NOTE: This article first appeared at HS Today.
By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies, American Military University
In the early 2010s, Tunisia was the first country in the Arab world to experience the mass demonstrations that were soon dubbed the Arab Spring. At the time, I was teaching at Tulane University and discussed the developments in the Middle East with my students. Some saw the Arab Spring uprising as a step toward westernization and modernization in the Arab world.
In a conversation I had with a sociologist, who was teaching in another university he mentioned that the Arab Spring was a great example for the democratizing power of the internet, but I told him that I was not sure things would unfold that quickly.
The reports from The New York Times applauded what it saw as the emergence of a new Middle East. But just a few short years later, we saw that the uprising was yet another example of Western misunderstanding of the Middle East and forcing Western politics onto a completely different political system.
A Coup in Tunisia
Tunisia was the flashpoint of the Arab Spring. For a while, it looked like the only success was the ouster of long-standing dictator, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, in what was called the Jasmine Revolution. A new democracy was born, and free elections were held. Tunisians voted for a moderate Islamic party, Al-Nahda, but things did not evolve as expected.
Tunisia has been suffering from an ongoing economic crisis, and its internal corruption has not helped the country. COVID-19 has made things really bad in Tunisia, but Tunisian political leaders have not done much to deal with these public health and social issues.
Governments in Tunisia were not stable, and one election came after another. Al-Nahda lost votes in each election cycle but it was still the center of the parliamentary bloc as other parties and politicians rose and fell.
Against this political backdrop, the current Tunisian President, Kais Saied, gained power. His agenda was to be a strong leader who would take charge and rid Tunisia of its problems. He mainly blames Al-Nahda as the source of all Tunisia’s problems.
Najla Bouden Ramadhane Becomes the First Female Prime Minister in the Arab World
After assuming leadership, Kais Saied received phone calls from other leaders who were worried about the collapse of the young democracy. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and French officials released messages expressing concern about Tunisia’s stability, and that might explain why Saied took an unusual move last month. He nominated Najla Bouden Ramadhane, a university engineer with World Bank experience, as the first female prime minister of Tunisia and the Arab world.
Saied dismissed Bouden’s predecessor in July and suspended Parliament. Reuters noted: “Saied said Bouden’s appointment honored Tunisian women and asked her to propose a cabinet in the coming hours or days ‘because we have lost a lot of time.’”
This appointment of a female prime minister by Saied is indeed a symbolic move and it has some significance to the Arab world. However, it is clear that Saied’s move is mostly intended to placate his opposition and alleviate international concerns.
NPR reported: “The new prime minister is a 60-something professor of geosciences at the National Engineering School in Tunis, according to The National, based in the United Arab Emirates. She will leave her current post as director general in charge of quality at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, where she is overseeing World Bank programs.”
Democracy Problems in Tunisia
Peter Ndoro of the South African Broadcasting Company (SABC) spoke to the Editor-in-Chief of the UK-based international magazine, “The Interest,” Sami Hamdi. Hamdi, a Tunisian journalist, explained that the coup and its success in Tunisia has nothing to do with Kais Saied but with the failure of Al-Nahda and the fact that Tunisians did not buy into democracy as a political system.
In the interview, Hamdi observed that the past decade in Tunisia saw nothing but political instability and continued corruption. The economic crisis is coming to an end, and the people of Tunisia have lost hope in the political system.
Al Nahda is still the biggest party in Tunisia, noted Hamdi, but that is exactly the problem. It continues to lose support and but is still the centerpiece in any coalition government.
Each election sees the rise of another party that is the “flavor of the month” for that election cycle, but that party soon fails and disappears, giving way to yet another election. Al-Nahda became identified with the failure of the Tunisian political system, but its opponents were not strong enough to take over by democratic means.
Hamdi said that he voted for the current president because his main opponent was accused of corruption and ties to the business community. He was not surprised that Kais Saied took over by force and concluded that the real fear is that this power move can only be sustained by more force and will require Tunisia to revert once again to a dictatorship.
Since the 2010s and the Arab Spring, it seems that we have come full circle. Much has happened in the Middle East, but nothing in essence changed. Whether it’s Tunisia, Egypt (with a short-lived democracy that gave rise to the Muslim Brotherhood regime) or Syria with its long-standing war, it seems the Middle East is not truly ready for democracy.