Kais Saied, a professor of constitutional law, is an unlikely man of providence or saviour of his country. Yet Tunisia’s president has shoved aside the post-revolutionary and democratic constitution of 2014 to govern by decree. After dismissing the prime minister and parliament in July, this stickler for legal nicety last week moved emphatically towards one-man rule.
Tunisia – the one country that kept aloft some of the soaring hopes of the so-called Arab spring of uprisings across the region triggered by the toppling of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship in 2011 – looks to have crash-landed.
Enraged by a bickering and corrupt political class too incompetent to resolve a fiscal and debt crisis that is sinking the economy and spreading poverty and unemployment, Tunisians elected Saied as president in a 2019 landslide seen as an indictment of their elites. Many, polls say a majority, greeted his July power-grab as a welcome new broom. Even Ennahda, the once powerful Islamist party and largest force in parliament, has split because of dissent with a leadership that both dithers and overreaches.
A social conservative with firm conviction that he knows what is best for his people, Saied has predictably attracted backing from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as Egypt. The absolutist Gulf dynasties, along with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former army chief ruling Egypt since a then-popular 2013 coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government, see Saied as a welcome addition to their anti-Islamist front.
The US and Europeans have urged Saied to return to democratic norms, along a scale from mild rebuke to a slap on the wrist. This reticence is part of a re-emergence of the fatal western attraction to Arab autocrats — a preference for trusty despots rather than dodgy democrats, especially as a bulwark against political Islam. US president Joe Biden, after withdrawing from Afghanistan’s 20-year war, may well pull back from America’s positions in Syria and Iraq, if not from the Gulf. President Emmanuel Macron doesn’t only support Saied and Sisi. France has backed strongmen like Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan warlord.
The west is leaving an ideological vacuum across the wider Middle East at a time when it is perceived as unreliable by democrats and despots alike. Russia and China are quite open about their preferences for autocracy but America and the Europeans are seen as hypocrites, hawking their hardware behind hollow nostrums, hoping they can manage the Middle East’s episodic crises.
Conniving in the survival of tyranny abets jihadism and spurs the migration that foments populist extremism in the west. Most people in the Arab world want change that gives them security and fulfilling lives and livelihoods. Depriving them of rights is not the way to achieve this. It is particularly haunting that Tunisia, which unlike, say, Syria, had nurtured vibrant institutions such as trade unions and gradually reformed to provide quality education, should succumb to failures of governance.
While the attraction of liberal democracy has dimmed and populists are testing the rule of law to destruction from Brasília to Budapest – not to mention Washington – rulers across the wider Middle East are reaching for alternative narratives to legitimise their autocracy. Their populism often takes the form of resurgent nationalism and reclaiming past civilisational and cultural glories.
Most obviously, the Iranian theocracy’s construction of a paramilitary axis across the Levant through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, and down into Yemen and the Gulf, is widely felt as a Shia Muslim incursion by new Persian imperialists who condescend culturally to their neighbours.
Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Sunni Arab arch-rival, emphasises its role as the birthplace of Islam and custodian of its holiest sites at Mecca and Medina, the closest modern equivalent to the historic Muslim caliphate. Turkey, which abolished the last caliphate a century ago, under the Islamist populism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long made neo-Ottoman irredentist claims to past holdings in Iraq and Syria, and elaborated a doctrine of the “blue homeland” (“mavi vatan”) that stakes huge maritime claims from the Black Sea to the Aegean and East Mediterranean. Egypt, for its part, is harking back to the pharaohs to assert itself as what Mohammed Soliman at Washington’s Middle East Institute calls a “civilisation state”, likening it to Russia, China, India or Turkey.
All of these rulers are asserting a historic sense of destiny and entitlement that western outsiders interrupted. But in the more sordid present they are seeking to mask autocracy and endow it with a new legitimacy that now seems to have spread to Tunisia, former cradle of democratic hope.
The chain of Arab upheavals that began there in 2011 may have failed to banish tyranny, but certainly revealed the hollowness of some Arab dictatorships and the brittleness of others. It was briefly axiomatic, moreover, that Arab despotism, far from being an effective barrier to Islamism, is an assembly line for manufacturing jihadi extremists. That is unlikely to change.