True World Article Bulletin :: Article :: Tunisian Revolution Transitioning to Bonapartism

11 years after the Arab Revolution, if Egypt is experiencing Thermidor, the rebirth of the old system, Tunisia is reminiscent of Bonapartism. While Egypt has revived the tyrannical regime by overthrowing the president of the Muslim Brotherhood that came to power through a democratic process, Tunisia has taken a stand to neutralize the Islamist party Ennahda, the protagonist of the ‘2014 regime’ established after the revolution. The president took measures close to a coup. In 2010-2011, which sparked the Arab Revolution, 2014, which was praised as an exceptional success story for establishing a democratic system, and 2019, when a person who did not come from an established political circle was elected president, Tunisia always surprised the world. And the situation for about a year from 2021 is drawing attention in a different sense than before.

1. The people wanted (?) a new constitution

The new constitution, confirmed through a referendum on August 17, came into effect. The new constitution, prepared under the leadership of President Kais Saied, who majored in constitution, gives the president powerful powers. The president can appoint or dismiss prime ministers and ministers unilaterally without the consent of the parliament, and has the right to dissolve the parliament. According to the 2014 constitution, a product of the revolution, the president could not dissolve parliament. But now, there is a way to subdue the parliament, which is regularly subjected to various kinds of violence even when it is broadcast live on camera, and the parliament, which is an obstacle to the reforms promoted by Saied. Conversely, it made the process of impeaching the president more difficult. The president’s term of office, which can be reappointed once in a five-year term, can also be extended on the basis of ‘imminent danger’. This marked the end of the 2014 constitutional era that limited the president’s powers to prevent a return to the dictatorship of the Ben Ali era.

The constitutional amendment bill, put in a referendum on July 25, was passed with an overwhelming majority of 94.6%. This was the highest approval rating of any election held since the 2011 revolution. It was a figure reminiscent of the turnout rate of President Ben Ali, who was forced to resign due to the revolution. Paradoxically, despite the opposing party’s appeal for an election boycott, a small number of voters who were negative about Saiid came out to the polling station, so there is an aspect that avoids the ridiculous result. Said said: “The people want it. People know what they want.” And if you look at the part where the will is expressed by voting at least, the new constitution was what the people wanted.

The day the constitutional amendment vote was held was exactly one year after the announcement of the dissolution of the parliament. Let’s review the process so far.One) On July 25, 2021, President Saied suspends the functions of the parliament for a month after months of conflict with the main opposition Ennahda party and sacks his former prime minister, Hissem Messi. After neutralizing his opponents, he announced on September 22 a measure allowing rule by the president only by executive order. On January 15, 2022, he conducted an online survey with the aim of hearing people’s opinions in person with constitutional amendments in mind. The people responded to 30 questions in various fields such as economy, politics, and society. On February 6, the Higher Judiciary Committee (CSM), a constitutional body that was responsible for appointing judges and prosecutors and guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary, was also disbanded. The measure was taken on the grounds of delaying investigations related to corruption allegations and disciplinary action by judges. There was a reason for choosing the date of February 6th. In other words, it can be inferred that it was retaliation for the murder of Shockree Belade, a member of the democratic party, by radical Islamists on this very day nine years ago. On June 4, the advisory committee appointed by Saied held its first meeting to prepare the constitutional amendment at the Carthage Palace, the presidential residence. The significance of the new constitution can be estimated in that the chair of the advisory committee was chaired by Zadok Belade, a lawyer who has taken a very critical stance on the Ennahda Party. On June 30, a constitutional amendment bill was proposed, which was quite different from the results of the committee’s work, and even the chairperson appointed by Saied strongly objected. And on July 25, a vote was held to ask the public’s will for this constitution.

2. Break with the political culture of consensus

Concerns grew when the new constitution was unveiled. Mostly because the road to dictatorship could be opened. When Saied overturned expectations and was elected president in 2019, those who had hoped to revive the flames of a revolution that had been stranded in the struggle for interests of the political class also turned their backs. Of course, there are also evaluations that it is correcting the 2011 revolution in which the politicians distorted Saied’s actions. The established political parties are selfish and pathetic, so they think that even if they monopolize power, it should be tolerated for the sake of the people and the country. Saied’s justification, ‘imminent threat’, when he pursued the monopoly of power a year ago, contains this perception. In other words, corruption and politics were endangering Tunisian society. But the threat he felt was probably the forces targeting him. After systematically suppressing their resistance, he tried to reflect the politics he envisioned in the constitution. The legitimacy of the struggle against the old system cannot be denied. There is a cause of the remnants of the past dictatorship and the struggle of democratic forces against religious forces. However, the answer to the objection that one should not give up a pluralistic and democratic method, no matter how legitimate it is, is difficult to answer.

Unlike culture, pluralism in the political realm is often used by the United States as a tool to slander other countries for imperialistic purposes, which raises suspicions first. Also, in the case of the Middle East and North Africa, it is not easy to claim pluralism as a political alternative because society is divided into several parts due to the legacy of colonial rule and causes social conflict. However, the pluralistic reality cannot be ignored. Islam is a representative example, and this old element that exists in all areas of society also acts as an obstacle to modern development, which makes me want to limit it to the private realm in a Western style. However, attempts in this direction, which have been attempted since the early modern times, have failed over and over again. However, this constitutional amendment drew a line in the politics of compromise brought about by the revolution along with the strengthening of the power of the president, that is, the coexistence of Arab-Islamic elements and Western modernism, and the possibility of cooperation between various powers.

The 2014 constitution, in which Saied himself was involved in the preparation process, provided a mechanism to prevent one party from winning a majority in parliament. In order for a party to become the first party in the election to form a government, it must be in solidarity with other parties. The consensus model is also a reflection of a dualistic society. Tunisia, with a population of about 11.7 million and a land area slightly larger than that of South Korea, is also divided into various worlds. The 2011 revolution revealed the gap between the open coastal area to the west of the Mediterranean Sea and the excluded inland, and the poor situation of the enlarged informal sector. These social rifts are also reflected in the arena of politics and ideology. In Tunisian society since the 1980s, when Islamic forces emerged as the main actors in the political arena, the Islamic world has been regarded as the world of the people and the modern world as the world of the elite. One of the roles of the regime was to serve as a link between these two types of worlds and to effectively integrate those at a disadvantage. The results were often poor, and rebellion, depoliticization and migration were signs that this task was not being carried out properly. If the attack on Islamism implied by the new constitution is not accompanied by a strategy of enlisting the people who support it, the tragedy of the division of society in two may be repeated.

3. Resurrection of Bonapartism

On the other hand, Saied’s move to monopolize power by using elections with the support of the people on his back while claiming to be the successor of the revolutionary spirit is reminiscent of Bonapartism. Looking at the history of the electoral system, the process of establishing itself as a universal system has not been smooth at all. The idea of ​​giving political rights to anyone was a foreign system to Britain and the United States, and it faced considerable opposition in France, its homeland. He distinguished between capable and active citizens and passive citizens who lacked the ability to participate in politics. The elite’s concerns were not solely political. Everyone’s political participation can lead to policies for all, and that’s the road to the nightmare of economic equality. Conversely, the road to equality was a process led by a double carriage of economic and political struggles at the same time. So the ruling powers tried to limit voting rights somehow. However, strong popular resistance, such as the Chartist movement and the Revolution of 1848, forced a different response than before.

It was Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon I who proposed a new model of government, who was also royal and the first president of France to be elected directly in December 1848. He, like most ruling powers at the time, despised the public, but instead made a Copernican transition to using it as a mechanism to support the legitimacy of the regime, instead of restraining the public from participating in politics in a way such as voting. Voting is no longer something to be afraid of for the ruling class. It became an effective means of controlling the ignorant and dangerous people. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who became Napoleon III, always talked about the people and the masses. But who are the people at this time? The people Louis Napoleon needed were not those organized in political parties or unions independent of power.

The method of appealing to the public as an unorganized individual aside from unions and political parties and using votes as an opportunity to mobilize has been followed by many examples. France’s independence hero de Gaulle’s way of governing was to take precedence over political parties, unite the people, distrust the parliament, and grant a superior position to the elected president, and based on this, pursue an externally strong state. This was a typical example of Bonapartism applied to republican modern politics. Even in the modern society where democracy is universal, this method has not disappeared. In modern society, heroes, saviors, and charismatic leaders are born outside the system, that is, from the center of the system through the media or election, not from a place that is isolated from society. And the people are the fragile children this Savior needs to protect.

The fact that Tunisia was a French colony left its mark in society, but it is also true in politics. This can be confirmed in the fact that the political system established after the 2011 revolution was a dual dictatorship resembling France. Examples of Bonapartism can also be found. Although not limited to Tunisia, Bourguiba, an independence hero and first president, was governed by paternalism. At the time when Bourguiba promised ‘the joy of life’, it actively promoted the expansion of infrastructure in the medical, housing, and educational fields to realize this. To the people, the state was seen as a being that gave them blessings. Habib Atia, a geographer in the Bourguiba era, expressed this situation as rural residents waited more for the blessing of the state than the blessing of the gods. However, they were not given any rights. This paternalist model of state did not disappear under the Ben Ali regime, which came to power in 1987 following Bourguiba. However, the political prescription was the same, but the economic conditions behind it were significantly different. Now, the era of neoliberal globalization has come, and paternalism has been reduced to a symptomatic remedy for the problem of polarization created by neoliberalism. Even if the state had the will to do so, unlike before, the state had lost its ability to respond to the demands of all citizens. Even under Saied’s rule, it is not easy to secure the legitimacy of the regime and achieve social peace through material concessions. However, at least a strategy to solidify the basis of government through political and ideological mechanisms, such as voting, is always possible and has achieved considerable success in practice.

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Saied’s attraction to the public can already be seen in the authoritarian and paternalistic figures of Habib Bourguiba and President Ben Ali. At the same time, the reason may be found in the situation where there is no such thing as a political culture due to the decades of dictatorship that Tunisian society has experienced. 50 years of dictatorship and 10 years of chaos following 70 years of French rule were enough to cause disillusionment with politics. The people no longer have high expectations for concrete reform measures or the functioning of a proper democratic system. Rather, they want to believe in a miracle performed by a person who is believed to be the savior.

4. View

The Tunisian revolution now appears to be entering a new stage. In particular, it remains to be seen how to achieve the two wheels of equality: political democratization and economic democratization. Politically, at a time when formal democracy, a product of the revolution, has reached its limit, attention is being drawn to whether the change led by Saied will transition to a substantive participatory democracy or, as many fear, lead to the dictatorship commonly seen in the Arab world. The road to economic democratization seems more difficult. It will be difficult for the introduction of a new constitution to contribute to alleviating the socio-economic problems that Tunisia is currently experiencing. Because it wasn’t intended for that in the first place. It seems difficult to expect from Said individuals also for social democratization. In socio-cultural fields such as homosexuality and inheritance law, the side cannot be viewed as progressive. Rather, he is more of a conservative character. Rather, we should expect to see the achievements of the revolution in which the capacity of citizens and the space for participation have increased. Now, the evaluation of the imperial presidential system enshrined in the Constitution will depend on what kind of people Saied promotes and what kind of relationship he will form with them. Depending on the result, it will be judged whether the recent series of measures was a historical mistake of abandoning the political culture of the Tunisian knowledge compromise or the pain of setting up a new political platform. I just hope that the people he is talking about are not of the ‘great nation’ style that Bonapartist adherents enjoyed.

1) https://www.lesechos.fr/monde/afrique-moyen-orient/tunisie-le-virage-autoritaire-de-kais-saied-en-sept-etapes-1778574, retrieved 22 Aug 2022


The article is in Korean

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