Tunisian President Kais Saied is an incomprehensible person. He is conservative in his way of thinking, but a revolutionary in his practices when facing corruption and the corrupted. When he speaks, he draws on traditional Islamic references, but since he came to office, he has demonised Islamists, and turned them into a target for his attacks. He sides with the Arab Spring when he talks about people’s social conditions, and when he reminds them of who caused their poverty and misery, yet he is against the Arab Spring and its slogans when it comes to people’s freedom of speech and their right to protest. He is a dictator in his actions and decisions, but also a democrat who respects the constitution and the law in his statements; he is a saviour, a dictator and a tyrant all at the same time.
Saied is simple when he is thinking or proposing ideas and mysterious when he is silent or frowning. He does not hesitate to express his respect for the Constitution, yet he does not hesitate to take decisions and sign decrees that have nothing to do with the spirit of the Constitution, which he swears to respect and implement!
The case of Kais Saied calls for psychological analysis more than it calls for political analysis. Saied is a strange political being, at once atypical and traditional, trapping himself inside a box of puzzles that are difficult to decipher. He is the authority and the state, and both are embodied in the inflated ego of a president who walks the path of the French King Louis XIV who used to say, “I am the state and the state is I.”
Saied gives himself extraordinary powers every day. With every decision he furthers himself from the constitution, and takes Tunisia closer to a return to being ruled by an anonymous dictatorship. He is a democratically elected president yet he rules by a decree signed by himself to assume all executive and legislative powers; he even wanted to take over the judiciary and appoint himself as head of public prosecution. Since his decision to dissolve parliament and the government in July, it was clear that the man’s approach was not reformist, and far from democratic. Ever since he announced his constitutional coup, he has been leading his country towards a miserable, demagogic populist dictatorship. He, as Tunisians say, has led the worst coup, and he will fail to establish the worst dictatorship.
Saied is the product of the shocking contradiction between democracy on paper, which was established by the 2011 revolution and praised by the world, and the difficult realities of the life Tunisians are living because of poverty, rampant corruption and unemployment. Ten years after the revolution, Tunisians were clearly disappointed with the negative effects it had on their lives and the resulting conditions, they decided to give their votes to a nobody; an obscure professor who was never heard defending democracy during the era of the Ben Ali’s dictatorship. Now, he wants to impose himself as the only one meeting the people’s desires and the official spokesperson of their will. For this, he is not only getting rid of the legacy of the Tunisian revolution, but also dismantling the foundations of the Tunisian state as the only country in which the Arab Spring revolution escaped the winds of counter-revolutions.Two years have passed since Saied was named president and every day he strengthens his grip on power and formalises his coup by issuing exceptional rulings and decrees that enhance his powers. After two months of confusion and chaos, Tunisians woke up to the danger of returning to a dictatorship that began to seep into their country through decrees enacted in the late hours of the night, so they decided to confront this tyranny by taking to the streets. Even the political classes, which have been cautious in their criticism of Saied’s dictatorship over the past two months, realised that it has lost its credibility in the eyes of a large majority of citizens and began to raise its voice, denouncing the deviation that would return the country to the pre-revolutionary era.
Today, Tunisia is at a major crossroads: It can either drift towards oppression and tyranny and establishing one of the worst dictatorships, accepting it as the lesser evil that would have befallen it if the policies of absurdity and corruption that characterised the past ten years had continued, OR, it can choose to correct the path it’s on before it’s too late, and establish a new system that is more effective, preserves pluralism and basic freedoms and guarantees the people the right to economic development and social justice.
In light of the political and economic crises in the country, Tunisian women and men do not have the luxury of time to wait for the fulfilment of their president’s vague and turbulent promises, as he is still messing around in search of a way out of the situation he has trapped himself and the state in. The road to dictatorship, like the road to hell, is paved with good intentions. It is not enough for President Saied to say that he respects the constitution, applies the law and fights corruption. Strong states are not based on the rule of an individual, even if he has a strong character, or rather a false charisma. The state is a collection of institutions, and these must be from the people and for the people, representing them and defending their rights. The biggest challenge, in fact, in Tunisia or abroad, is the future of the Tunisian democratic transformation, which must be saved. Otherwise, the counter-revolutions will declare their victory, and with it mourn the death of democracy in the Arab region.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 29 September 2021