Pandemic-fueled populism stresses Tunisia’s fragile democracy

Pandemic-fueled populism stresses Tunisia’s fragile democracy

Why We Wrote This

Polarization, scapegoating, distrust in the political establishment – the trappings of populism are now familiar across the world. But in Tunisia, the Arab world’s lone democracy, they are especially concerning.

Riadh Dridi/AP

Residents walk past graffiti in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, Dec. 11, 2020. Ten years after the revolution that unleashed the Arab Spring uprisings, economic hardships are pushing Tunisians toward nostalgia for the ousted dictatorship.

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December 22, 2020

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A sense of unfulfilled promises permeates Tunisia. A decade after the democratic revolution that spurred the Arab Spring, economic hardships and the COVID-19 pandemic are pushing Tunisians toward a reactionary populism and nostalgia for the ousted dictatorship.

Many direct their ire at a political class they say has focused exclusively on freedoms at the expense of other revolutionary demands for dignity and social justice. “People do not eat constitutions, do not drink elections, and do not sleep under the roof of the freedom of the press,” says Amine Ghali, director of a Tunis-based democracy center.

The clear winner of Tunisians’ disillusionment is a charismatic and polarizing member of parliament, Abir Moussi, an apologist for the deposed dictatorship who uses the full array of populist tools.

“When Abir Moussi talks, she is not unlike Donald Trump; she repeats phrases several times, repeats ideas, half-truths and untruths; and bullies anyone who dares speak against her,” says Youssef Cherif, director of the Columbia Global Centers in Tunis.

“She is creating another world for supporters by saying … the entire narrative of the revolution is a lie,” he says. “A lot of Tunisians who are disenfranchised and unhappy with the last 10 years are starting to believe this narrative.”

AMMAN, Jordan

For Yasmine Harrazi, an unemployed administrative assistant in Tunis, the reason for her hardships is clear.

“The revolution was a mistake,” says Ms. Harrazi, reflecting on the 10th anniversary of Tunisia’s Dec. 17 democratic uprising against the dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

“We staged the revolution because we didn’t have freedom of expression. Now we can speak, but we can’t cover the cost of food – the revolution failed.”

A polarized society unable to agree on shared facts, an outsider populist dominating the media cycle by breaking norms and scapegoating the “other,” widespread anger over inequality and distrust in the political establishment – the trappings of populism are now familiar across the world.

Such developments are particularly worrying in the Arab world’s lone democracy, Tunisia, still emerging from a fragile post-revolution transition and surrounded by autocratic neighbors anxious to interfere and thwart their democratic project.


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Yet a decade on from the democratic revolution that spurred the Arab Spring and shocked the world, economic hardships and the COVID-19 pandemic are pushing Tunisians toward a reactionary populism and nostalgia for the ousted dictatorship, questioning the revolution itself.

They are encouraged by a charismatic and polarizing member of parliament, Abir Moussi, an apologist for the Ben Ali regime who uses the full array of populist levers – including friendly news outlets – to catapult herself and her party to prominence.

Unfulfilled promise

A sense of unfulfilled promises permeates Tunisia.

Many Tunisians direct their ire at a political class they say has focused exclusively on freedoms, one part of protesters’ demands for “dignity, freedom, social justice” – at the expense of the other two.

“Because the transition was led by politicians and civil society, they focused their efforts on the constitution, election laws, [and] civil and political rights, rather than the serious concerns of those who went to the streets for a better life and job opportunities,” says Amine Ghali, director of the Tunis-based Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center.

“If someone has less food on his plate or less salary, of course he would be mad at the revolution,” says Mr. Ghali. “People do not eat constitutions, do not drink elections, and do not sleep under the roof of the freedom of the press.”

The economic failures of Tunisia’s post-revolution political class, mired in partisan deadlock, have become starker amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which wiped out gains made by the tourism industry in 2019 and could drive unemployment to as much as 25% by the year’s end, even higher among youths.

Riadh Dridi/AP

A demonstrator shows his diploma as he attends a protest in Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia, Dec. 17, 2020. The economically troubled region, where the revolt against the dictatorship erupted 10 years ago, is still waiting to reap rewards.

Much of this anger is directed at Ennahda, the self-styled Muslim Democrats who were banned by Mr. Ben Ali and are now seen by Tunisians as the establishment after co-writing the 2014 constitution, maintaining the largest bloc in parliament, and being in and out of governing coalitions since 2011.

“All the governments that came after the revolution brought the same policies that benefited businessmen and lobbyists, and the result is always failure,” says Anis Gafsawi, who closed his paper factory in Kasserine, southwest Tunisia, due to the pandemic.  

“People have less dignity now than before the revolution. Things are worse than during the old regime.”

Populism rising

The clear winner of Tunisians’ disillusionment is the populist Ms. Moussi.

One year after a failed long-shot presidential bid vaulted her to national prominence, Ms. Moussi is using parliament as a bully pulpit to defend the former regime, slander rivals, and harness public anger to challenge the revolution.

The focal point of Ms. Moussi’s populism is Ennahda, which she blames for all ills facing Tunisia. She calls for criminal investigations into the Islamist party and its allies for alleged ties to foreign states – especially Turkey and Qatar – and calls the movement or MPs who disagree with her “terrorists.”

She regularly derides parliament as “broken” and calls for a return to a strong presidential system to ban Ennahda, curb freedoms, impose law and order, and provide blanket economic and social welfare.

“When Abir Moussi talks, she is not unlike Donald Trump; she repeats phrases several times, repeats ideas, half-truths and untruths; and bullies anyone who dares speak against her,” says Youssef Cherif, analyst and director of the Columbia Global Centers in Tunis, describing her as “the archetypical populist.”

Ms. Moussi regularly captures headlines by derailing entire sessions of parliament with her outbursts. It has become a winning formula.

Ms. Moussi’s Free Dastourian Party has shot to the top of the polls. Elections are not scheduled for another four years, but were they held today her party would win 36.9% of votes, with Ennahda coming in second at 17%, according to Tunis-based Sigma Polling.

“Abir Moussi and her allies are nostalgic about the old regime, and they hope to bring it back,” says Issa Abboud, an unemployed actor from Tunis whose father died while a political prisoner under the dictatorship.

“Abir’s politics are based on exclusion. If you listen to her speak, she never talks about the economy, but she is always demonizing someone. There are lots of people who support her and many people will vote for her in the next elections.”

Jdidi wassim/SOPA Images/Sipa USA/Reuters

Abir Moussi (center), president of the Free Dastourian Party, with party members Samira Sayhi, Hajer Naifer, Zeineb Safari, and Awatef Kouraich during the seating of parliament. Ms. Moussi regularly captures headlines by derailing sessions of parliament with her outbursts against rivals.

Ms. Moussi’s rhetoric prompts emotional responses from critics, deepening the polarization.

“Abir Moussi represents a fascist and eradicated party that would lead us only into backwardness,” says Mehdi Wetatani, a Tunis teacher and Ennahda supporter. “It is even worse than Ben Ali’s party. I describe it as a Nazi party. If she becomes president of Tunisia, forget about liberties!”

Alternative history

While, like populists in the West, she regularly peddles alternative facts, Ms. Moussi’s most effective rhetoric deals in alternative history. 

According to Ms. Moussi, the Ben Ali era was a golden age when salaries were guaranteed, security was airtight, and the social ills of poverty, unemployment, and crime were nonexistent.

She repeatedly claims without evidence that the 2010-11 democratic revolution was a conspiracy by Qatar and Turkey to install an “Islamist dictatorship,” that Ennahda is a terrorist group with links to Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood, and that young Tunisians who led the protests that brought down the Ben Ali regime were “agents of the West” determined to topple a strong and stable Arab state to put it at the mercy of Western capitalists.

“She is creating another world for supporters by saying everything that happened is wrong, that the entire narrative of the revolution is a lie,” says Mr. Cherif. “A lot of Tunisians who are disenfranchised and unhappy with the last 10 years are starting to believe this narrative.”

This revisionist history is boosted by Ms. Moussi’s media platform.

Her talking points are promoted by regional Arab networks based in Gulf monarchy states that are sympathetic to her anti-Islamist, anti-democracy bent.

Saudi satellite network Al Arabiya and Emirati outlets that beam to households across the region regularly broadcast Ms. Moussi’s press conferences and interviews, running her statements as “breaking news” – coverage reserved for heads of state.

Observers say it is no longer discernible whether Ms. Moussi is repeating Saudi and Emirati talking points, or whether their talking points mirror her narrative.

But they are helping Ms. Moussi become mainstream and dominate the media cycle.

As often in post-revolution Tunisia, however, the tide can quickly change.

Ms. Moussi herself polls at 12% to 19% for president, a distant second to incumbent Kais Saied, who so far has successfully maintained an appearance of being above the fray. Observers say there is enough time for another party and figure to emerge to slow down her meteoric rise ahead of an early election.

They point to polls from early this year that indicate that once the pandemic gets under control and a semblance of normal life returns, so too will hope for the future.

Meanwhile, Tunisians agree that it is better to have their disagreements in public and in parliament, using their newfound freedom of speech to chart a new direction for the country.

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“No matter how chaotic it may seem today, at least we can now criticize the chaos and discuss our leaders’ and representatives’ failures freely,” says Mohamed Bliwa, a call-center operator in Tunis.

“The revolution is not an entire failure. I see it as a work in progress.”

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