When Muammar Gaddafi declared the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in 1977, he invented a new way for the people to govern themselves. Not through democracy and the ballot box, but by what he called the General People's Committee, wherein he placed his informants, followers, and supporters. Instead of a president ruling Libya, he said, the Libyan people would govern the country themselves through popular committees; it was enough for him to be Africa's king of kings.
Around the world, he was said to be crazy, and we all laughed at his behaviour, but the truth is that the man was neither mad nor an imbecile. He was fully aware of what he was doing and knew that populism was the best way to preserve his rule and satisfy his authoritarian tendency. This is true of all arrogant tyrants, until the moment of truth arrives and they fall from their thrones; their strength disappears and they beg the people whom they had enslaved to have mercy on them. We saw it with Ceausescu in Romania, and with Gaddafi in Libya.
However, tyrants do not appear to learn from history. We are now seeing the small dictator of Tunisia, Kais Saied, following in Gaddafi's footsteps, even outdoing him as "the student who has become the master". Gaddafi rode on a tank, staged a military coup and started to govern Libya. His Tunisian student Saied came in through the 2010/11 revolution that overthrew the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, adopted a constitution, and established a healthy democracy that allowed him to stand in the presidential election and win through the ballot box.
Then, less than two years after he was elected, on 25 July this year, he staged a "coup against the constitution" and the democratic path. He shut down the parliament, removed immunity from its members and imposed a state of emergency in the country. He then passed a number of special laws by decree and abolished all oversight bodies. On 22 September he seized full legislative authority to go with the executive and judicial authority that he had already taken. Tunisia was in his grip.
His "emergency measures" now appear to be permanent and it is as if no revolution was staged; Tunisia has re-entered the bad old days of dictatorship. Never mind Ben Ali, we could say that Saied has taken the country back to the Habib Bourguiba era of the 1950s and 1960s, but without any qualifications, abilities or history that he can rely on. Bourguiba's honourable struggle against the French occupation redeemed him in the eyes of his opponents who forgave many of his mistakes and failings.
Moreover, Saied doesn't possess Ben Ali's sophistication to allow him to rule on his own. He came from nowhere, from outside the world of politics. It is ironic that he came from the judiciary and the Constitutional Court which he attacked and disrupted. He came out of the Jasmine Revolution, and yet has destroyed its achievements, without which he wouldn't have stepped foot in the Carthage Palace.
The latest novelty is that he claims to have discovered the cause of Tunisia's economic woes, to which he alone has the solution. The problem, says Saied, lies in the 2014 revolutionary constitution; the very same constitution that helped to bring him to power. Suddenly, as president, he has decided that it is inadequate and has no legitimacy.
If the constitution lacks legitimacy, then his presidency has no legitimacy and he must step down. In his arrogance, though, he has declared that he will supervise the drafting of a new constitution after a public consultation and referendum in time for the new document to be presented next July, the anniversary of his coup. This, he said, will be followed by a parliamentary election on 17 December next year, on the twelfth anniversary of the revolution.
Gaddafi's Tunisian student claims that the people will represent themselves by themselves after eliminating the mediator institutions. According to his speeches, there are good and bad in the country; the "good" are those who support him. He will raise them into a "majority" to represent the people and exploit this to establish his authoritarian rule.
In fact, Saied has never disguised his populist tendencies, but no one has noticed them. He was open with his frustration about the partisan parliament during his presidential campaign, which gained him popular support. It is true that the people are fed up with party corruption and conflicts, and have lost confidence in the behaviour of the political parties which were unable to improve their living conditions.
The "good guys" have rushed to back his decisions. Walid Al-Abbasi, of the People's Movement, said that his party supports what the president said in his speeches regarding broad popular participation so that everyone can vote in the referendum and election. He alleged that some parties have received foreign support and others have broken the law.
Meanwhile, the "bad guys" rushed to reject Saied's decisions and power grab. Muhammad Al-Qumani of Ennahda said that what the president announced recently simply strengthened his coup and the movement will work with all national political forces to thwart it. They refuse to take over the popular will, and denounced the attempt to impose one-man rule.
The question remains about the referendum that Saied has promised, and what guarantees he will provide to make it free and fair. Referendums are usually conducted according to democratic rules with oversight, transparency and freedom of choice, none of which are available in Tunisia today. Unfortunately, he is also backed by the army, so the consultation process will be controlled by his supporters, making the referendum a farce waiting for the masses to applaud after the curtain comes down. The populists are hiding their authoritarian tendencies with fake celebrations to glorify the dictatorial leader.
"The sun of freedom shone over the Arab world from Tunisia in 2010, but the moon escaped and disappeared in 2021 due to the Arab-American-Zionist plots, which refuse to allow the establishment of dignity and freedom for the nations," I wrote in an earlier article. "Will it shine again?"
The answer can be deduced from the Tunisian Gaddafi's speech, which suggests that the future is even bleaker. Saied would not dare to abolish the constitution and rewrite it himself unless he has the support of several countries, the identity of which is no secret to anyone, with an interest in ending Tunisia's democratic experience and dragging it towards an army-backed dictator. That way, they protect their own thrones.
Dictators don't change their spots. In North Africa, Gaddafi is an idea that does not die.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.