The president recently issued a decree inscribing December 17 as the official (and only) anniversary of the revolution, following weeks of heated debates about what both the 17th of December –the revolution’s official starting point with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi– and the 14th of January 2011 – the day Ben Ali was ousted – were about, and what they mean for the collective memory of Tunisians.
In downtown Tunis – a traditional meeting point for rallies – police forces were heavily dispatched as protests were banned, officially due to Covid. All entry points to the main avenue Habib Bourguiba were blocked. Defying State measures, a few hundred protesters departed from different locations within the capital, mainly Avenue de Paris, Avenue Mohamed V and the Central Bank, all but the latter representing usual hotspots for demonstrations. The collective Citizens Against the Coup, the social democratic parties coalition (Attayar, Al Jomhouri, Ettakatol), the Workers Party (POT, by its French acronym) and young non-partisans led separate marches. Surprisingly, Tunisia’s powerful trade union UGTT missed its usual rendez-vous with Square Mohamed Ali where its headquarters is located. Yet, with the economy being at an all-time worst, the majority of Tunisians were neither sure what to celebrate, nor how to protest a decade of disappointments.
Demobilization and the ‘Democracy Fatigue’ phenomenon
The display of a quasi-military apparatus to ‘confiscate’ the streets is nothing new. All post-2011, mostly Ennahda-backed, governments have maintained a repressive grip on social movements through the use of police force, a characteristic of the post-independence Tunisian State. It however never stopped Tunisians from taking their grievances to the streets.
Thelimited presence of citizens on the eleventh anniversary of the revolution is an accurate barometer of the political scene’s – precisely the opposition scene’s – scattering and difficulties to appeal to the public. What is striking about this year’s various marches was their inability to mobilize, and how little, year after year, January 14 means for the non-partisan, or simply non-politicized public. The case of Citizens Against the Coup, in which Ennahda is a major player, is revealing of the current counter-productiveness of partisan opposition. Although some of the collective’s criticism regarding the president’s power takeover, monopolization of power or use of extreme police force against demonstrators is legitimate, it is equally inaudible in light of some of its major players’ political history, suspicion of corruption and terrorism, blatant incompetence and overall role in the failure of the so-called ‘democratic transition’.
The post-authoritarian process is morphing into a compelling case of ‘democracy fatigue’. It is no news that representative democracy has been in crises for many years, yet in countries that have a steady democratic history, democracy has worked until it did not, or did less. In Tunisia, the process fast tracked into disillusionment as citizens only experienced a specific side of liberalization, certain civil and political rights, while witnessing their socioeconomic situation degrade. For the average Tunisian, the experience of living under democratic rule, or a system that is advertised as such, means he or she could voice an opinion regarding pretty much any public matter, yet that opinion would have little impact on actual policies. Hence, democracy fatigue does not mean Tunisians do not want to live in democracy anymore, rather the collective realization democracy is not about electing representatives “whose main skill is to collectively and collaboratively hide all traces of accountability for policies designed principally to (…)” protect their interests.
Kais Saied’s populism is (also) bad news for democracy
President Saied quickly pointed to the low number of participants in different protests, disregarding the fact it is a major red flag for his rule as well if anger does not translate into demonstrations anymore. Populist leaders are the undoubted winners of representative democracy’s crisis. Yet, when Saied fails to deliver on his considerable promises, it bears grave consequences beyond one man’s rule. The president’s main political capital is as much trust in his incorruptibility as it is the general resentment towards those who ruled before him. Populism is, paradoxically, perhaps the last bastion preventing Tunisians from tearing down the social contract linking them to a State that rarely delivered on its end of the bargain. A 2019 article on the desire for democracy across countries which were implicated, in some form, in the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, concluded to two tendencies in the case of Tunisia : First, the support for democracy saw a general drop since 2011, with a significant gap between the 20% with the lowest income and the rest of the population vis-à-vis democratic disillusionment, meaning the poorer the middle-class is getting, the less faith it grants democracy. Second, Tunisians now link the lack of economic effectiveness with democratic rule.
However, populism, and Saied’s populism in this case, is a continuation of a process of systematic alteration of the very concept of truth in political discourse and praxis. The post-truth era in Tunisian politics, a characteristic of the post-2011 political scene, is being fueled by the president’s approach to governance. Some examples are Saied’s insisting the country is rich and just needs to retrieve ‘stolen money’ while appointing a government whose unique role seems to work out a deal with the IMF, or when Saied portrays himself as an advocate for the revolution’s martyrs and wounded while allowing police forces to tear gas their families during protests, or the fact he repetitively uses unverified social media statements in official discourses.
If Tunisians cannot collectively project in any shared notion of citizenship and community anymore, then the very idea of democracy loses its appeal, for democracy is first and foremost a national project. Perhaps democracy did not fail in Tunisia, it has simply not been genuinely implemented in the first place. Yet, experience of hardship is more important than theory. This might mean that, in the only surviving democratic experience of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, less than dozens will be protesting next year on January 14 and other occasions, echoing what Chauncey Devega described in the Trump era as “a collective state of exhaustion, fatigue, and loneliness”. Years of downward social mobility and repetitive cycles of hope and mobilization followed by disappointment appear to have driven away Tunisians from immediate resistance to what could become a general sense of passivity and depoliticization. It is uncertain how anger is going to be expressed from now on, but it surely is still very much there, and very much growing.