The Kais Saied question

Summary: as he systematically deconstructs the last vestiges of Tunisia’s experiment in democracy many are wondering what the Tunisian president’s end game is or if he has an end game at all.

Today’s newsletter is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of our 31 May podcast with Francis Ghilès. Francis is a regular contributor to the Digest and a specialist on security, energy and political trends in North Africa, and the western Mediterranean. He’s a Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs and a visiting fellow at King’s College London. You can find the podcast here.

President Kais Saied shakes hand with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad during the Arab summit in Jeddah on May 19, 2023 [photo credit: Tunisian Presidency]
You’ve argued that institutions like the World Bank and the IMF as well as many Western observers have misread Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. In fact, you do not see it as a revolution at all. Is there a mismatch between perception and reality? Have we deluded ourselves into believing democracy had been secured in Tunisia?

I think that many observers in the West have deluded themselves about Tunisia in particular. First of all, when the Tunisian revolt which toppled Ben Ali happened, it came very quickly. It was a matter of three or four weeks and it took everybody by surprise. It was then followed by Egypt.  But Tunisia surprised everybody; foreign powers didn’t really have a chance to intervene, assuming they wanted to. And Tunisia is not as strategically important as Egypt. Therefore, there was less temptation to intervene, but it all happened very fast. And so a disbelief very quickly moved or morphed into delight and enthusiasm. But nobody stopped to think whether this was really a revolution. Now, the way Lenin describes revolution, you need an organisation, you need a leader and you need an unambiguous programme. None of these features were present in the Tunisian revolt, nor for that matter in the Egyptian revolt and therefore the people who organised or led the revolt, young people, once they toppled Ben Ali, they didn’t have a programme and they didn’t have a leader. Therefore, the door was open for the forces which owned Tunisia, the leading economic and political and security forces to regain the upper hand. So there was never a revolution in Tunisia in the way a revolution is defined classically. And that’s where the first delusion was. And it was a major one because people carried on in this enthusiasm.

And are there other factors?

Two or perhaps three other factors. One, a number of people in the West, not everybody, but a number of observers, convinced themselves that the Islamist party Ennahda, which is part of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, was a force for democracy and change and moderation when in fact they were only interested in imposing religious fiat. That was the first mistake. The second mistake or misunderstanding was that the security forces were not in any way reorganised or opened up. And so the old hands were still very much there. And then, thirdly, there was a mistake which is down to Western views on Tunisia. Tunisia has been viewed for the last 70 years since it became independent as a moderate, open Arab country which gave women rights which they had in almost no other Muslim country, at least in the Middle East. And so these factors combined to delude people into thinking that Tunisia was moving fast on a path which would lead it to democracy. But not only were the security forces not changed, not reformed, the legal system was not changed.

And how significant has that proven to be?

Now, in Tunis, there are many judges and magistrates who are clean and good people. But there are plenty also who appointed by political fiat. So you can’t change a whole judicial machine in a matter of months. It’s absolutely impossible. And as for the security forces, any attempt to modernise them was thwarted by two things. One when the Islamists tried to organise the parallel system of information and police within the Ministry of the Interior when they had majorities, when they led the governments from 2012 to 2014. And secondly, was terrorism which came from Libya, that is Tunisians trained in Libya, forced the state to reassert its power, particularly the security forces to defend the country. So all this led us to a situation where there was no reform. There was no reform of the security services, no reform of the judiciary, no reform in the economy, although of course, freedom of expression was much greater. And there was far less torture, torture virtually disappeared. That is true, but the other pillars of democracy, the economics, the judiciary system, the tax system changes, the economic reforms, all these were missing and therefore Tunisia could not progress and the economy started to deteriorate badly.

Let’s now talk about the IMF negotiations. Kais Saied is playing this anti- imperialist nationalist card in resisting demands from the IMF for changes before the big money comes through. Is this strategy working?

Well, in the short term, it seems to be working. It won’t solve any problem in the long run. But it seems to be working in the sense that his discourse a few months ago against the black immigrants in Tunisia, which was quite overtly racist, worked up to a point. A lot of Tunisians don’t like what Saied was saying but others fell for it because the standard of living has dropped very much in recent years and unemployment is high. So this kind of racist discourse finds an echo amongst a number of Tunisians, there is no doubt at all. And then he has also been thundering against speculators because the prices have risen a lot in recent months, particularly staple food. But you can’t just keep on denouncing speculators, you’ve got to propose reforms and Kais Saied isn’t proposing anything. And vis a vis the IMF and the Europeans, a number of his critics will say that he’s exercising a form of blackmail because the number of Tunisian illegal immigrants who are leaving the coast of Tunisia to go to Italy has increased enormously in recent months. The Tunisian authorities are doing what they can to stop boats, but clearly there’s an epidemic. And of course, this worries the Italians. You can call it blackmail, you can call it extreme pressure. Kais Saied is behaving very cynically, but in the short term, quite cleverly. The problem is that even if he gets a first tranche of money from the IMF which allows him to avoid Tunisia going bankrupt, or at least defaulting on its foreign debt this year, this does nothing to address the deep-seated problems of economic management which indeed no government has addressed since 2011. And these problems are much more deep-seated than even many people at the IMF or the World Bank realise. Tunisia is a deeply corporatist state. It doesn’t really have a middle class. Rather it’s a middle class which, when it gets involved in importing, manages to import but with certain state rules which allows it to keep prices high. There is no free competition in Tunisia for a lot of goods. So the Tunisian state is in a huge mess, economically.

He has played the racist card and he is also playing the anti-colonialist card.  How is that working out?

There is a feeling that Kais Saied’s criticism of the West – whether it is sound or not is another question – is certainly shared by many Tunisians, particularly younger Tunisians. Right across North Africa today, in Algeria and Morocco too, the feelings about Europe, about the way Europe or France behaves is very, very critical. Even in Morocco, though they don’t say it quite so openly. So there’s a feeling of going back to the colonial days saying we’ve been screwed every time by the West. They don’t want a partnership with us. They only prepared to collaborate when we had terrorism in our country and they want to avoid it spreading. So there they do help us and they make us pay for it because in Tunisia, the Tunisians have paid Europe and America for many of the training and weapons they’ve got.

There is a feeling of latent bitterness about the West which did not exist 20 years ago. It’s coming out now, I think, with the younger people more because they’re better informed. They are on social networks, they are better educated and they no longer share the deference of their elders for French civilization particularly or Europe. They may wish to move to Europe to have a better life. That is true. But they also see through what they consider the empty European rhetoric on democracy. They listen to American leaders and European leaders preach democracy. And immediately they turn around and they say, is that what they practise in Iraq, is that what they practise in Libya, is that what they’ve practised for 70 years with the Palestinians? And these are arguments which are very difficult to counter. Kais Saied is playing on this and they are widely shared and they reflect the broader issue of the global south not buying the Western line on Ukraine.

So is Kais Saied playing for time and hoping that the West will not let him fail?

You know, we are in a very strange situation, but certainly what Kais Saied is doing, he may gain a few more months. But this in no way addresses the problems of Tunisia. Tunisia is a neo-patrimonial state, where the middle classes, the supposedly entrepreneurial classes, so beloved of the Washington Consensus are, in fact, people who have rents coming from state regulations which allows them to make money on all kinds of goods. Algeria is rentier state in the more classical sense of oil. Morocco is less though power and wealth are very concentrated amongst a few ruling families. So all these states are patrimonial, or neo-patrimonial states. And as long as this is not changed, as long as the states are not rebuilt, which would require a revolution, you’re not going to get growth in North Africa which is commensurate with the challenges facing the region. And as a result, we continue to get the flight of capital that we’ve had for 60 years. But also more worryingly, particularly for Tunisia, is the flight of educated Tunisians, not just doctors and nurses, all kinds of people who are good at plumbing, at electricity, at IT are leaving the country and setting up shop in Europe, in Canada and in the Gulf. That is the disaster that is facing Tunisia. It is losing its educated younger people. The same thing is happening in Algeria and to a slightly lesser degree in Morocco. In Algeria the planes to Canada are full every week. The Algerian younger, educated people are fleeing the country. In Tunisia, they’re fleeing the country. What future is there for a country, if its youth, its educated youth votes with its feet? That’s the real question.

Finally, how do you read Kais Saied?

He is a cipher, but he is difficult to read because nobody would have expected him to be able to play this game with the IMF as long as he has without the economy collapsing. But he has. So there are certain elements for me at any rate, which are missing, which I don’t quite understand. Is the West barking at him, officially at least the Americans, when in fact behind closed doors they’re being much more lenient, in view of the war in Ukraine, in view of the re-election of Mr. Erdoğan, in view of what’s going on in Iran, in view of the continuing chaos in Libya? They’ve got their plates so full Tunisia isn’t important enough to take hard and fast decisions. Tunisians might get away with more, simply because we in the West don’t want them to fail. At the end of the day if giving them a little more rope is fine for the next six months or year we’ll give them a little more rope. I suspect that may be the real story of Tunisia. It’s a sad story. Because until the Tunisian leaders and the Tunisian people face up to the way they’re governed economically, change that way of governing, until they understand they can’t have a poor interior and a rich coast, until they abide by the rule of law and indeed democracy, if you will, they will not be able to rebuild their country economically. But then economically nor will any other Arab countries on the southern rim of the Mediterranean be able to have steady, strong growth unless there is not a root and branch reform of the way those countries are governed.

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