A year has passed since the start of President Kais Saied’s slow-motion coup in Tunisia. That it was as slow as this was perhaps key to its success. I would rather not write this as a sort of political eulogy. But it seems appropriate to write in the past tense, at least for now. This isn’t to say that Tunisians won’t be able to wrest their country back from their would-be strongman. I hope and pray that they will. But on a week like this—with Saied moving to enshrine his authoritarian powers in a stage-managed constitutional referendum—it is worth speaking to the gravity of what happened.
In some sense, this is what Tunisians wanted. Not all Tunisians, of course. But most of them, according to various polls. They saw parliamentary gridlock, ineffectual coalition governments and economic collapse and were primed for a leader who could promise a radically different vision. That man was Kais Saied. Interestingly, Saied, a constitutional law professor and self-styled straight-talking populist, hadn’t been particularly popular initially. In June 2021, his approval rating was only 38 percent. Yet after he dissolved the government and suspended parliament indefinitely on July 25, with the military’s support, his approval rating shot up to 82 percent. For several months afterwards, it hovered around 70 to 80 percent, before declining somewhat. In a survey conducted this past December and January, the political scientists Alexandra Domike Blackman and Elizabeth Nugent found that close to 80 percent of Tunisians viewed the president’s seizure of power favorably, while less than 15 percent thought it threatened democracy and basic rights. In other words, there is compelling evidence that a large majority of Tunisians were still at least somewhat supportive of the coup after having more than four months to reconsider the prospect.
To be sure, this survey data shouldn’t be taken at face value. It’s complicated. These figures do not measure enthusiasm. Or to put it differently, it is one thing to say you support something; it is quite another to act accordingly in real life. Attitudes are not equivalent to behavior. In an overview of various measures of support, Mohamed Dhia Hammami and Sharan Grewal argue that Saied’s support is relatively shallow, reflecting a “silent” and largely apathetic majority. Moreover, dissatisfaction appears to have increased significantly in recent months. Nearly all the country’s major political parties have been calling for either a boycott of the referendum or a “no” vote against Saied’s constitution. [Continue reading…]