Introduction

Sarah Yerkes

In January 2021, Tunisians celebrated one decade since the popular uprisings that removed then president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power and ushered in a democratic transition. Though Tunisia has not yet consolidated its democracy, during the past decade the Tunisian government and people achieved several successes including crafting a pluralistic and liberal constitution, holding free and fair local and national elections, fostering a vibrant civil society and media climate, and developing political institutions based on inclusivity. Nevertheless, Tunisia has failed to address the root causes that brought about the 2011 uprisings including rampant corruption, high levels of unemployment, and vast socioeconomic disparities between the coastal communities and the interior of the country, leading to a rise in anger and frustration among the Tunisian public. Thus, in July 2021 President Kais Saied, a populist leader with no political party or governing experience, took advantage of public dissatisfaction with the status quo to execute a self-coup. Within ten months, Saied has managed to roll back many of the democratic gains that Tunisians fought for and built. His moves have included invalidating most of the 2014 Constitution, dissolving the democratically elected parliament, dismantling the Supreme Judicial Council, and engaging in a series of politically targeted arrests. How did Tunisia get to this point?

Sarah Yerkes
Sarah Yerkes is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, where her research focuses on Tunisia’s political, economic, and security developments as well as state-society relations in the Middle East and North Africa.
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To answer that question, the pieces in this compendium examine the experiences of countries around the world that struggled with challenges similar to those Tunisia has faced during the first decade of its transition. While Tunisia is often compared to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, global examples of young democracies, such as those in Eastern and Central Europe, Latin America, and Africa, can offer important lessons for policymakers on how governments and civil society actors have addressed these challenges both successfully and unsuccessfully.

The first four pieces in the compendium examine challenges facing young democracies around the world. Jennifer McCoy looks at former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori’s 1992 self-coup to understand how it came to be and its aftermath. For Europe, Paul Stronski looks at Kyrgyzstan’s troubled transition, examining the role of the international community in aiding and inhibiting democracy as well as domestic factors, such as corruption and a winner-takes-all political system. The Georgian case, as Thomas de Waal explains, displays three primary flaws: a top-down political culture, a weak rule of law, and extreme polarization—with several similarities to Tunisia. Then, through an examination of Kenya’s experience, Saskia Brechenmacher looks at the complex relationship between democratization and gender equality.

Marc Pierini’s piece compares the experience of Turkey’s transition with that of Tunisia, examining the role of the dominant Islamist party in each country. The final two pieces look explicitly at Tunisia. Yezid Sayigh offers analysis of the security sector and its role in society, explaining both how and why the transitional government failed to effectively bring the Ministry of Interior under its control and oversight. And Hamza Meddeb examines Tunisia’s failed economic transition, arguing that by prioritizing the political transition and consensus-based politics over economic reforms, Tunisia paved the way for Saied’s power grab.

Finally, I examine what lessons policymakers can take away from these cases to help understand both how Tunisia’s democratic experiment stalled and what forms of local and international intervention might help return Tunisia to a democratic path.

Tunisia today is facing a dire economic situation and rapidly deteriorating social peace, which have both paved the way for Saied’s power grab. By choosing to sequence political reform ahead of economic reform, Tunisia delayed addressing several critical challenges, such as reining in one of the highest public sector wage bills in the world, getting a handle on endemic corruption, and addressing rising inflation, growing deficits, and persistently high rates of unemployment, particularly among college-educated youth. As Meddeb explains in his contribution, large inflows of grants and loans from the international community acted as a Band-Aid, disguising the financial rot and allowing the Tunisian government to buy itself time. Furthermore, the outsized power of the country’s labor unions made it difficult, if not impossible, for Tunisian political leaders to undertake the austerity measures necessary to right Tunisia’s economic trajectory. All of these challenges were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which, among other harmful outcomes, hurt Tunisia’s tourism industry and saw unemployment grow.

While Tunisia succeeded politically in building a variety of democratic institutions, various political actors, including political parties and the government, failed to address the deep social and economic issues that brought about the 2010–2011 uprisings, creating the conditions that allowed for Saied’s takeover. Political parties, in particular, remained largely stagnant, failing to develop strong platforms, appeal to the public, and deliver economic or social progress. Each subsequent election brought a more fractured parliament, reflecting a growing polarization within the country and a growing dissatisfaction with status quo parties and political actors. In the months leading up to Saied’s self-coup, members of parliament physically fought with one another, and Saied and his hand-picked prime minister regularly insulted each other in public.

With this backdrop, it is not surprising that the Tunisian public largely applauded Saied’s actions on July 25, 2021—seeing him as someone who was taking action to address their problems. But, as Saied’s takeover nears the one-year mark, he has failed to address any of the social or economic problems that Tunisians are facing today. Rather, Saied has systematically unwound more than a decade of democratic progress. This compendium therefore seeks both to understand how and where Tunisia’s democratic transition failed and how it might return to a democratic path and to offer lessons for other democratic transitions.

Peru’s 1992 Self-Coup

Jennifer McCoy

Tunisian President Kais Saied’s self-coup shares several similarities with the experience of Peru under Alberto Fujimori. After a decade of hyperinflation and a brutal Maoist guerrilla insurgency under a newly restored democracy, Peruvians elected in 1990 a little-known political outsider as president—Alberto Fujimori. Less than two years into his term, Fujimori carried out an autogolpe—a self-coup in which he abolished Congress and the court system, suspended the constitution, and began to rule by decree. He remained in office until 2000.

Roots of the Autogolpe

Peru’s political history since independence in 1834 oscillated between periods of strongman rule, oligarchic democracy, and military government. A revolutionary party known as Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) formed in the 1920s, aiming to improve Indigenous rights and fight imperialist influence. The party was repeatedly outlawed, and volatile politics eventually resulted in military intervention in 1968 first with a leftist, nationalist military government followed by a rightist military government. A return to competitive politics in 1980 produced a decade of worsening economic experiences and a serious security threat from the Maoist group Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement guerrilla insurgencies. Under a center-right government followed by the leftist-populist presidency of APRA’s first-ever government, Peruvians experienced hyperinflation, a growing drug trade, and the brutality of the guerrilla insurgencies in the 1980s. An inability to cope with these challenges weakened popular support for the traditional political parties and led in 1990 to the surprise victory of an independent candidate, Fujimori, an agricultural engineer and university rector with Japanese ancestry and little political experience.

Jennifer McCoy
Jennifer McCoy is a nonresident scholar in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, where she focuses on political polarization and democratic resilience in the U.S. and around the world.

Fujimori campaigned on a populist platform criticizing the anti-inflationary proposals of his opponent. Once in office, however, Fujimori did an about-face and implemented a drastic austerity plan known as Fuji shock, including allowing gasoline prices to rise by nearly 3,000 percent. Although Fujimori’s plan was initially painful, especially for the poor, it restored macroeconomic stability and impressive economic growth within a few years. However, his efforts to implement his economic plan and fight the insurgency were hampered by the Peruvian Congress, controlled by opposition parties.

In April 1992, with public confidence in Congress at a low ebb of 17 percent approval, Fujimori announced his self-coup in a televised speech, surprising his own prime minister. Military troops surrounded both Congress and television, newspaper, and radio stations, and opposition politicians and prominent journalists were detained. The president justified his actions as necessary to fight the drug trade, terrorism, and corruption, because in his view movement was being blocked by Congress and corrupt judges. He said that his actions were “not a negation of real democracy” but instead “the starting point of the search for an authentic transformation that assures a legitimate and effective democracy.” Unhindered by oversight on human rights, his government soon stunned the nation with the capture of the leadership of the Shining Path, which severely weakened the guerrilla movement but also sparked criticism for Fujimori’s counterinsurgency war involving the abuse of human rights.

Domestic and International Reactions

Fujimori’s actions were condemned by opposition politicians and constitutional lawyers within Peru as a coup, but the public initially broadly supported it. Internationally, the self-coup was generally condemned. The Organization of American States (OAS) denounced the “disruption of institutional democracy” the next day and held a series of consultations with the government and opposition groups to try to resolve the constitutional crisis. Fujimori first offered to have the self-coup ratified by referendum, which the OAS rejected. He then proposed to hold elections for a constituent assembly to both replace the disbanded Congress and write a new constitution, which would be ratified by popular referendum. Despite dissension over this plan in Peru, the OAS accepted it, and the elections were held in November 1992. The OAS did not impose any sanctions, but multilateral financial institutions, such as the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, did suspend loans and credits. Some Latin American countries cut diplomatic relations or recalled ambassadors, and the United States suspended most military and economic aid for a time, making exceptions for humanitarian support. 

The constituent assembly elections, boycotted by two of the traditional parties, produced a majority for Fujimori’s new coalition, and a new Constitution was narrowly approved with 55 percent of the vote in a referendum in October 1993, paving the way for Fujimori’s regime to regain its legitimacy internationally. But the new Constitution also changed the balance of power within Peru. Whereas the previous 1979 Constitution (written to transition the country from military rule) restricted the presidency to a single five-year term, Fujimori’s Constitution allowed for immediate reelection, opening the door him to run for a second term. It liberalized the economy and moved from a bicameral to a unicameral legislature elected in a single national district, rather than the previous regional districts, allowing for a president to more easily control Congress if his party had a majority. It further allowed the president to dissolve Congress if the body censured ministers twice, and it gave the president the power to enact decrees. In 1995, Fujimori won a landslide election (64 percent) for a second term, based on restoring economic stability and growth and successfully crippling the insurgencies.

Growing Authoritarianism
 

Signs of growing authoritarianism during Fujimori’s second term included persecution of the press and shutdown of independent media, politicization of judicial and electoral institutions, and harassment and smear campaigns against opposing candidates.

In 1996, the government’s coalition in Congress passed a controversial law stating that Fujimori’s first term of office was not governed by the new constitution, which allowed for two consecutive terms, thus making him eligible to run for a third presidential term in 2000.  The possibility of a third term generated a great deal of controversy within Peru, and in 1997 three members of the Constitutional Tribunal (with the other four abstaining) ruled that the law did not apply to Fujimori. Congress subsequently removed the three members of the tribunal who had signed the opinion, leaving the tribunal without a quorum up through the 2000 elections. The court thus could not rule on subsequent questions about the constitutionality of laws. When Fujimori declared his candidacy for the 2000 elections, numerous suits brought by civil society organizations before the national election authority were rejected by the election authorities, paving the way for his participation in the election.

Controversial Reelection to a Third Term

The inability of the opposition to gain access to the media during the campaign and Fujimori’s control of the judicial and legislative branches led the joint international election observation mission of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Carter Center to declare, before the election even occurred, that “irreparable damage to the integrity of the election process has already been done.” Serious irregularities and a lack of transparency in the vote-counting process then marred the announcement of a runoff election.  The election authority’s refusal to correct the problems led the opposition candidate to boycott the runoff, and an unprecedented withdrawal of the election observer missions of the OAS, NDI and the Carter Center, and the domestic observer organization Transparencia Peru.

Fujimori was elected in a second-round election without an opponent and was then recognized by his military. The OAS General Assembly meeting just one week later presented a weak response to the flawed election. Although the OAS had a diplomatic mechanism to respond to breaches of democracy—Resolution 1080, passed in 1991—it only called for a meeting of foreign ministers to decide how to respond. In the Peruvian case in 2000, the OAS failed to agree to even invoke Resolution 1080, since the dominant interpretations of democratic breakdown had been the overthrow of an elected government, rather than the undermining of democracy by an elected government itself. The United States pressed for the application of Resolution 1080, but Latin American governments resisted, and a compromise was reached to send a high-level OAS delegation to begin a national dialogue to make democratic reforms for the future, not to revisit Fujimori’s flawed reelection.

The Unravelling of the Fujimori Presidency

In the end, the downfall of the Fujimori presidency was a result of its own undoing, not international pressure. Constituting a dictatorship by alleged bribery and blackmail, the regime was undone by an international arms trafficking scandal involving high-ranking military officers and the leak of videos of government attempts to bribe media owners, opposition congressional members, and others. The videos themselves were taken by Fujimori’s henchman, the chief of intelligence Vladimir Montesinos, to be able to blackmail the targets of their bribes. After the first of the videos and the arms trafficking scandal broke, Fujimori attempted to control the uproar by announcing early elections and the dismantling of the intelligence agency. 

With a national drama of “Vladivideos” appearing nightly on television, the extent of the Fujimori-Montesinos dictatorship by bribery enthralled and enraged the nation. Fujimori left on a trip to Japan in November 2000 and from there faxed in his resignation to the Peruvian Congress. Congress rejected it, deposing him as president and banning him from political life for a decade. The next president pursued criminal charges against Fujimori for human rights abuses, and an Interpol arrest warrant was issued. Amazingly, after several years in exile in Japan, Fujimori decided he wanted to run for reelection in the 2006 elections. He returned first to Chile, where he was arrested, extradited to Peru, and then tried and convicted of human rights abuses, receiving a twenty-five-year sentence.

Nevertheless, Fujimori’s legacy of controlling hyperinflation and ending the guerrilla insurgencies continues to receive popular support from a portion of the population. His daughter Keiko Fujimori leads his party and the opposition in Congress, and she has narrowly lost three presidential runoff elections in 2011, 2016, and most recently 2021.

Kyrgyzstan’s Troubled Transition

Paul Stronski

Tunisia’s failure to address corruption and inability to improve the socioeconomic situation for many Tunisians is comparable to Kyrgyzstan’s democratic transition. Kyrgyzstan has been hailed as an “island of democracy” in Central Asia, but democracy—to be sure, relative democracy—has brought neither prosperity nor stability. Since the collapse of communism in 1991, Kyrgyz politics have swung repeatedly between liberal promise and authoritarianism. These shifts have undermined public faith in the political system and done little to improve the economic situation of average people. Kyrgyz citizens have experienced three decades of economic turmoil, poor governance, occasional political violence, and massive corruption, which have all complicated democratic consolidation. Moreover, the stakes are high in Kyrgyzstan’s winner-takes-all system of politics, an elite game that lacks transparency and that has left all former presidents of the country (except one) either in exile, prison, or disgrace. Losing power means losing everything, so there are incentives for politicians to consolidate power, install allies into key positions, and enrich their patronage networks. The population has therefore grown to distrust its leaders and the government overall.

Paul Stronski
Paul Stronski is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, where his research focuses on the relationship between Russia and neighboring countries in Central Asia and the South Caucasus.
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Nevertheless, generous international assistance has enabled successive Kyrgyz governments to advance some political and economic reforms that the country’s neighbors have avoided and has allowed it to maintain some modicum of democracy. And an active civil society and robust media are bright spots in the country, yet both are highly dependent on foreign aid. However, international assistance at times has exacerbated some of the country’s systemic problems, including corruption, poor rule of law, social inequality, and inadequate services.  

An Unfulfilled Dream

Kyrgyzstan’s first president, Askar Akayev, was a liberal Soviet-era official who came to power in 1990 and aspired to transform the poor, mountainous, multiethnic country into a Western-style democracy, dubbing it a future “Switzerland” of the region. Kyrgyzstan’s early aspirations to integrate with Western political and economic structures led to quick political and economic reforms, which opened large flows of bilateral and multilateral aid, initially from the United States, Europe, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and others. More recently, China and Russia have provided debt relief, security assistance, and investment. Because of the initial reforms, factors like an independent media, pluralistic politics, and open civil society soon took root in the country, bringing benefits to both elites and the population at large. All three factors have served as checks on political corruption and efforts by individual politicians to consolidate power.

Western financial flows to support democracy and humanitarian causes helped to offset post-Soviet turbulence. The international community was important in shoring up basic human security in the 1990s when over 63 percent of the country experienced severe poverty. Because of the financial benefits and economic relief that implementation of reform unlocks from the West, Kyrgyz leaders have been tolerant of maintaining a limited democratic space. However, Western assistance at times has disincentivized the need to tackle long-standing governance or rule of law shortcomings, as the financial support given by outsiders to localities and nonprofit organizations has enabled civil society to step in to provide some essential state services.

Successive Kyrgyz leaders also used the country’s strategic location near Afghanistan to bargain continually between Russia and the West over Western access to military facilities in the country, negotiations that the West often engaged in regardless of the country’s performance on reform or accountability. A fair amount of international assistance (from Russia, the West, and likely China) has been lost to local corruption schemes. Thirty years after the Soviet collapse, roughly 25 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s citizens still live under the poverty line; reliable access to electricity, food, healthcare, and water remain perennial problems. Labor migration and remittances from Russia and Kazakhstan are key sources of poverty reduction. 

Securitizing International Aid

Despite the country’s initial promise, its reform agenda stalled by the 2000s. Akayev had grown more authoritarian by seeking to centralize his and his family’s control on economic and political power, squeeze the political opposition, and clamp down on dissent. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States transformed Kyrgyzstan into a key U.S. security partner in the region. Washington established an air base outside Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, which became the main northern transit point for U.S. and NATO troops traveling into or out of Afghanistan. While security cooperation tied Kyrgyzstan and the West closer than ever, it soon stoked problems for both. Allegations surfaced that Akayev’s family profited from U.S. military fuel contracts, an embarrassing revelation that damaged the image of both the U.S. and Kyrgyzstani governments. The security relationship also disincentivized the West from pushing back on democratic backsliding. In the end, Akayev’s efforts to consolidate power and wealth for his family damaged his legitimacy; he was forced from power in the 2005 Tulip Revolution, sparked by flawed parliamentary elections. Akayev’s successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, proved just as problematic.

The new president’s patronage networks took over Akayev’s; Bakiyev’s son gained control of the U.S. military fueling contracts. While Bakiyev moved to entrench himself and his political allies in power, his government did little to address economic distress or governance shortfalls.

Instead, he pandered to ethnic Kyrgyz nationalism to shore up support with his political base in the country’s south. That region, however, has a large Uzbek minority and a border with Uzbekistan that has yet to be demarcated. Bakiyev’s tenure ended abruptly in April 2010 due to protests against rising energy prices, rampant corruption, and centralized rule. Without prospects for change at the ballot box, citizens again took to the streets to force change, albeit this time with more violence.

New Governments With Old Faces

Following Bakiyev’s ouster, an interim government led by opposition figures who held senior roles in previous administrations took charge, reflecting a common post-Soviet pattern. Five of Kyrgyzstan’s six presidents had previously held high-level positions under their predecessors (usually prime minister or foreign minister), while fresh faces have generally struggled to emerge. Led by former foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva, the new government showed the most democratic promise to date, yet it struggled to assert control over Kyrgyzstan’s remote regions. This was especially true in the south, where Bakiyev’s allies fought to retain control over local economic assets, exacerbating ethnic tensions with that region’s Uzbek population. As mass violence overtook parts of southern Kyrgyzstan, the interim government proved incapable of quelling the turmoil that left roughly 500 dead and thousands of Uzbeks displaced and risked a cross-border conflict with Uzbekistan. Ethnic tensions and periodic clashes with Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors remain unresolved.

Despite the interim government’s inauspicious start, Kyrgyzstani citizens made clear they once again wanted greater democracy and accountability over their leaders. Otunbayeva pushed through constitutional changes that enhanced parliamentary authority, weakened presidential power, and limited presidents to a single, six-year term. The country held relatively clean elections, including for Parliament (2010 and 2015) and the president (2011 and 2017). Otunbayeva became the first Kyrgyz president to cede power voluntarily at the ballot box, albeit to her prime minister, Almazbek Atambayev, of the same Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK). He too would step down in 2017, ceding power to his prime minister and SDPK protégé, Sooronbai Jeenbekov. Political pluralism and functional electoral politics appeared to have gained a foothold, although power remained centralized by a small group of elites.

However, the 2017 presidential transition did not turn out smoothly. Late in his tenure, Atambayev had moved to push through constitutional changes to give more authority to the prime minister, which led to speculation that he hoped to assume that position after stepping down. He simultaneously installed loyalists into key positions in anticipation of serving as a behind-the-scenes leader, along the model followed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev when their roles were reversed (2008–2012). Yet Jeenbekov resisted this sort of arrangement, sparking infighting between the sitting and past presidents, who all initially had hailed from the same political faction. After months of public friction, mutual allegations of corruption, and occasional street scuffles between supporters, Atambayev ended up losing a very public power struggle. He was arrested on corruption charges in summer 2019 and convicted a year later.

The Third “Revolution”

Although Jeenbekov prevailed in the power struggle, his victory was short-lived. The political rivalry with his predecessors hampered his efforts to address growing socioeconomic problems. The coronavirus pandemic made matters worse. When Russia closed its borders in spring 2020, labor migrants could no longer travel there for work, throwing many Kyrgyzstani families deeper into poverty. The country’s underfunded healthcare system and social safety net collapsed. Ineptitude made Jeenbekov’s government unpopular. The country held parliamentary elections on schedule in fall 2020. Although the campaign was robust, with multiple parties participating, the actual election was marred by allegations of fraud and vote-buying. When the Central Election Committee announced that pro-government candidates won in a landslide, Kyrgyz protesters took to the streets.

The situation devolved into chaos when protesters began clashing with government forces. Violent demonstrators aligned with rival political factions overwhelmed government buildings, freeing Atambayev from prison. Also sprung from jail was Sadyr Japarov, a controversial former parliamentarian and nationalist. Rumored to have ties to organized crime, Japarov had been sentenced to eleven years in prison for kidnapping a political opponent. After a week of violence, he prevailed in a multipronged power struggle. Japarov declared himself acting president, forced Jeenbekov to resign, and returned Atambayev to prison. In the year since, he has won a special presidential election in a landslide, pushed through constitutional reforms to once again enhance presidential power, and launched corruption allegations against past and potential rivals. Journalists and opposition leaders have complained of harassment and another authoritarian turn.  

Conclusion

As Kyrgyzstan enters its fourth decade of independence, its goal of becoming the Switzerland of Central Asia remains beyond reach. Poverty, corruption, nontransparent governance, and a lack of public faith in political institutions have prevented stability from taking root. Certainly, the country remains the most open polity in the region, yet it exists amid a sea of authoritarianism, surrounded by China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Democratic consolidation has been stymied by several factors. Power is concentrated within a relatively closed group of political and economic elites; Kyrgyzstan’s opposition can win seats in Parliament and individual localities but has had a harder time transforming these electoral wins into broader power or influence. State institutions remain weak, as are the formal features of democracy.

International assistance has played a key role in creating and defending the country’s civil society space, especially its nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Yet, NGOs remain overly dependent on international, especially Western, funding. Kyrgyzstani officials at times have viewed foreign funding of these groups warily, seeing it as a vehicle for outside interference. Kyrgyzstani politicians are following Russia’s lead in passing laws that complicate the ability of NGOs and media outlets to accept this money. Financial flows from the West also slowed after 2014, when Kyrgyzstan’s government ordered the closure of the U.S. air base in the country under Russian pressure. As the United States and Europe retreat from Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has become more dependent on Chinese or Russian assistance via debt cancellation, bailouts of key state assets, and donations or sales of military and security equipment at a discount.

Moving forward, the no-questions-asked approach on governance, human rights, or accountability from Russia and China spells potential trouble for Kyrgyzstan’s democratic trajectory. Yet, the Kyrgyz people have a track record of resisting authoritarianism. Opposition candidates can do well in elections, particularly when they show a united front against a leader or party that is losing popular legitimacy. Furthermore, when the ballot box fails, the country’s population has proven willing to take to the streets in anger. This has prevented authoritarian consolidation but does little to solve the country’s social or economic problems.

Georgia’s Flawed Democratic Transition

Thomas de Waal

Like Tunisia, Georgia’s democratic transition was marred by a combination of top-down political culture, polarization, and weak rule of law. Georgia has long been celebrated as a successful case of a post-Soviet democratic transition, especially in contrast to its neighbors. Much of this characterization is justified and, before turning to the weaknesses in Georgian democracy, it is worth celebrating its successes. Since 1990, the country has held regular elections that have been accepted as free and fair. When one of those elections, in 2003, was widely rejected as fraudulent, a peaceful revolution brought down the ruling regime; in 2012, the ruling party lost a contested election to the opposition and handed over power peacefully. The winner of that election, Georgian Dream, has stayed in power since then, after winning two more polls that have been contested but also judged to be legitimate.

Thomas de Waal
De Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.
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Georgia has a tradition of free speech, and the media and civil society are lively. Political violence is rare—no small achievement in a country that experienced a devastating civil war and two separatist conflicts in the 1990s. In 2005, then U.S. president George W. Bush called Georgia “a beacon of liberty”; that may be a little hyperbolic, but its democratic light shines brighter than that of Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and (until recently at least) Armenia.

Several persistent flaws complicate the picture, however, and make Georgia’s democratic progress not only provisional but also perhaps reversable. Three of these flaws—a top-down political culture, a weak rule of law, and extreme polarization—are set out in more detail below.

Georgia’s first flaw is its excessively top-down political culture, with little accountability. Informal patronage networks—a legacy of the Soviet era, when Georgians used these connections to circumvent the Soviet state—stand at the root of political parties. At the head of these networks usually stands one powerful individual. The support of the wider public is enlisted to cast votes at election time but taken for granted at other times. Ilia Roubanis encapsulated the nature of Georgia’s political system as being “pluralistic feudalism.”

The story of post-Soviet Georgia can be told as that of domination by four different political groups, each led by a powerful individual who became the national leader—Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Eduard Shevardnadze, Mikheil Saakashvili, and Bidzina Ivanishvili. Each of these men rejected the legacy of his predecessors, proclaiming himself as a leader who was restarting the country from square one.

Since 2012, the informal nature of this power scheme has become even more pronounced as the founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, the billionaire Ivanishvili, has been the de facto leader of the country, though he only held the position of prime minister for one year. Ivanishvili officially retired from the political scene in 2013 but is universally believed to be the final arbiter of all decisions made by the government. Although the constitution was changed in 2012 to switch executive authority away from the presidency to the office of the prime minister, making the prime minister the most powerful person in the country, the change was nominal as the position lacks full legitimacy. For example, when former prime minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili began to challenge Ivanishvili’s behind-the-scenes rule, Kvirikashvili was forced to step down.

The winner-takes-all mentality can also be described as a majoritarian approach. Voices that are not affiliated with the current ruling elite are marginalized. That ruling elite, despite several political ruptures, has had certain common characteristics over the last thirty years, being ethnically Georgian and based in the capital, Tbilisi. Three decades after independence, members of Georgia’s main two ethnic minorities, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, are still poorly represented in the political elite. In a 2020 survey, 30 percent of respondents agreed with the ethnonationalist proposition that “only ethnic Georgians should be allowed to be Georgian citizens,” a perspective that would aspire to exclude ethnic minorities from full citizenship.

The biases of the elite also mean that the socioeconomic issues (chiefly unemployment and rural poverty) that are a major concern for much of the population outside Tbilisi are rarely at the top of the government’s policy agenda. As Stephen Jones, a historian of modern Georgia, writes,

“Georgia’s democracy does not work well because most of its citizens do not experience results, do not understand their rights, and do not have a government that responds to their policy preferences. Joblessness and poverty are immense disadvantages in stimulating a participatory democracy, or in exercising control over public servants and employers.”

A second and related flaw in Georgian democracy is the weakness of the rule of law and a culture of political impunity. Judicial reform has always lagged behind reform of other institutions—as it has in other flawed post-Soviet democracies like Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine. In all these four countries, the ruling party has always sought to be in control of appointments of leading judicial figures. In Soviet times—and arguably in Russian imperial times as well, all the way back to the time of Peter the Great—the position of prosecutor was a key political role. In modern Georgia, the chief prosecutor has generally been beholden to the ruling party. In 2020, Irakli Shotadze, who still holds the position, was controversially reappointed to the post two years after he had resigned from it after public protest.

In 2021, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) said the proceedings for appointing Supreme Court judges “were marred by the lack of equal conditions and deficiencies in the process that ultimately undermined the credibility of the appointments as truly merit-based in line with international standards.”

A third flaw in democratic Georgia is its extreme polarization. There is vibrant political debate in Georgia, but it is conducted in an angry and abusive manner. Ever since independence, Georgian politicians have furiously accused their opponents of being not mere political adversaries but enemies and traitors. Since 2012, the polarization between Georgian Dream and the main opposition force in the country, represented by the forming ruling party the United National Movement (UNM), has dominated political life. To be precise, it has been an unending struggle between the two leaders of those parties, Ivanishvili and Saakashvili. This culminated in the October 2021 return from exile of Saakashvili, who was then arrested and imprisoned.

Russia’s war in Ukraine did not, as might have been expected, put a stop to the domestic polarization but rather exacerbated it. The weak response of Georgian Dream to Russia’s invasion led the head of the UNM, Nika Melia, to mock the government as “Putin’s cronies” while the chair of the ruling party Irakli Kobakhidze called the opposition “the party of war.” In May 2022 in another disturbing development, the head of the main opposition television channel, Nika Gvaramia, was given a three-and-a-half year jail sentence for alleged abuse of power, a charge that most independent commentators said looked like political punishment.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili (who has much less power than the prime minister, as her position is roughly constitutionally equivalent to that of the president of Germany) called for a united stand against Russia and criticized the government, but she is now facing prosecution by the government for allegedly exceeding her constitutional role. Partisanship is again valued above national solidarity.

In 2022, there are widely held concerns that Georgia’s democratic progress has stalled and has gone into reverse. There were serious allegations of vote-buying and intimidation in both the parliamentary elections of 2020 and the local elections of 2021. The fear is that Georgian Dream will seek to consolidate its grip on power indefinitely and resort to undemocratic methods to ensure that happens.

The three systemic weaknesses of Georgian democracy outlined above will perpetuate this negative dynamic. Top-down politics and the patronage system ensure loyalty to the ruling party, rather than creative dissent from public servants. Georgia’s weak rule of law and judicial system make it much harder to mount a challenge to undemocratic behavior through the courts. Ongoing polarization and a crude political discourse demoralize voters and make it harder for politicians with messages of unity, reconciliation, and democratic values to have their voices heard above the daily rhetorical din.

Since Georgian independence in 1991, calls for checks and balances on excess of power have frequently come from the country’s Western partners. The United States and European countries have played a useful role at several critical junctures, for example helping to ensure peaceful transitions of power in 2003 and 2012 when dangerous political clashes might have been on the cards.

In April 2021, EU Council President Charles Michel again brokered a deal between the ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition UNM to ensure the latter ended its boycott of Parliament. However, the deal broke down after several months—an ominous sign, perhaps, that Western leverage is not as great in Georgia as it once was. In September 2021, the government even rejected a 75-million-euro loan from the European Union, because the loan was contingent on the government’s acceptance of provisions on judicial reform.

Absent these international checks on the Georgian government’s undemocratic behavior, Georgian society needs to dig deeper to find its own domestic capacity to make its rulers more accountable to themselves and to the law. This is the next big domestic test facing Georgia in the two years before the ruling party faces new elections in 2024—even as it deals with a new and dangerous confrontation with its aggressive neighbor, Russia.

Gender Equality in Democratic Transitions: The Kenyan Experience

Saskia Brechenmacher

The fight for gender equality has been an important aspect of Tunisia’s democratic transition. Much like in Tunisia, the Kenyan experience shows the fragility of gains to women’s rights as well as the gulf that often persists between legal protections on paper and women’s lived experiences. 

In February 1992, women from across Kenya traveled to Nairobi for the country’s first National Women’s Convention. Together, they demanded a greater voice in their country’s unfolding democratic transition. Yet it was eighteen years later, after a protracted political struggle, that a new constitution enshrined their demands for legal and institutional reform. This year, as the country heads into its fifth general elections since the return of multiparty politics, Kenyan activists still confront the paradox of gender equality change: a progressive legal framework that has brought important gains, alongside the reality of women’s persistent political and economic marginalization.

Saskia Brechenmacher
Saskia Brechenmacher is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and a fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, where her research focuses on gender, civil society, and democratic governance.
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The case of Kenya helps illustrate the complex relationship between democratization and gender equality. On the one hand, democratic transitions often enable a reimagining of worlds, free not only of political oppression but also of patriarchal subordination. They can be deeply hopeful moments that catalyze new forms of activism and solidarity. At the same time, they do not automatically ensure an increase in women’s political voice or substantive policy changes: gains are hard-fought, contingent on political and institutional factors, and often susceptible to stagnation or backsliding.

Democratization and Gender Equality: A Complex Relationship

There are several reasons why one would expect democratic transitions to produce more gender-equitable states. First, women are often central participants in popular movements for democracy. From Brazil to Myanmar to Sudan, women have taken to the streets to demand an end to dictatorial rule and a greater voice in political decisionmaking. Second, democratic transitions—at least in theory—present new opportunities for previously excluded groups to influence the political agenda, through both multiparty electoral competition and civil society mobilization.

Cross-national analyses show that in the long run, democratic governance is indeed associated with gender equality gains. This correlation exists because democracies allow more space for feminist activism, which in turn is a crucial driver of institutional and policy reform. In the short run, however, the relationship between democratic reform and gender equality is far from straightforward. To what extent political liberalization produces meaningful gains in women’s political voice as well as substantive gender equality reforms depends on the nature of the transition as well as the strength of women’s collective mobilization.

For one, gendered changes are far more likely if a democratic transition results in a clear rupture with the past autocratic regime and if a participatory negotiation process—to write a new constitution, for example—creates institutional openings for women to influence nascent political structures. Transitions with master frames that align with feminist goals are often particularly conducive to gender equality reform. In South Africa, for example, a strong political commitment to overcoming the oppressive apartheid system helped advance women’s demands for social transformation.

Beyond the transition context, the organizational power of women’s groups also matters. If prior to the transition women were able to form networks across ethnic, political, and class divides, then they are often in a better position to influence the rules for the transition itself and anchor demands for representation and equality in transitional frameworks. These gains can in turn facilitate further gender equality reforms in the years following the initial transition.

Lessons From Kenya’s Protracted Transition

Kenya’s protracted democratic transition epitomizes these complexities. Women played important roles in Kenya’s anti-colonial liberation movement, for example as part of the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule. Yet in the first decades following independence, they remained largely excluded from political decisionmaking, including from the senior ranks of the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party. As the postcolonial state turned increasingly authoritarian, Kenya’s largest women’s organization, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, devolved into a de facto extension of the KANU regime. By 1991, only two women held national elective office.

The crumbling of Kenya’s single-party regime in the early 1990s catalyzed a new wave of women’s mobilization. In December 1991, then president Daniel arap Moi—responding to rising domestic discontent and strong international pressure—reluctantly authorized the return of multiparty politics. One of the most immediate consequences was a mushrooming of new women’s organizations that advocated for “engendering” (or integrating gender considerations into) the country’s democratic transition. Drawing on a rich network of local women’s associations and cooperatives, these groups began articulating explicitly political demands. Political representation emerged as a first-order priority: activists hoped that a critical mass of women legislators would enable them to push for further gender equality reforms. As a result, they launched national campaigns encouraging women to vote for women candidates and provided direct support to women running in the country’s first multiparty elections. 

Despite this outburst of political energy, Kenya’s transition initially produced few gains in gender equality. The core reason lies in the lack of meaningful political rupture: despite the shift to multipartyism and the opening of civic space, Moi’s incumbent KANU regime won both the 1992 and 1997 elections. In the absence of constitutional and electoral system reform, the political playing field remained firmly stacked in favor of the old order, and Kenya’s newly energized women’s movement had few opportunities to influence the rules of the game. Although 250 women ran for political seats in 1992, only six were elected. In 1997, the number of elected women decreased once again. Calls for affirmative action measures were met with staunch opposition. Even the first transition of power in 2002—when an opposition coalition led by Mwai Kibaki defeated the incumbent regime—brought only limited change in women’s representation, despite being marked a watershed moment for Kenyan democracy.

These disappointing outcomes led women to focus on influencing the constitutional reform process, which began in earnest in 1998. The protracted negotiations created an institutional framework to press for reform, and women’s rights activists organized very effectively to influence the process. First, they mobilized early on to be part of the negotiation framework. Through a newly formed Women’s Political Caucus, they secured seven out of the twenty-six seats in the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) charged with drafting a new constitution. Second, when the process repeatedly stalled over the subsequent decade, the activists managed to maintain a broad coalition that cut across ethnic, religious, and regional differences, and they built strong alliances between women politicians, civil society activists, and other political allies. As a result, they were able to step in at various moments to advance the process and ensure that women’s demands for representation and legal reform were reflected in iterative constitutional drafts.

In the end, Kenya’s 2010 constitution represented an important victory for gender equality advocates. It affirmed gender equality in political, social, and economic rights; eliminated gender discrimination in land and property ownership; and mandated that no more than two-thirds of members of any elective public body should be of the same gender. Women also successfully pushed for limited protections for their reproductive rights, despite strong opposition. At the same time, the protracted fight for constitutional reform also underscored that many powerful obstacles to gender equality remained firmly in place—from patriarchal resistance to ethnicized political competition and the legacies of extractive colonial rule.

Uncertain Aftermaths of Democratic Transitions

Over the past twelve years, Kenya’s new constitutional framework has enabled important advances in women’s political participation and representation across different branches of government. In addition, an increasing number of ministries and government agencies have made efforts to integrate gender considerations into their policies and programs. Yet the overall picture remains mixed: core constitutional provisions, such as the two-thirds gender principle, have not been fully implemented, and women’s rights on paper often do not match their lived realities. These patterns highlight the uncertain aftermaths of democratic transitions, which tend to be fragile, incomplete, and subject to reversal. Even when initial political openings enable important gender equality gains, subsequent struggles for implementing and deepening the gains throw up new hurdles.

For one, gender equality reforms tend to require strong alliances between feminist actors in government and in civil society, both during and after transitional periods. But women’s movements, like other civil society coalitions, often fragment over time: it is generally easier for diverse actors to come together around constitutional negotiations, for instance, than to maintain unity in their wake. Over time, international attention and support tends to dissipate and new (or old) hierarchies can emerge. In Kenya, like in many other countries, heightened competition for resources and a lack of spaces for solidarity and convening—combined with limited government interest—have made it more difficult for women’s organizations to push for the implementation of constitutional commitments to gender equality.

Additionally, political contexts can become more hostile to calls for gender equality or to social transformation more broadly. If democratic transitions become stuck or political polarization increases, activists often struggle to keep gender equality on the political agenda. In many cases, political elites who initially welcomed or tolerated civic activism become more hostile to outside pressure and co-opt the mechanisms aimed at bolstering women’s political power to promote women who are loyal to them and who do not threaten the status quo. Women politicians and activists may also face backlash as they assert their new political rights: in Kenya, gendered political violence remains both a major hurdle preventing many women from running for office and a significant risk for women’s rights defenders who challenge powerful political, patriarchal, and economic interests.

Lastly, transforming progressive legal frameworks and women’s increasing political representation into wider changes in gender relations is a long and difficult process, one that can be particularly challenging in contexts of widespread poverty, inequality, and weak state capacity. Not surprisingly, the benefits of legal and political change often accrue to those women who are already in positions of relative privilege. For activists and reformers seeking deeper transformation, the challenge becomes shifting from the fight for democratic rights and processes to a focus on making democracy deliver for all—even as those rights and processes themselves remain vulnerable and embattled.

Tunisia’s Political Transition in Light of Turkey’s Trajectory

Marc Pierini

When Tunisia’s Ennahda party came to power in October 2011 through democratic elections, observers were tempted to compare its success to the unchallenged dominance of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) since November 2002. There are indeed similarities between the two Islamist parties’ respective trajectories, but the two countries’ political and economic fundamentals make such a comparison a fragile one. The latest evolutions in Tunisia’s politics render it even more arduous.

Inspiration and Admiration

When the AKP—the party of current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—won the November 2002 elections in Turkey, Ennahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, had been in exile in London for fourteen years. Ghannouchi would not be able to return to Tunis until late January 2011 after former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had fled the country and his government had resigned following the 2010–2011 uprisings. The AKP’s 2002 victory had become an inspiration in 2011 for Tunisia’s Islamists as they were preparing for the country’s first fully democratic elections since independence. After all, until Ennahda’s 2011 victory, no Islamist party other than Turkey’s AKP had led an elected government in the Middle East and North Africa region. An interesting aspect of the AKP’s 2002 victory was the promise to put the economy back on track, a promise it was able to carry out by continuing the liberal policies put in place by the coalition it defeated, thanks to the absolute majority it won in parliament.

Marc Pierini
Pierini is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
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Between inspiration and admiration, “a few high-profile events also helped Turkey win favor among Arabs for standing up against both Israel and Western imperialism,” notes scholar Monica Marks based on extensive interviews conducted with Ennahda’s national and local leaders. (It is also worth noting, however, that Tunisian Islamist politicians would not call the AKP a “model.”) According to Marks, two main actions won praise for the Turkish leadership among Ennahda’s cadres: an incident between Erdoğan (who was then prime minister) and his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres, which occurred in Davos, Switzerland in 2009, and a Turkish-Israeli naval incident (involving the Turkish vessel MV Mavi Marmara, which was heading to Gaza for humanitarian purposes in 2010). Other scholars noted that, “while acknowledging that Turkey represents the closer reference model to Tunisia’s case, [Ghannouchi] stressed that these are two different contexts and that there is no need for a purely secular model in Tunisia.”

During the eleven years since the Tunisian revolution, about a dozen visits have taken place both ways between Ghannouchi and Erdoğan in their successive functions. The exchanges generally stressed the convergence of views between the leaders; for example, after one such meeting in 2011, Ghannouchi said, “We expect our relations will strengthen and cooperation will increase for the common interests of both countries, because we believe the closest experience to Tunisia is [the] Turkish experience.” Although the political and ideological nature of Ennahda has long been under discussion, the relationship was kept by both sides at a pragmatic level. After the 2019 elections, Ghannouchi was widely criticized for visiting the Turkish president in his capacity as speaker of the parliament (which doesn’t include a diplomatic role).

Two Countries With Major Differences

While the objective differences between AKP rule and Ennahda’s accession to power are many, three areas stand out. First, the size and fundamentals of the economy are hardly comparable. With a population of 73 million and a GDP of $838 billion in 2011, a customs union with the EU, and a strong industrial base, Turkey had many characteristics of an emerging economy and was in a position to use trade or cooperation schemes as key ingredients of its foreign policy in surrounding regions and in Africa. With a population of over 11 million and a GDP of nearly $46 billion in 2011, and no economic integration with its wealthier North African neighbors, Tunisia was in a weaker position. In addition, Turkey’s economic management system after 2002 produced a highly powerful ruling party (with public contracts and procurement helping fund the party)—a phenomenon hardly conceivable in Tunisia, where the political landscape is highly fractured and where polarization increased dramatically in the first decade following the start of the democratic transition.

Second, political realities led Ennahda to form a coalition with secularist forces in December 2011, as it had won the largest number of seats in parliament but failed to secure a majority. Conversely, Turkey’s AKP was able to run a single-party government from 2002 until 2018, when a decline in its popularity forced it into a coalition with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). In addition, the personal attitudes of the party leaders was also a major difference. Within Ennahda, Ghannouchi, a strong theologian, was never in the position of an absolute leader and was not involved in elected politics until 2019, when his short-lived role as the speaker of parliament was cut short by President Kais Saied’s July 25, 2021, freezing of the parliament as part of his larger power grab. Erdoğan, on the other hand, was a skilled party manager and a former mayor of Istanbul (a city he successfully modernized), and he was never contested within his own AKP. Instead, he organized a steady march toward a one-man-rule system of government after he was first elected president in August 2014.

Third, the evolution toward a democratic constitution in Tunisia was realized at the price of substantial ideological concessions from Ennahda, in particular on the place of women in society. The subject was highly sensitive in Tunisia, a country where groups like Ennahda were suspected by secularist circles of “instrumentalizing women’s rights for their own political purposes.” But civil society remained strong throughout the political transition process. Tunisia’s culture of dialogue helped political parties navigate the many hurdles of the post–Ben Ali era. It was particularly striking that Tunisia’s 2014 constitution contained no reference to sharia, didn’t criminalize blasphemy, and referenced equal gender representation for public offices. On the contrary, after the 2017 constitutional reform in Turkey, the deliberate choice of a one-man-rule system resulted in a massive regression of the rule-of-law architecture, in particular the politicization of the judiciary, the harassment of opponents, the elimination of most of the free press, and the obstruction of civil society activities, together with a profound constitutional reform. Similarly, in March 2020, Turkey withdrew from the 2012 Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

Until the end of 2019, it was therefore difficult to see a clear similarity between the so-called Turkish model and Tunisia’s political trajectory. Beyond personal affinities between Erdoğan and Ghannouchi, the two countries’ histories, economies, and political cultures seemed to lead to different strategies between parties and to different expectations from the citizens. While Turkey’s trajectory has so far left Erdoğan’s political dominance unchallenged, elections in Tunisia produced a radical change.

New Uncertainties in Both Countries

The election of Saied as president in October 2019, however, opened a different, deeply troubling phase in Tunisia’s transition away from the Ben Ali regime. Almost nine years after the old regime had been sent packing, Tunisia was still searching for a workable system of government amid a deeply polarized atmosphere. After major progress was achieved in terms of political freedoms and constitutional reform, a new era has now opened, with countless uncertainties stemming from polarization and populism. Although it is not easy to establish a comparison between Saied’s largely unknown intentions and the AKP leadership in Turkey, there is now a troubling similarity between the two countries: the massive degradation of the rule of law. Yet, in an implicit reference to the resilience of democratically elected institutions after a failed coup attempt in July 2016 in Turkey, Ankara’s official reaction to Saied’s power grab was: “We hope that democratic legitimacy will be swiftly reinstated within the framework of the provisions of the Tunisian constitution.”

At this point in time, comparing Turkey’s and Tunisia’s political evolutions since, respectively, 2002 and 2011 is arduous, and predictions are a risky endeavor. Ultimately, it may be that the main similarity between the two countries is found in the autocratic leanings of their current leaders, rather than in the theological field.

Both countries now face political uncertainties. There is no clear time line for Tunisia’s next legislative elections, although Saied has stated that he intends to hold elections in December 2022. Meanwhile, the 2023 presidential and legislative ballots in Turkey may upend a twenty-year AKP rule.

These uncertainties occur amid increased or continued tensions in the two countries’ immediate environments: conflict between Ukraine and Russia and tensions in Algeria, Libya, Syria, and across the Eastern Mediterranean. These conflicts may each affect Turkey’s and Tunisia’s future political evolutions. Democratic or not, Tunisia will remain largely dependent on its trade and financial relations with Western Europe as well as other Mediterranean countries including Turkey and, to an extent, will remain influenced positively or negatively by Libya’s stabilization. Conversely, whatever happens in the next elections, Turkey’s future leadership will probably want to expand its political, economic, and military influence in Tunisia and North Africa, as its march toward an enlarged sphere of influence in its neighborhood is here to stay.

All in the Family: The Tunisian Security Sector’s Relationship With Kais Saied

Yezid Sayigh

Much of the explanation of public support for the constitutional coup mounted by Tunisian President Kais Saied on July 25, 2021, focuses, correctly, on the failure of successive governments since 2011 to systematically address deep social and economic grievances, let alone resolve them. A second serial failure that has drawn considerably less attention is the government’s inability to bring the Ministry of Interior (MOI) under effective control and oversight or to meaningfully influence the attitudes and behavior of its personnel. From the outset of the transition, MOI departments and agencies pushed back actively against government proposals and civil society calls for security sector reform, reorganization, and reorientation of the organizations’ mandates. Indeed, they countermobilized, staging walkouts and lobbying aggressively for pay raises and legal protection in the face of demands for accountability and an end to impunity. Despite successive changes in ministers of interior, the MOI successfully asserted its autonomy, remaining a black box with a labyrinthine structure and an antidemocratic institutional culture.

Yezid Sayigh
Yezid Sayigh is a senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where he leads the program on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States (CMRAS). His work focuses on the comparative political and economic roles of Arab armed forces, the impact of war on states and societies, the politics of postconflict reconstruction and security sector transformation in Arab transitions, and authoritarian resurgence.
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Saied’s power grab was facilitated by this legacy. The supra-presidential powers he awarded himself in the new constitution he rammed through on July 25, 2021, will only reinforce it. But while the ultimate fate of his presidency may be uncertain, the internal security sector—defined as law enforcement and internal security agencies that come under the MOI—is set to be a principal actor in Tunisia’s political landscape for the foreseeable future. How, exactly, this unfolds will be a function of the trajectories that were set in motion starting in 2011 in the security sector’s relationships with the armed forces, external providers of security assistance, and the presidency.

The readiness of the Tunisian Armed Forces (TAF) to support Saied, and its unwillingness to question his actions or defy his orders, was evident during his coup and was crucial to its success. Beginning on July 25, 2021, the TAF used tanks and soldiers to physically block the prime minister’s office and prevent the democratically elected parliament from entering the parliament building. Saied has increasingly relied on military courts in the subsequent months to punish his opponents, including outspoken members of the parliament. The army’s actions contrasted with its pivotal role in former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster in 2011 and with the stance of positive neutrality it subsequently adopted toward civilian leadership of the political transition and toward repeated government and parliamentary gridlock over the following decade.

The TAF’s break with its long-standing, republican ethos of obedience to constitutional order is significant, paving the way for a more activist political role that is likely to be lasting. But this also places the army in the same camp as the MOI-controlled security sector, with which it has a history of animosity. Ben Ali used the security services to purge the TAF officer corps in 1991 and to police it over the next two decades, and during this period the MOI was the principal regime maintenance force. Mutual distrust between the coercive apparatuses—the army and the MOI—has eased since 2011 but is unlikely to disappear. Consequently, the joint rallying of the armed forces and the MOI behind Saied is likely to amount to less than a long-term alliance.

That relations between the TAF and the security sector have improved at all owes much to the role of external providers of security assistance, principally the United States, the United Kingdom, NATO, and the European Union and key member states—France, Germany, and Italy. Capacity building and training for border and aero-maritime security increased as early as 2011, but the real turning point followed the dramatic terrorist attacks of 2015: the United States immediately tripled its military aid and granted Tunisia the status of “major non-NATO ally”; along with NATO and European partners, Washington also stepped up the supply of weapons, equipment, and training focused on counterterrorism and intelligence capacities. It is specifically in the context of border security and counterterrorism that cooperation and coordination between the TAF and MOI have improved somewhat. But this remains reluctant and subject to bureaucratic rivalries and would collapse were it not for sustained U.S. mediation.

Yet even this modest success in the relationship highlights the anemic results of donor-funded projects to promote security sector reform. The 2010–2011 uprising created a significant opportunity to initiate a reform process: the public was mobilized, the security sector was demoralized and too weak to resist, and the interim government enjoyed legitimacy and had a mandate to prioritize reform. Some early progress was made through town hall meetings to improve trust between local citizens and the police in 2013, but a draft code of police conduct jointly proposed by the parliamentary Committee on Security and Defense, the MOI, and the United Nations Development Programme in 2016 was never adopted. The escalation of the terrorist threat in 2015 marked a turning point. The refocusing of government discourse and legislation on counterterrorism, combined with the massive mobilization of foreign policy priorities and material assistance to Tunisia around a counterterrorism agenda, enabled the MOI to shift to the offensive, obscuring its chronic problems while reviving police impunity. This ended further discussion of security sector reform.

The outcome was as dismal as the failure to address the country’s worsening socioeconomic crisis. From the outset, the security sector suffered from a mix of poor management, arbitrary decisionmaking powers, and uncontrolled “democratization of the ranks”—a process of politically motivated hiring of around 25,000 new and poorly trained recruits, by some estimates, in addition to a chaotic promotion plan—by interim authorities in 2011–2013. The premium placed by the rival Islamist- and secular-leaning wings of the governing coalition on establishing footholds in the MOI meant that they devoted less attention and political capital to reform in the following years. The resulting politicization of the appointment of ministers and directors prompted both to appease the security sector, with the further consequence of enhancing the influence of competing clans based on different MOI agencies and branches of service. Paradoxically, while these conditions worsened structural cohesion, led to declining professionalism and performance, and increased the use of illegal force and petty corruption in the security sector, they also made it easier for the MOI to shrug off proposals for reorganization and reform.

Similarly, instead of forming a powerful constituency for reform, the extensive police unions that sprang up in the wake of the 2011 uprising compounded the problem. Tunisia was a trailblazer among Arab states in legalizing the right of the police to unionize, later enshrining this right in the 2014 constitution. However, the unions have used this strength ever since to focus almost exclusively on securing pay raises and, significantly, legal amendments that would (legitimately) curb unfair dismissals—but that would also weaken the accountability of the police forces to the legislature and the executive. The unions have flexed their muscles under successive governments regardless of their political leaning, on occasion storming into courthouses to free security sector colleagues on trial for various violations, such as brutalizing or detaining protesters on grounds of slandering the police and striking for pay. The unions’ clout was sufficient to influence the selection of a new minister of interior and the director of the reconstituted General Directorate of National Security in 2015–2016 by the ruling Nidaa Tounes party, which included ancien régime figures and networks in its ranks. Ironically, the unions might yet turn against Saied. They have renewed calls for legal protections and the prosecution of human rights organizations receiving foreign funding since his constitutional coup, but their symbolic protest against late payment of their salaries due to the government’s tightening financial squeeze in January 2022 could be a harbinger of tensions to come.

Despite the president’s efforts to consolidate his autocratic power generally, his grip on the security sector is tenuous. This is demonstrated most graphically by the intensified settling of scores among his own aides and allies and their jockeying for command positions in the MOI, the General Directorates of National Security, Specialized Services, Borders and Foreigners, and Police Training, as well as the National Guard. This continues a trend that emerged in late 2015, as both Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda, its rival and governing partner, turned to former Ben Ali officials—both MOI officials and younger officers who were rising to middle or senior ranks toward the end of his era—to help deal with the black box of the security sector—rather than pursue a root-and-branch approach to reforming the sector’s institutional culture.

Dynamics between the presidency and the security sector bring to mind the powerful so-called clans of the People’s National Army of Algeria. Algeria’s army, too, purged and shuffled the senior echelons of the military and security establishments following the ouster of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019 and then again as his successor, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who took office with their support, also sought to shape command appointments. Similarly, the apparently natural convergence in Tunisia of conservative and inherently antidemocratic tendencies for both Saied and the security sector should not obscure the fact that, at least for now, theirs is a marriage of convenience.

Saied’s politics may be to the general liking of the security sector and the TAF, but his visible inability to conceive, let alone address, the country’s critical socioeconomic challenges may persuade them that he is more a hindrance than a help to their concept of a desirable order. They are unlikely to force him out of office given their own inability to offer solutions to the chronic problems of inadequate investment, uneven development, joblessness, and stark income disparities, but a weak presidency will at least create a vacuum that is increasingly filled by officer politics and institutional turf battles.

Tunisia’s Democratic Backsliding: The Revenge of the Economy

Hamza Meddeb

Despite considerable political gains since 2011, Tunisia has been struggling with high unemployment, rising social grievances, endemic corruption, and a worsening fiscal crisis that was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. By 2021, well into the COVID-19 crisis, Tunisia’s macroeconomic trajectory has become unsustainable. Deficits had grown further; unemployment reached 18 percent; and external debt increased to critical levels. The Tunisian government’s failure to address long-standing economic issues during the first decade of the democratic transition ended up laying the groundwork for a wave of populism that threatens to jeopardize Tunisia’s political gains, notably after President Kais Saied’s power grab on July 25, 2021.

Hamza Meddeb
Hamza Meddeb is a nonresident scholar at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focuses on economic reform, political economy of conflicts, and border insecurity across the Middle East and North Africa.
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Since 2011, Tunisia has faced a host of economic problems, including low GDP growth rates, high unemployment, and declining levels of investment. A series of exogenous shocks have strongly impacted Tunisia’s macroeconomic imbalances. The state collapse in Libya, one of the major economic partners to Tunisia, and the ensuing regional instability deteriorated Tunisia’s growth prospects. The country’s average GDP growth rate declined from 4.6 percent in 2006–2010 to 1.8 percent in 2011–2015. The terrorist attacks in Sousse and at the Bardo National Museum in 2015, as well as one in Ben Guerdane in 2016, exacerbated further the economic contraction. Between 2015 and 2019, the average GDP growth rate was 1.6 percent, before a sharp decline to negative 8.7 percent in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the country. These macroeconomic trends exacerbated public finances’ imbalances, as the budget deficit increased from 3.4 percent of GDP in 2011 to 11.4 percent in 2020. Tunisia’s public debt, in turn, increased from 47.7 percent of GDP in 2012 to 87.6 percent in 2020. According to the World Bank, Tunisia’s total external debt stock, which includes both public and private debt, jumped from 55.9 percent of gross national income in 2012 to 101.1 percent in 2020.

Despite these shocks, public expenditures soared, driven mainly by both an uncontrolled wage bill (that increased from 11.3 percent of GDP in 2011 to 16.4 percent in 2020 and 16 percent in 2021) and an expanding subsidy budget (that tripled between 2011 and 2013, driven by the rise in the prices of food and energy, before stabilizing at 2.8 percent of GDP and representing respectively around 11 percent of total expenditures in 2020 and 8.46 percent of total expenditures in 2021). The debt-financed public sector expenditures, along with the decline in revenues due to the reduction in economic growth and the costs of the coronavirus pandemic, aggravated fiscal deficits. On the eve of Saied’s power grab in July 2021, the economy was in a deep crisis, and a majority of Tunisians have since been struggling between unemployment, a declining informal sector, and grim economic prospects.

These shocks were not the only factors in Tunisia’s poor economic performance, which weakened Tunisia’s democracy. The failure of the post-2011 governments to address economic challenges contributed to this unsustainable macroeconomic trajectory. Between 2011 and 2014, political elites were focused predominantly on addressing political challenges related to the polarization of the political sphere fueled by conflicts around identity, and on addressing the rise of extremist groups and subsequent security threats in the country. The first phase of the democratic transition ended with the adoption of a consensual constitution as a result of the compromise between Islamists and non-Islamists, but the gains on the political front came at the expense of economic setbacks. The democratization process opened the way for well-organized labor and other sectors, which had been repressed under Ben Ali’s regime, to voice their claims. The political elites, preoccupied with securing the democratic transition, tried to accommodate the demands of salary increases, hirings in the public sector, and improvements of living conditions. The fragile transition and the uncertain regional context made the preservation of macroeconomic stability extremely difficult.     

After 2014, the reliance on consensus politics to keep the democratic transition on track and keep polarization at bay allowed the government to avoid contentious austerity measures, giving priority to preserving frail political arrangements despite economic decay and worsening living conditions. The substantial capital inflows received by Tunisia during this time, in the form of cheap loans and financial assistance, enabled the post-2014 governments to avoid a much-needed economic adjustment. These inflows only bought time and were not allocated to fix the economic challenges Tunisia faced. Hence, by 2016, as its fiscal situation worsened, Tunisia had no choice but to negotiate a financial support program with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In April 2016, Tunisia reached a deal with the IMF for a $2.8 billion financing package tied to a program that encompassed wage bill reduction, subsidy budget control, and a tax reform. According to that agreement, Tunisia’s authorities committed to adopt a public sector reform plan that would reduce the public wage bill from 13.5 percent of GDP in 2015 to 11 percent at the end of the program. They also committed to reduce the subsidy budget by introducing an adjustment pricing mechanism that reflects the variation in energy prices and to boost government revenues through a tax reform that aimed at widening the tax base. However, the failure of political leaders to accommodate strongly conflicting demands made difficult the adoption of adjustment steps that might have helped in reducing central government debt.

The failure to implement fiscal adjustment was largely driven by the post-2014 governments’ inability to neutralize corporate representatives—namely the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts (UTICA), the employers’ union, who acted as veto players. The UGTT and UTICA, along with the Tunisian Bar Association and Human Rights League (known collectively as the Quartet), played a crucial role in pushing the political elite, both Islamist and non-Islamist, into approving a national compromise that cleared the way for the 2014 constitution to be adopted and for elections to be held. This process of consensus building restrained the capacity of post-2014 governments to adopt bold fiscal reforms. Consensus politics gave corporate representatives veto power and considerable leverage to block reforms that might go against the interests of their respective constituencies. Subsequently, governments were vulnerable as they had to secure veto players’ consent to be able to remain in office. This was typically the case in 2016 and 2017, when the government of prime minister Youssef Chahed announced its plan to freeze recruitment in the public sector, suspend a salary increase that had already been agreed upon with the UGTT, and raise taxes on companies and certain professions. Representatives of labor, business, and professional groups rejected this plan. Lawyers and primary and secondary school teachers took to the streets, and the UGTT threatened to hold a general strike. As a consequence, the government had to back down and abandon its reform program.

Consensus between Islamists and secularists initially helped to stabilize Tunisia’s nascent democracy. However, the power-sharing agreement that sustained the coalition building increasingly became a problem when facing the difficult but necessary task of adopting reforms that have distributional effects for different social groups. Without a burden-sharing agreement that would have incentivized the parties to assume the political and electoral cost of reforms, this coalition resembled an opportunistic marriage of convenience or a rotten compromise. Such compromise led increasingly to disconnection between leadership and parties’ constituencies on the one hand and the alienation of people from politics on the other hand and paved the way to anti-politics and populist discourses.     

In 2019, the IMF began to consider suspending disbursement of its loan, signaling a shift in the attitude of the international financial institutions as the economic situation became extremely fragile. Driven largely by geopolitical concerns—such as security threats, infighting in Libya, sociopolitical tensions, and irregular migration from Tunisia to Europe’s southern shores—external financial support that has been used by post-2014 governments as a democratic rent ended up creating, both domestically and internationally, moral hazard, which gave veto players incentives to double down and intensify their demands as the government largely failed to clearly draw and communicate its financial and temporal limits. The moral hazard also made Tunisia’s elites feel that they were guaranteed against the negative effects of delaying adjustment, giving them incentive to take additional risks in their relations with international financial institutions.

In the absence of bold reforms, the status quo prevailed. This status quo could only be preserved through two macroeconomic policies—increases in public debt and in those public expenditures that weren’t directed toward investment but rather toward consumption and social spending. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Tunisia’s public finances were in an extremely fragile situation, and the state found itself amid a deep debt crisis. For the fourth time in a decade, Tunisia had to return to the IMF to negotiate a new bailout. However, the ongoing political crisis threatened to take the country into chaos.

In 2019, general elections witnessed Saied’s rise to power as a populist president, as well as the production of a fragmented parliament. For two years, growing conflicts between the president and the parliament, on one hand, and infighting between different parliamentary blocs, on the other hand, led to weak governments and ineffective policymaking. Coalitions were unstable and lacked a common agenda. The mismanagement of the pandemic left citizens frustrated and increasingly distrustful. This fed antiparliamentarism and nurtured a climate of hostility and disengagement from representative democracy, laying the groundwork for the president’s autogolpe on July 25, 2021. Saied invoked Article 80 of the Constitution, which gives the president extraordinary prerogatives to suspend the parliament, dismiss the prime minister, and concentrate power. Since then, he has aimed to capture the judiciary, dismantle the anticorruption commission, and rewrite the rules of the game through unilaterally announcing a road map to rebuild the political system and organize a referendum for a new constitution, which would facilitate the concentration and abuse of power.  

These constitutional and political crises come as Tunisia is discussing a new program with the IMF. While the fund tied its support to Tunisia having a reform plan negotiated and supported by the labor and business unions as a condition to restore the trust of the international financial institutions, given the burden of Tunisia’s debt and the significant level of financing the country requires, the president has been for months rejecting the organization of a national dialogue. Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine has exacerbated further Tunisia’s financing needs, which increased from 20 billion Tunisian dinar ($7 billion) in the beginning of 2022 to 25 billion dinar ($8.8 billion) after the sharp increase in the prices of food and energy.

One year since his power grab, Saied is planning to consolidate his power by putting to a referendum a new constitution that grants him extensive prerogatives. However, once again economic problems might prove to be a linchpin. Tunisia’s poor public finances might deprive him of the necessary resources to move forward with building and stabilizing a hyper presidential system. An agreement with the IMF will require unpopular measures that include freezing wages and increasing food and energy prices further, which might feed social anger and erode Saied’s fragile support base. At the same time, refraining from tackling fiscal imbalances will be unsustainable from an economic perspective.

More than a decade since its revolution, Tunisia is navigating political uncertainty and economic fragility. The long-neglected economy has weakened support for democracy, and the president’s power grab is preparing the ground for an authoritarian reversion.

Global Lessons for Tunisia’s Stalled Transition

Sarah Yerkes

In many respects Tunisia’s democratic experience is unique. As one of the world’s youngest democracies, Tunisia began its transition in the age of social media, and technology shaped the transition in a way that wasn’t possible for earlier transitions. Tunisia is also unique in its isolation. As the sole democracy in the Arab world, Tunisia did not benefit from the democratic contagion effects that other regions have seen.

Nevertheless, policymakers and civil society activists can draw some important lessons from the experience of countries around the world that struggled with their own democratic transitions. The global cases that make up this compendium therefore both shed light on how Tunisia’s democracy fell apart so quickly and offer some valuable lessons for how Tunisia’s democracy might get back on track.

How Did Tunisia Get Here?

Like most democratic transitions around the world, Tunisia’s transition did not follow a linear path. While Tunisian politicians and civil society actors managed to produce a progressive, inclusive constitution in 2014, that process was marred by political violence and social polarization. The Tunisian government managed to rescue the transition in its early years by adopting a consensus-based political model that artificially papered over simmering mistrust and anger among a variety of political actors. As Zeineb Ben Yahmed and I have argued, the consensus model “left the country without a strong political opposition, leading to watered-down policies and an ineffective legislative agenda.” And it “acted as a brake on the state’s machinery by weakening institutions and undermining governmental performance.” The consensus model also allowed the state to ignore the simmering polarization that President Kais Saied capitalized on to win election in 2019. The Georgian experience shows how dangerous this sort of polarization can be.

Additionally, Tunisia’s political reform was not complete when Saied came to power in 2019. Tunisia’s judicial reform lagged behind the reform of other political institutions, similar to Georgia, as Thomas de Waal argues. And the failure of Tunisia to create a constitutional court has been one of the key factors that allowed Saied’s self-coup to succeed.

While the choice to sequence political reform ahead of economic reform had some major benefits, including establishing several of the essential institutions and processes necessary for a functioning democracy, that choice also had major downsides. As Hamza Meddeb notes in his contribution, “The Tunisian government’s failure to address long-standing economic issues during the first decade of the democratic transition ended up laying the groundwork for a wave of populism that threatens to jeopardize Tunisia’s political gains.”

These early choices of prioritizing political reform and consensus over addressing the socioeconomic challenges that brought about the revolution—while failing to confront social polarization—may have helped keep the transition on track in its first few years. But the choices also created the conditions that allowed Saied to successfully undertake a self-coup, or autogolpe, on July 25, 2021. Saied’s use of a self-coup may not be a well-known practice in Tunisia’s neighborhood, but Latin America has several instances of autogolpes. Saied has repeatedly claimed his actions are constitutional and has strongly pushed back against those who call his actions a coup. But as the Peruvian case shows, Saied’s actions nearly mirror president Alberto Fujimori’s—abolishing the parliament and courts, suspending the constitution, and ruling by decree.   

One of the factors that led to Saied’s success has been the stunted economic growth that Tunisia saw in the past decade, a slowdown that was exacerbated by the pandemic. Like the Kyrgyz experience, democracy did not deliver prosperity to Tunisians. And while the majority of Tunisians still prefer democracy, three-quarters of Tunisians believe that an essential characteristic of democracy is that “basic necessities, like food, clothes and shelter, are provided for all.” As the Kyrgyz case shows, swings between democracy and authoritarianism, as Tunisia is now experiencing, are not surprising in a place where citizens desire democracy but where democracy does not deliver.

The quote that de Waal shares about Georgia could easily be applied to Tunisia:

Georgia’s democracy does not work well because most of its citizens do not experience results, do not understand their rights, and do not have a government that responds to their policy preferences. Joblessness and poverty are immense disadvantages in stimulating a participatory democracy, or in exercising control over public servants and employers.

Peru’s experience under Fujimori also has many parallels to Tunisia under Saied. Both men consolidated power in a time of turmoil, with multiple severe crises (economic, security, and drug-related in the case of Peru and economic and pandemic-related in the case of Tunisia) paving the way for their election. Both men were politically inexperienced populists who rode a wave of anger and disenchantment with traditional politics to bring them to victory. Mistrust of leaders is a common theme across democratizing countries, which this compendium shows in the examples of Peru and Kyrgyzstan.

Gender has been an important dimension of Tunisia’s transition, and Tunisia has been lauded globally for its continued focus on promoting gender equality both before and after the revolution. But, as Saskia Brechenmacher shows in her piece on Kenya’s democratic transition, gender equality on paper does not necessarily translate into equality in action. In the Tunisian case, Saied has used gender equality to ingratiate himself to the international community. His appointment of the Arab world’s first female head of government­—Prime Minister Najla Bouden—was widely applauded globally. However, many Tunisian feminist activists accused Saied of pinkwashing by appointing a highly unqualified candidate to a position nearly entirely devoid of power. Saied has done little to advance women’s rights.

As Brechenmacher notes, simply having a vibrant feminist civil society is not necessarily sufficient to enact long-term, sustainable change. She points to the importance of forming “networks across ethnic, political, and class divides” that put groups “often in a better position to influence the rules for the transition itself and anchor demands for representation and equality in transitional frameworks.” In the Tunisian case, feminist groups have been largely successful in pushing for change—as exemplified by the successful passage of a highly progressive, anti-gender-based-violence law in 2017. However, many of their advances came about because of the broad coalitions they formed. Following the July 25 self-coup, however, the demonization of Ennahda made secular feminist groups far less likely to be willing to enter a coalition, which has had a negative consequence on their ability to press for changes. This has been particularly relevant in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which saw a massive uptick in gender-based violence cases in Tunisia.

Can Tunisia Regain Democratic Traction?

The cases in this compendium highlight the fragility of democratic transitions and the many inflection points where democracy can backslide. In Peru, Fujimori abused democratic practices to solidify his power and couched his self-coup in the language of protecting Peruvian democracy rather than undermining it. Saied is so far following a very similar path—planning new parliamentary elections in December 2022 and a constitutional referendum on July 25, 2022, one year after his self-coup, as a way to, in his words, “save the state.” More recently, Saied’s decree on April 22, 2022, revising the makeup of the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE), a body charged with overseeing the elections, makes clear that Saied will not leave these processes to chance.

In Turkey, as Marc Pierini notes, the Justice and Development Party’s absolute majority has helped it stay in power since 2002. The fractured nature of Tunisia’s political system, conversely, prevented early consolidation of power and allowed for Saied to divide the populace between his supporters and detractors. However, since Saied’s desire for a more highly centralized model of politics forms the basis of his revised constitution, Tunisia could see a more Turkey-like scenario in the future.

While self-coups and other authoritarian power grabs in a young democracy can be short-lived, as the Kyrgyz and Georgian cases demonstrate, in Peru, the relatively muted international response combined with Fujimori’s success at consolidating power, revising the constitution, and delivering security wins helped him stay in power for a decade. While Saied has managed to consolidate most of Tunisia’s institutions under his rule in less than nine months, there are a few important independent actors—primarily civil society, as well as opposition political parties and the media—that maintain some modicum of independence and influence. In both the Kyrgyz and Georgian cases, these actors have been crucial at various points in preventing further backsliding or keeping the government in check.

International assistance, whether financial assistance or diplomatic support for the democratic process, can also play a helpful role during early transitions. In the Kyrgyz case, as Paul Stronski shows, “generous international assistance has enabled successive Kyrgyz governments to advance some political and economic reforms that the country’s neighbors have avoided and has allowed it to maintain some modicum of democracy.” And in Turkey, as Pierini notes, Turkey’s customs union with the EU helped Turkey avoid the economic collapse that in Tunisia set off the enabling conditions for Saied’s coup. In Tunisia, conversely, international assistance increased dramatically following the 2010–2011 revolution, but that assistance was not enough to prevent massive economic collapse. As Meddeb argues, the international community’s generosity backfired, in a way, allowing the Tunisian government to buy time and lessening the pressure for economic reform early on. 

The international community can also play an important role in calling out democratic backsliding when it happens and working with democracy advocates in and out of government to push back against threats to democracy. However, international actors are often timid, offering muted responses to threats early on. In the case of a self-coup, things can be especially tricky. As Jennifer McCoy notes, the OAS took a very cautious path in the wake of Fujimori’s coup, since a self-coup is not a clear case of the overthrow of an elected government. The global response to Saied’s coup has been similar. Despite the steady decimation of Tunisia’s democratic progress over the past year, Western governments have been reticent to describe Saied’s actions as a “coup,” reserving that term for more traditional military coups, not self-coups.

Another key actor in Tunisia going forward will be the security services. As Yezid Sayigh notes, the failure of the Tunisian government to provide adequate oversight for the Ministry of Interior or effectively change the behavior of its personnel is one of the biggest challenges facing Tunisia today. Reining in the security services is necessary for democracy to succeed in Tunisia in the future. Future governments will need to be willing to challenge the powerful police units, who have, at times, held justice hostage by allowing members of the security services to operate with impunity, as Sayigh argues.

While Tunisia’s democratic future looks less and less promising each passing month, global cases show that neither the path to democracy nor the path to autocracy is guaranteed. The upcoming months offer several important inflection points where local Tunisian activists and opposition parties as well as the international community can work together to return Tunisia to a democratic path. Both civil society groups and political parties should form the sorts of broad-based coalitions that Brechenmacher refers to that have been successful in pushing for gender equality. While deep societal polarization permeates Tunisian politics, challenging Saied’s authoritarian power grab will require civil society to overcome points of disagreement.

The international community should have clear redlines and pre-planned responses should Saied cross those redlines. While Saied has already crossed many would-be redlines, including disbanding the parliament and dismantling the ISIE, there are several additional steps he could still take to ensure the end of Tunisian democracy in the short term. To deter these steps, the international community should first strongly push back against any attempt to revise Tunisia’s law on nongovernmental organizations, as a document leaked in February indicated Saied might do. These proposed changes would have a direct, negative impact on the ability of donors to work with local Tunisian civil society organizations. Another redline should be the outlawing of existing political parties or actors. Saied has already set the stage for preventing nearly every 2019 presidential candidate from running for future office by charging nineteen people, including former prime ministers, presidents, and members of parliament, with alleged electoral crimes related to the 2019 elections.

There are also some positive steps international actors can take. As the cases in this compendium show, addressing Tunisia’s economic crisis will not only benefit the Tunisian public but will also provide for a more stable and democratic future. Donors could use diplomatic and financial incentives that would both provide economic support for the Tunisian public and civil society and incentivize a return to a democratic path—for example, insisting that aid agreements be ratified by a freely and fairly elected parliament. While Tunisia’s democratic future seems precarious, global cases of young transitions make clear that transitions are often messy, and it is too early to completely close the door on Tunisian democracy.