Algeria’s 60. Anniversary of independence, where he had some very cordial words with Algerian President Tabbūn. And considering Algeria’s still significant influence on Tunisia that is important.
Will it end where it started?
When President Qays Sa‘īd got elected in September 2019 the country was already in an internal crisis for a long. However, it could not have been foreseen how fundamental change this constitutional law professor will bring to the political life of the country, nor his resolve to bring real change. Just like he promised to do in his election campaign.
Looking at the draft of the new constitution, it is clear that in many ways the very same system would return to Tunisia it toppled in 2011. A well-centralized presidential system is very characteristic of the Arab world. A system, in which the president will have overwhelming control over the state, while the parliament and the very vivid party structure will fall back to a more nominal, conciliatory role. But will it mean a return to the era before the revolution?
It is hardly deniable that Tunisia’s revolution in 2010-11 was a groundbreaking experience, and with all its negative results, it had huge benefits. It removed an outdated and by then largely inefficient ruling system, about which very few have nostalgia in Tunisia. A rule that was largely based on a military takeover, after which President Bin ‘Alī with the tacit support of the army held firm control based on his personal entourage for decades. A model that is very similar to what Egypt has today. A military president at the helm setting in motion a set of reforms and economic programs, which in time run out of steam and could not handle the changing economic realities. That is why Tunisia large, though facing huge political crises after the revolution, never really resented the change. So in that sense, it would be strange to see it return under a new president.
Yet, there are major differences between the system Bin ‘Alī built, and what Qays Sa‘īd is about to set up. Sa‘īd, while in the last two years could firmly count on the support of the army and intelligence cadres, is far from being a military man. The now 64 years old law professor has the benefit of not showing signs of a military rule, but rather a man of a law ending corruption, bringing order into the chaos, and firmly establishing the rule of law. And these were all the desired goals of the revolution in 2010. Goals that were largely unfulfilled, only bringing endless party politics, and even deepening the economic crisis, which was catastrophic back in 2010. And President Sa‘īd largely benefitted from the fact that he has never been a party member. Ending the futile debates in the parliament, removing judges from office, and launching a relentless campaign against the most polarizing party politicians he successfully established himself as a man not being a figurehead of the army, or some party establishment, but basic his support on a large mass of people, who resented the last decade of confusion.
His whole character and his steps during the last two years all suggest that he is very far from being the same typical character of the Arab world taking power fast, and staying in office for decades. On the contrary, it is much more likely that after the referendum he might take another term, but soon enough step down. That is because while taking huge efforts to manage the country’s political and economic illnesses, beyond mobilizing the masses he showed practically no signs for build up a separate power base either by setting up a party or bringing in members of the security establishment.
Here the comparisons speak for themselves. In Egypt President as-Sīsī might be a powerful leader, but he is a clear representative of the military establishment being one of its strongest members even before he took over. In Algeria, which also portrays itself as a transformed revolutionary state, President Tabbūn is a long-trusted member of the party elite, while most real decisions are clearly taken by the head of the army, Lieutenant General Šanqrīḥa.
Nonetheless, if the referendum goes through, for which he has a good chance now, Qays Sa‘īd will end the era of the Arab Spring. This trend did not start here. The wave of the Arab Spring ended long ago when the Syrian government could not be brought down when Egypt brought back the old ruling system under a new military ruler, and when the general Arab mindset turned away from idolizing the Arab Spring. That was clear to see in the last few years when massive protests caused by economic crises and political deadlocks swept through Lebanon and Iraq but eventually achieved very little.
Now we are at a time when major changes in the Arab world. Syria is about to return to the Arab League, which will also be a symbolic step in renouncing the Arab Spring. Egypt is gradually retaking its leading role in the Arab world it lost in 2012, while the quest of the Gulf countries to take over Egypt’s role came to an end with the GCC effectively falling apart, and Saudi Arabia is on track to reconcile with Iran.
Therefore what is about to happen at the end of this month in Tunisia, goes way beyond the fate of this one state. It will be a verdict on the post-revolution decade by the very people, which started the Arab Spring. So the question is really: Will it end, where it all started?
A lost decade?
Presuming the more likely scenario that the referendum will pass and Tunisia returns to the presidential system, the result is that eventually, the Arab Spring comes to the end. In many ways, the Arab world returns to a state where it was more than a decade ago. Which was to suggest that all that happened, in the end, was in vain.
Yet this is far from being true. In two ways the changes of the last decades are irreversible. First of all, the destruction Syria, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Sudan, and Iraq has suffered will take decades, if not a century to overcome. And here we have to consider that a number of these states still suffer from paralyzing internal conflicts and lack effective government, further postponing economic and social recovery. More than a decade ago some of these states were on a track of economic progress, which could have helped the region, while now being a burden.
Before the Arab Spring, there were promising regional cooperation models, like the GCC, or the one between Syria and its neighbors, which had to potential to enhance regional, or overall development. Most of these models practically fell apart by now. Instead, most of these states chose or had to rely on outer partners to move forward. That is how Syria and Iraq became completely inseparable from Iran, while on the other hand, Israel managed to establish huge inroads into the Arab world via the Gulf states and Morocco. Beyond the massive material loss, the still existing crises and distrust the last decade leaves behind that is a much bigger indication of what a cataclysm the Arab Spring was.
The Arab world did not simply lose twelve – or even more, by the time most of these conflicts ended – years, but fell back much more, while the world moved on. And there is no bigger sign of that than recently Jordan – along with some other states – suggested forming an Arab NATO. This idea in the form of the infamous Baghdad Pact was promoted in the ‘50s, only to be swept aside by a series of coups and revolutions setting the stage for a distinct Arab path. Going back to the Arab NATO ideal is a symptomatic sign of how far the Arab world fell back.
Jordan’s suggestion did not find overall approval. It only shows the problem. But to really tackle this prospect the Arab world would need to overcome the legacy of the Arab Spring. This might take a huge symbolic step in Tunisia soon, but will surely not end here.