President Saied and Tunisia's Enemies of Democracy: A Tale of Buridan's Paradox | Opinion

Tunisian President Kais Saied staged his coup eight months ago, and the outcome has been catastrophic: suspension of the constitution, closure of parliament, the National Anti Corruption Authority and the Supreme Judicial Council and refusal to form the Constitutional Court. The human rights situation in Tunisia today is no less tragic: since July 25 last year, when Saied made his draconian move, dozens have been placed under house arrest, including parliamentarians, politicians and judges.

The latest victim is former Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri, who faces no formal charges and was detained without an arrest warrant. Bhiri is on hunger strike in jail. A 57-year-old protestor recently died as a result of police violence during a demonstration against Saied. After Tunisia enjoyed 10 years of democracy since its 2011 uprising, how was Saied able to drag the country down this dark path? Who is helping him destroy Tunisia's democratic experience?

It is crucial to understand the circumstances that led up to Saied's blatant coup. The Godfathers of tyranny in the Gulf, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—with support from Egypt and Libya—have been cooperating with some of Tunisia's so-called liberals to put an end to Tunisia's democratic journey. What brings such an unlikely alliance together—of autocratic regimes and liberal political factions? Their common nemesis—political Islam.

It is a hackneyed scenario replaying in Tunisia as it did in Egypt before it: throwing the democratic baby out with the bathwater. In their desire to remove political Islam from the political equation, some allegedly "liberal" factions have backed dictators, and tossed democracy out altogether. As a Tunisian liberal, I decry the stance that some in my camp have taken.

During former dictator Ben Ali's era, as he led his battle against what he called Islamic fundamentalists in the early '90s, he managed to bring on board committed liberals who displayed early enmity to the growing influence of political Islam. He empowered these factions to take hold of the media, academia, civil society activism and labor unions. They in turn backed his dictatorial regime. Up until the eve of the 2011 uprising, the executive office of the well-known Tunisian General Labor Union (known as UGTT) was supporting Ben Ali, trying to keep a balance between union activism and the political framework under whose limits they operated. Similar positions were taken by the National Union of Tunisian Women, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women and the Tunisian League of Human Rights (known as LTDH). They all behaved in the same manner as what French philosopher Paul Nizan termed "watchdogs" in his renowned 1932 book of the same title—they quietly maintained the autocracy.

On July 25, President Saied promoted his coup as a move to correct Tunisia's path, following protests against the government's dismal handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, a deepening economic recession and as a response to what he said was the poor functioning of the parliament. In fact, he has corrected nothing. All he has done is help Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt continue to export their autocracy across the Middle East and aided their attempts to get rid of a regional democracy that has posed a threat to them. Tunisia's democratic path was a model for citizens in their own respective countries aspiring to freedom and dignity.

Tunisian children wave national flags
Tunisian children wave national flags during a rally on Jan. 14, 2017, in the Habib Bourguiba Avenue in the capital Tunis to mark the anniversary of the 2011 revolution. FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images

Many local media outlets painted Tunisia's 2011 uprising as a cause of chaos and used democracy as a scapegoat for all economic and political failures in the country. Moreover, leaders who were politically behaving as opponents to the government contributed to sabotaging the economy with their endless strikes, sit-ins and labor demands that were mostly unsustainable during a vulnerable democratic transition.

To make matters worse, the counter-revolutionary forces and the presidential palace found in the COVID pandemic a heaven-sent opportunity to frighten people and focus on the failure of the government. The outcome of all this was that when Saied announced on July 25 last year that he froze parliament and assumed judicial authority, some rejoiced, credulously seeing in the move the possibility of bettering the circumstances of their lives.

France, the Gulf countries, Egypt and Libya's Khalifa Haftar supported Saied's move last year, and the UGTT, the Journalists' Syndicate and other local, supposedly democratic political factions, condoned the move by remaining silent. They applauded the distortion of democracy and the crude return of tyranny. But Saied, unsurprisingly, turned on them too. He neither included them in his political decision-making nor eliminated their historical archenemy, the Islamist Ennahda Party, which had been the biggest bloc in parliament. In oscillating between democracy and tyranny, they brought to mind the famous paradoxical notion known as Buridan's Ass, a hypothetical situation in which an ass that is hungry and thirsty is placed midway between some hay and a pail of water. Unable to choose between either, it dies of starvation and thirst.

The international community must prevent the enemies of democracy inside and outside Tunisia from driving nails into the coffin of the country's democracy. It must put pressure on Saied to reinstate parliament, restore the country's judicial watchdog and uphold political pluralism and human rights. The international media must stand by democrats in Tunisia, shedding light on the weekly demonstrations by Tunisian citizens decrying the resurgent tyranny in their country, and helping mobilize international public opinion in favor of democracy.

Democratic parliaments around the world must intensify their support for Tunisia and meet with Tunisians who truly aspire for freedom and a way forward. Just as the hypocritical stances of some so-called democratic factions in Tunisia threaten to crush the hopes for democracy in a struggling country and the wider struggling region, so does the silence of the international community.

Ahmed Ghiloufi is a professor of philosophy at El Imam Moslem Institute in Tunis, and a member of the executive board of Tunisia's Citizens Against the Coup Initiative.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.