Tunisia. For President Kais Saied, Democracy Can Be a New Idea

Kais Saied’s election as President of Tunisia has refuelled the civic energy in a population disappointed by the results of the democratic transition. With his plans for a “new construction” he means to renew the bond between state and society give substance to the notion of popular sovereignty.

October 23, 2019. — Swearing-in of Kais Saied before the elected representatives of the Constituent Assembly
© Thierry Brésillon

“Something has changed/The air seems lighter/It’s hard to define,” sang French singer Barbara after François Mitterand was elected president in 1981. The change of atmosphere in Tunisia after the election of Kais Saied had some of the same feeling, quick to materialise: in the days immediately following the vote, a clean-up campaign was launched via the social networks. First on some of the 2000 groups created in support of his campaign, then quickly taken up on non-political pages. On the following Sunday, 20 0ctober, in every city across the country, without any official obligation or injunction, Tunisians went about cleaning up all the refuse that has piled up over the past few years. A vast cleansing operation whose meaning was at once metaphorical, symbolic and political.

Metaphorical because it expressed a need to public life dominated during the previous legislative period by a mixture of political racketeering and party manoeuvring while the living conditions of the majority grew steadily worse. Symbolic because it involved an appropriation of public space, and hence of the State, by a society which has always perceived it, except in exceptional moments, as an external entity. And it is political because it conveys the depth of the grass-roots movement which has made Kais Saied President of Tunisia.

Getting the transition back on track

These past few years, the parties in power have spent the bulk of their energy on shoring up their positions, neglecting social issues, sparing the mainstays of the former regime—judiciary, interior affairs and the media—avoiding in-depth reforms and left the implementation of the principles and institutions provided for in the constitution to the vicissitudes and calculations of the party system. The fate of the transition appeared to be sealed, locked into the meanders of the power-sharing arrangements between the heirs of Bourgiba’s Neo-Destour party and the Islamo-conservative movement embodied by Ennahda. Neither of which has any real project other than to govern according to the rules laid down by the international funders on whom the country depends to balance its budget. The only way out considered till now was a more or less gradual drift towards a form of Bonapartism in search of its Bonaparte, backed up by a generation of experts and civil servants trained by Ben Ali’s Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD) and recycled in the new parties, to manage state affairs.

The democratic transition has betrayed the hopes of the young people who believed in the revolution, of those who were expecting a more transparent power structure, a state which had more respect for ordinary people. . . It is those many who are disappointed with the democratic transition who have “pulled the emergency brake” as Walter Benjamin phrased it, and expressed their determination to get the “transition” back on its revolutionary track after President Beiji Caid Essebsi’s efforts to derail it in favour of “historical continuity.”

In Walter Benjamin’s view of History, “historical continuity” is an illusion entertained by the mythology of the victors. The temporality of the vanquished is a discontinuous history of fractures which reveal other possibilities offered by the narrative forged by the power structure and constitute, in a kind of reverse angle, the warp and the woof of the actual flow of history. The “Arab Spring” seemed to boil down to a three-step respiration: revolutionary tide chaos (“Islamist winter”, civil war), counter-revolutionary backwash. A kind of misstep confirming the validity of the dominant paradigms. Yet indeed, from Morocco to Iraq, by way of Beirut, the myths on which the powers that be base their legitimacy are cracking apart and providing glimpses of other possible futures.

In this respect, the Tunisians, with this campaign and this election, have delivered a message that turns out to be rather similar to that of the ongoing uprisings throughout the Arab world: same distrust of the political class, same rejection of crony capitalism, same demand for civic recognition and a state in the service of the people, not of a power-wielding clique. That trajectory, begun in 2011, is far from completion and Tunisia, beacon of the Arab world, has the privilege of seeing the will to accomplish it embodied in the head of State.

A cultural revolution

But how, exactly, aside from the defeat of the established parties and their candidates, does the election of Kais Saied constitute a possible break with past? In his inaugural speech, he did not shrink from calling a spade a spade: “Cultural revolutions occur when a new awareness bursts forth after a long period of waiting. This is a historic moment which has disrupted the course of a people’s history. The revolution and the awareness to which he referred are a combination of civic participation and the strict application of the law, the exemplarity and accountability of the state. For the first time in their history, said philosopher Youssef Sedick in a radio interview, Tunisians will not be ruled by a paternal figure but by a sort of ‘older brother,’ a fellow citizen.

This new mood offers a sharp contrast with the model of a tutelary state—vested with a mission of moral recovery by the upper strata of an archaic society—and a passive citizenry. This model, which survived the end of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, the wave of privatisation and even the revolution, is a product of the demiurgic conception of a developmentalist State part and parcel of the Jacobin centralism of the colonial regime and the construction of the State by a beylical dynasty of foreign origin. In this system, as analysed by Michel Camau in 1984, the support of the governed rests upon a “state cronyism” : “a passive and dispassionate allegiance to an exterior and superior authority, in possession of the instruments of coercion and with the ability to regulate the means of the material management of social life.” Under these conditions, “ the support of a political system centred exclusively on the products of state activity, [the State] is obliged to be efficient.”

It was its loss of efficiency and the diminution of its capacity to compensate for its lack of legitimacy through a nepotistic redistribution that brought about the regime’ s downfall in 2011. But the pluralistic electoral process introduced by democratisation was not enough to restore that legitimacy, since the relationship between state and society had not changed in any fundamental way. Representative democracy brought to power an elite which was still largely concocted according to the same elitist conception and was, furthermore, devoid of any social efficacy and no longer in possession of the instruments of coercion.

By staging his proximity with the lowest income groups and suggesting the return of a redistributive state through his charitable activities, Nabil Karoui, who stood against Kais Saied in the run-off, had capitalised on the fact that the democratic transition had run out of steam. But he still embodied too closely the continuance of the regime, in particular through the association of money and power, to be credible. Not only did he fail to project the notion of a break with the past but he proposed no really transformational plan of action, unlike the new chief of State.

A “new construction”

If Kais Saied was elected by over 2.7 million Tunisians, 72.8% of the voters, it was not simply the rejection of Nabil Karoui, not just because of his promise to restore justice and apply the law but because he plans a reform of the institutions as a whole, a reform he has been popularising across the country since 2011.

His project, called “a new construction,” aims at “closing the gap between citizens and politics.” Concretely, the various levels of representation (local, regional, national)would be fused into a single election, using the first-past-the-post system, held in the smallest administrative unit (imada). The candidates would have to collect sponsorships for lists respecting gender equity and with quotas guaranteeing the representation of the most vulnerable groups. Mandates would be revocable. Each level of representation would elaborate its own developmental projects, to be harmonised in concertation with the State. The President would appoint the Premier and ministers would be elected by parliament on the basis of their project.

This strictly institutional proposal would be the only instrument making it possible to place the relations between state and society on a new footing, resolve the social and territorial divides and enable the collective intelligence to produce an anaemic model apt to the country’s needs thereby recovering an economic sovereignty eroded by the outward orientation of the present model. By ensuring a better distribution of the presence of the State, this construction would weaken the persistent grip of the ancient forms of authority (familial and tribal) or that of the local business “clans.” Is it possible to dissolve social contradictions in active citizenship? Will the informal local powers not monopolise territorial representation and thus the whole of national representation? This construction raises many questions. It may appear deeply unrealistic or even dangerous, aiming as it does to bring forth a single popular will and through its distrust of intermediaries. Yet it does have the advantage of calling into question the routine notions of “sovereignty” and “representation” of the “people.” Turning its back on classical constitutional concepts, it proposes to avoid the blind alleys of representative democracy which actually ends up by disconnecting the arenas of electoral debate from concrete political decisions, increasingly confiscated by experts and interest groups.

In order to set the stage for this revision, Kai¨s Saied” s support groups are now going to lead a vast awareness campaign. Tunisians will be able to come to grips with the debate on the political regime which the transition has thus far deprived them of, and create new spaces for citizenship.

From Prouhon to Sahariati by way of Negri

In the turmoil of the weeks of the revolution, especially during the Casbah sit-in as Rachida Ennaïfer tells it, that constitutional theory meshed with various colours of political thinking. While the project of a “new construction” appears to be unclassifiable, it is because, as Khalil Abbes one of the young people responsible for the campaign, explains, “it is a mix of several ideologies to be found in KaIs Saied’ s entourage.” Some refer to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and his idea that sovereignty gets lost when delegated through an election, but is materialised in the social activity of a people; others refer to Toni Negri and his notion of the “multitude” ; or to Ali Shariati, the Iranian theoretician of Shiite theology of liberation founded on the role of the “oppressed” . . .

Kais Saied’s strength stems from the different currents of thought which have supported him. By embodying them all he has overstepped the boundaries opposing them and which have prevented them from becoming a mobilising force. He is a step ahead of Arab nationalism by democratising it, a step ahead of Islamism by recognising programmatically the conservative sensibility of the masses, a step ahead of the elitist left by his popular appeal and even a step a head of Tunisian constitutionalism by endowing it with a transformational capacity absent from all the previous versions, drafted in 1861, 1959 and 2014.

“The people want”

Kais Saied’s political itinerary began in the early stages of self-organisation after Ben Ali” s downfall, but “democratic transition” and the option of a Constituant Assembly were rapidly shuttled aside. The idea of a “new construction” takes up where the revolutionary process was interrupted, but with two differences, one of them strategic, the other institutional. Khalil explains the difference in strategy: “We have understood that a frontal attack on the system would be defeated before it began. The change mus be achieved by exploiting the system’ s weaknesses. For reasons of party rivalry, the new Constitution has supplied the President with powerful levers, which Kais Saied can make use of.” The institutional difference lies in the fact that citizen participation has been supplemented by a restoration of the rule of law and the neutralisation of party capacity to interfere with the inner workings of the State and above all in the fact that the institutions are overseen by a figure embodying the will of the people.

By making an effort, from the very outset of his term of office, to maintain a personal lifestyle as ordinary as possible, he has indicated that he is a citizen like any other, yet vested with a mission that is greater than himself.

His campaign slogan was “The people want”; now that he has been elected, he wants to give them the means to implement their will. But through the power conferred on him by universal suffrage he is its custodian and his legitimacy is thus equal to that which the legislative election has conferred upon the MPs and their parties.

This two-pronged circuit, a direct relation between the people and a reforming president mediated by a National Assembly likely to be bogged down in its negotiations to form a motley majority will certainly structure Tunisian politics for the next few months.

There is little doubt but what parties and politicians regard Kais Saied’s project as a threat to their power. A race against time is underway: will the MPs be able to propose quickly enough an efficient cabinet able to restore confidence in democratic representation and at the same time contain the efforts of a chief of State trying to make the most of his popularity to bring about substantial changes in the institutions?

The worst case scenario would be a double failure, that the parties fail to overcome their disrepute and that the President ends up by being rejected as an abusive or incapable leader. But one thing is sure: the revolutionary upheaval has not done with transforming Tunisia.