Kais Saied, a professor of constitutional law, is an unlikely man of providence or savior of his country. Yet the president of Tunisia has the post-revolutionary and democratic constitution of 2014 by ruling decree. After firing the prime minister and parliament in July, he was arrested this week for legal action. emphatically moves to one-man government.
Tunisia — the only country that has held up some of the rising hopes of the so-called Arab Spring of uprisings across the region, caused by the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship in 2011 – seems to have collapsed has.
Furious over a bickering and corrupt political class that is too incapable of resolving a fiscal and debt crisis that is plaguing the economy and spreading poverty and unemployment, Tunisians elect Saied as president during a 2019 landslide, seen as a charge of their elite. Very, polls say a majority, welcomed its power takeover in July as a welcome new broom. Even Ennahda, the once powerful Islamic party and the largest power in parliament, has divided due to disagreement with a leadership that both deviates and achieves too much.
Saied has attracted a social conservative with a firm belief that he knows what is best for his people support 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 of Egypt since a then popular coup in 2013 against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government, consider Saied a welcome in addition to their anti-Islamist front.
The US and Europeans urged Saied to return to democratic norms, from a scale of light reprimands to a slap on the wrist. This reluctance is part of the resurgence of the fateful Western attraction for Arab autocrats — a preference for trusted despots rather than dodgy democrats, especially as a bulwark against political Islam. US President Joe Biden, after withdrawing from the 20-year war in Afghanistan, could very well withdraw from America’s positions in Syria and Iraq, if not from the Gulf. President Emmanuel Macron not only supports Saied and Sisi. France supports strongmen like Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan warlord.
The west leaves an ideological void in the broad Middle East at some point considered unreliable by Democrats and despots. Russia and China are very open about their preferences for autocracy, but America and the Europeans are considered hypocrites, putting their hardware behind hollow nostrums, in the hope that they can manage the episodic crises in the Middle East.
Working together in the survival of tyranny contributes to jihadism and stimulates the migration that populist extremism causes in the west. Most people in the Arab world want change that provides them with security and satisfies lives and livelihoods. Depriving them of rights is not the way to achieve it. It is particularly striking that Tunisia, which, unlike Syria, for example, has cultivated vibrant institutions such as trade unions and has been gradually reformed to provide quality education, would succumb to the government.
While the appeal of liberal democracy has diminished and populists are testing the rule of law for the destruction of Brasilia to Budapest – not to mention Washington – rulers in the broad Middle East are reaching alternative narratives to legitimize their autocracy. Their populism often takes the form of reviving nationalism and reclaiming civilizing and cultural glories from the past.
It is clear that the construction of the Iranian theocracy from a paramilitary axis across the Levant through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, as far as Yemen and the Gulf, is widely regarded as a Shia-Muslim invasion by culturally declining Persian imperialists to their neighbors.
Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Sunni Arab arch-enemy, emphasizes its role as the birthplace of Islam and guardian of its holiest sites in 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 previous possession in Iraq and Syriaand a doctrine of the “Blue Fatherland” (“blue fatherland“) It makes great maritime claims from the Black Sea to the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. Egypt, in turn, is returning to the pharaohs to confirm itself as Mohammed Soliman calls it at the Washington Institute of the Middle East “Civilization State”, it compares with Russia, China, India or Turkey.
All of these rulers claim a historical sense of destiny and right that has been interrupted by Western outsiders. But in the more horrific present, they are trying to mask autocracy and endow it with a new legitimacy that has now apparently spread to Tunisia, the former cradle of democratic hope.
The chain of Arab upheavals that began there in 2011 may not have dispelled tyranny, but it certainly revealed the caveat of some Arab dictatorships and the fragility of others. Moreover, it was briefly axiomatic that Arab despotism, far from being an effective barrier to Islamism, is a conveyor belt for the production of jihadi extremists. This is unlikely to change.