Democracy and the dangers of populism in Tunisia
Much to the disappointment of those who have been waiting since 2013 for the last flame of Arab democracy to be extinguished, political and social forces in Tunisia have reacted coldly to President Kais Saied's coup against the constitution, either rejecting it or expressing reservations, mostly out of caution rather than complacency.
All but two Tunisian political parties - leftist, liberal, conservative, and Islamist - have taken a position rejecting the president's power grab. Major civil society institutions have also expressed reservations, and most Tunisian legal experts have also rejected the president’s proclaimed constitutional basis for his actions.
In my latest book on democratic transitions and their problems, I look at the success of the transition in Tunisia as compared to its failure in Egypt and stress my disagreement with modernization studies, which states that indicators of modernization are the main determinant of success or failure of a democratic transition.
I point out that there are important differences in the culture of the political elites in the two countries.
"One disaster was the election of a president without any experience as a politician or activist. His victory was only thanks to his empty populist rhetoric"
In Tunisia, the main political forces showed a willingness to engage in dialogue and a commitment to the democratic process, while in Egypt, some of them chose to ally with elements of the old regime or the military coup against their rivals. As of Tuesday, Tunisian political forces' rejection of the coup against democracy has confirmed this trend.
Populism as a narrative and as a political trend has posed a major challenge to democracy in Tunisia. The country's democracy has not been able to overcome it, and in some ways, it has got worse, as seen in media narratives which compete in sensationalism and reach - often in an irresponsible and unprofessional way - and in arguments between parliamentary parties which take place in an equally irresponsible and unprofessional manner.
One disaster was the election of a president without any experience as a politician or activist, or significant professional experience. His victory was only thanks to his empty populist rhetoric. In an interesting paradox, those who promote populist rhetoric against political elites are also people from those same elites. They do this for ideological or opportunistic reasons. It's noteworthy that they are often people who have failed in their professional field and have a grudge against their peers, which they turn into anger and vengeful political rhetoric against elites in general.
The Tunisian people are suffering from many economic problems and these have been exacerbated by inflated expectations of the democratic political system. These disappointments have in some cases led to a yearning for the old regime.
"Tunisian democracy has not been able to meet popular expectations or solve problems with development plans and projects"
Tunisian democracy has not been able to meet popular expectations or solve problems with development plans and projects. There's no doubt that the failure of the post-2011 coalition governments, quarrels between political parties, and opposition attempts to stymie any coalition has contributed to this.
There have been no attempts to raise the electoral bar needed to enter parliament to reduce the number of small political groupings and make the process of creating coalition governments easier.
Disappointment in parliament has manifested in reduced turnout for elections as well as in the election of a populist president whose main weakness - a lack of political experience - has become a strength because he managed to present himself as a non-politician.
As a candidate, Kais Saied didn't just boast about his lack of experience, he even stated that he had not voted in any Tunisian democratic election. This not only shows contempt for democracy but a lack of interest in public affairs from a person who has nominated himself for national leadership. It displays a profoundly undemocratic psychological character.
Politicians inciting against politics is one of the most important hallmarks of anti-democratic populism. There is no democracy without politics and politicians. A dictator is the worst kind of politician because he uses conspiracy, trickery and violence while claiming to be above politics.
"Politicians inciting against politics is one of the most important hallmarks of anti-democratic populism"
What is currently required is that Tunisian political and social forces cooperate despite their differences in order to face the dangers threatening democracy. This includes confronting populism by exposing its real ends and talking to the people and answering their fears and grievances.
Every authoritarian system of government faces economic and social problems such as Covid-19. Democracies face these economic and social problems too, and some have used the military to deal with coronavirus, though not all the armed forces remembered their obligation to abide by the constitution and law, even when performing exceptional duties.
Yes, democracies encounter problems within a constitutional framework, but they are still the most appealing form of government. We have not heard of Tunisians or people of other nationalities trying to emigrate to Russia, China, or North Korea for example.
Democracy is the solution to the scourge of oppression and tyranny, and the guarantee of the rights of the citizen, but it's not the solution to economic and social problems. Remedying them is the task of political and social forces and the policies adopted within a democratic framework by government and public institutions. It is this democratic framework that must be preserved because the alternative is tyranny.
Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian intellectual, academic and writer.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.
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Translated by Rose Chacko.