Tunisia’s President Kais Saied has borrowed more than a few pages from Donald Trump’s playbook over the past couple of years.
Since taking office, he has attacked the system that propelled him to power, insulted parliament and parliamentarians, and undermined the parliamentary system on which the country’s democratic system is based, all in the name of “the people”.
Like the former US president, he has been vocal in his insults and attacks on political parties, media outlets, and state institutions, which inhibited his desire, as president, to do what he wants.
He has even attacked the constitution, demanded it be changed to allow for greater presidential powers, and stopped a constitutional court from being formed.
And to add insult to injury, he praised Egypt’s dictatorship last April after paying a visit to President el-Sisi, Trump’s “favourite dictator”.
And finally, this week, Saied succeeded in what Trump failed to do on January 6 by inciting his followers to attack Congress in the name of “the people” – he has successfully and cynically exploited popular discontent and recent nationwide demonstrations to shut down the parliament, dismiss the government and take over the levers of state power, albeit temporarily.
But history has shown us that “temporary” has a way of becoming “permanently temporary” in populist settings, as eccentric leaders, who claim to speak for “the people”, tend to subject the entire business of governing to their own whims and moods.
In short, none of what happened in Tunisia this week should have come as a surprise; in fact, it has been a long time coming.
But what makes the Tunisian debacle rather surrealistic is that Saied, unlike Trump, is no shady businessman. He is a law professor, who knows better – who should know better.
He has cited Article 77 of the constitution to claim total supremacy over the country’s security forces, and cited article 80 to justify his coup. But it takes no constitutional lawyer to see how, his interpretation of both articles, well- or ill-intentioned, are utterly flawed.
Instead of coordinating his declared “emergency” steps with the heads of government and parliament, Saied used the new measures against them, and in the process, undermined the constitutional division of power in the country – all in the name of “the people”, of course.
But then again, populism is not limited to any one particular profession, nationality or religion.
We have seen it championed by men of all walks of life in recent years, undermining nascent as well as old democracies throughout the world, where populist leaders exploited peoples’ frustrations and their dissatisfaction with the status quo in order to concentrate more power in their hands and undermine the constitutional division of authority.
Tunisia is no exception, alas.
Since the success of their peaceful revolution a decade ago, Tunisians have been increasingly frustrated with the deepening economic crisis and political paralysis in the country.
And in recent weeks, their frustration has turned into fury as the pandemic ran havoc with this relatively small nation of 11 million, killing more than 17,000 thus far.
But as the situation worsened, Tunisian politicians, including the president, have utterly failed to put their differences aside and get on with the business of governing the people and attending to their basic needs.
Worse, Tunisian politics has turned into “power politics”, focused on managing personal egos instead of public affairs.
So yes, Tunisians have every right to be furious.
But for the life of me, I cannot see how, after decades of repressive dictatorship, going back to one-man rule will solve the country’s problems, or serve its long-term interests.
That’s not to say I do not see the attraction in the notion of a “national saviour” during dark times. But it has already been tried and failed. It is a pipe dream.
Populist leaders are good, even excellent, at denouncing, eradicating and destroying, but often prove utterly incompetent at cooperating, coordinating and building.
In that way, Saied has not stopped complaining since taking office, but hardly proposed any solutions to any of the problems facing Tunisia.
Like Trump, his solution to the Tunisian “carnage”, is compounding it.
He has expropriated the slogan of the Tunisian revolution, “the people want the fall of the regime”, i.e the Bin Ali dictatorship, by claiming “the president wants the fall of the regime”; i.e the very same democratic regime that propelled him to power!
All of which takes us back to the tension between populism and democracy; or more specifically, between populism and liberal democracy, where the former exploits popular discontent to cripple the latter, by undermining the constitution, the media, and the state institutions.
In that way, and like other populist leaders like Trump, President Saied seems determined to eliminate any oversight and all obstacles to his rule.
Yet, it is still too early to tell whether he can pull it off, but not too late for Tunisians and their friends to make him reverse his coercive unconstitutional measures, sooner than later.
Tunisian democracy may not be as old and stable as that of the United States, but the Tunisians have proven capable of positive change before; they can do it again, peacefully.