Tunis Keynote (January 2023)
This is a special occasion for me, two reasons. First, I have much love and a deep attachment to Tunisia. I have visited this country since I was a young child. My father came to know Habib Bourguiba very well, and indeed considered him as a father figure as well. Through my studies, I also came to admire him.
Bourguiba was quietly spoken but profound in his own right. He was not a liberal democracy but nonetheless a conciliatory figure. He made Tunisia a trailblazer in the Arab world in so many ways, from its vast progress in women’s rights to the civicism and civic identity felt among its citizens. He created in Tunisia not a democracy, but a well-functioning state that was relatively free of the clientelism and nepotism that distorted so many other Arab states. Justice may not have been ideal under Bourguiba, but there was a definite sense of egalitarianism.
During the Arab Spring, the Tunisian state built through this history served as an exemplar for peaceful democratic transition in our region. It was a revolt – but a revolt that led to a meaningful and transformative outcome. The Tunisian revolution had no vengeance, only a deep yearning for greater freedom and dignity. As a democrat, I saw this event as a crucial awakening for the region. I consequently studied this democratic breakthrough with a deep intellectual passion. In the process, I built fruitful relationships with many of the political and social actors who drive this uprising forward, and I remain grateful for them. It has been an honor to maintain these relationships today.
Second, this occasion is special to me because of my deep attachment to Le Monde Diplomatique. This is globally recognized newspaper that exemplifies serious and analytical journalism. Yet, it also embraces a deep understanding and empathy for the poor and powerless. It gives voice to the voiceless. As strange as it may seem, I often identified with this latter category. For decades, Le Monde Diplomatique gave me an opportunity to engage in debates and present my ideas in ways that were otherwise impossible, given my unique and special circumstances. For all these reasons, I have long considered myself to be part of the Le Monde Diplomatique community. As we are being hosted now by the esteemed Arabic edition, I hope you too will join our community.
Now, I want to further touch upon an idea that I discussed in my last article in Le Monde Diplomatique, namely the counterrevolution. I want to put this theme in a broader international context, and then center it around the situation of Tunisia.
Let us first ask ourselves: what does the term “counterrevolutionary” mean, against the backdrop of history and in the presence of our region? I believe I was one of the first to use this term during the context of Arab Spring, but it is worth evaluating what this complicated term means. The pure definition of “counterrevolutionary” refers to a very specific type of political force. Specifically, it refers to those who seek to reverse a revolution that threatens to transform old economic and political structures. Counterrevolutionaries are those who reject this revolution, and instead wish to preserve the old system of privileges and power. It is a bit like physics, where every action is followed by an opposite reaction.
The Arab Spring represented a revolutionary transformation. In that context, the counterrevolution came from old regime elites and other remnants of the authoritarian system that had dominated for generations. These counterrevolutionary forces created political forces that opposed the chaos and disruption of the uprisings, and were discreetly rather than brashly conservative. At first, these forces can be readily labelled around the name of “the party of order,” a term I have employed in my writing, as taken from the European Spring of the mid-nineteenth century. They capitalized on public fatigue of political agitation and economic disruptions, promising instead to restore a sense of normalcy.
Another driver of the counterrevolution came late, from the end of 2012 and running throughout 2013. This was the external element. By external, I mean that there was not so much a Western factor, but rather a regional quality to the counterrevolutionary resistance to the Arab Spring. The Europeans and especially French recognized that there was no more “Arab exceptionalism,” or the idea that Arab societies were incapable of embracing democracy. The uprisings showed that the indigenous pressures for change were overwhelming. We should not forget the missteps of the French government in the early stages of the protests here in Tunisia. The French Foreign Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, offered to share the expertise and resources of the French security forces with the Tunisian government, in order to help suppress the protests and restore order.
Quickly, however, the West understood that the Arab Uprisings were not isolated episodes of unrest. Rather, they constituted a historic wave of popular mobilization that represented a revolutionary rupture against autocratic states. Western governments realized that they could not be on the losing side of history, much like they had been during the Iranian Revolution 30 years earlier.
We can see this recognition through the evolution of American policy towards Egypt during 2011-12. Initially, the US sought to play both sides. The Obama administration conceded the revolutionary protests had real grievances, but also maintained close ties with President Mubarak. However, the US position changed as the protests had consumed the country, and Mubarak faced pressure to leave power. The US backed down from Mubarak, and declared its support for a peaceful and stable transition.
Nonetheless, Western resistance to political change in the Arab world still emerged. It did not evoke opposition to transitions from authoritarianism. Rather, it was a more specific fear of Islamist governments coming to power through elections. This was a repackaging of Islamophobia, with streaks of Orientalism. European governments, like that of France, greatly feared the repercussions of Arab countries being governed by more religious regimes led by Islamists. They had, and still have, large Muslim communities that represent a challenge to their own national identity and culture. The Orientalist impulse fed a disbelief that such people were ready for democracy. In a sense, there has been a displacement: whereas in the past, the Arabs were presumed to favor authoritarianism, now they are seen as preferring democracy – but still lack the social and cultural means to nourish its politics.
The regional push for counterrevolution meant different things and was advanced by different actors in the Arab world. It was not a unified movement so much as a convergence of political interests. In the Gulf, the counterrevolutionary campaign reflected a deep fear of liberal democracy and popular participation. Most Gulf states sought to counter any unrest at home by spending their considerable financial resources to appease the public. What came to be known as the counterrevolutionary axis, namely Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, also expended many resources to undertake costly interventions in other Arab states. They did so based on their conviction that the Arab Spring greatly threatened their interests and stability.
Thus, a new regional topography emerged, as manifest in three patterns. First, the counterrevolutionary campaign sought to separate Palestine from regional politics, thereby facilitating the normalization embodied by the Abraham Accords. It did so because the cause of Palestine, like other mass movements, deeply connected to the collective sense of justice felt by the pan-Arab public. Second, the counterrevolutionary push also conflated Sunni Islamism, as embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood, with the imagined threat of Shi‘a expansionism. It therefore introduced a sectarian element into regional discourse. Finally, the counterrevolutionary wave spread new forms of transnational surveillance and digital espionage around the region, in an effort to intimidate and silence all forms of dissent.
In Egypt, the counterrevolutionary drive came from the military. It showed a deep, conservative fear of losing the praetorian state, and also sacrificing the militaristic interests that had long governed the country to democratic freedom. The preferred response was therefore very coercive. As we saw in July 2013, the Egyptian military ended democracy, suppressed protests, and took back power by force.
Closer to us in our region of the Maghreb, the counterrevolutionary trajectory was different. In Algeria, there was no counterrevolution because there was no transformation, at least not yet. The conventional thinking was that the civil war of the 1990s was so traumatic that it stifled all political life. The memory of that conflict purportedly haunted Algeria. Oil and gas rents, as well, subsidized the institutions of power that dominated Algerian society. We are only beginning to see the glimmers of change now. The military regime has reformulated itself behind a civilian façade in response to popular mobilization, and has resisted calls for democratic reform.
In Morocco, the situation is different. Here, the old elite establishment and makhzen sought to preserve the old system of power. They sought to channel political trends to occur through cycles, so that political struggles unfold not through abrupt tectonic plate changes but rather pendulum swings involving state and society. The Moroccan counterrevolutionary response, therefore, has been the recalibration of the system with limited reforms and tightened control. We can call this strategy one of absorption and deflection.
We have seen this strategy throughout contemporary history. In the late 1950s, King Mohamed V had a counterrevolutionary moment when he ended power-sharing with the nationalist movement. King Hassan II’s moment came when he defanged the alternance experiment with the USFP in the 1990s. More recently, King Mohamed VI’s counterrevolutionary moment has come with the containment of the Islamist PJD party. There is no violence in these moves, for neutralization is part of the toolkit available within the framework of monarchical temporality. All these episodes end smoothly with the exhaustion of opposition. Yet, to be fair, all sides share responsibility for this outcome, and in the end it is a family affair.
Finally, we have seen the counterrevolution emerge here in Tunisia, in the form of populism that has produced a backsliding of democracy. This represents a critical challenge, both in terms of the populist threat as well as the health of Tunisian democracy. This was the only country in the Maghreb that experienced a democratic breakthrough during the Arab Spring. Its backsliding began with popular disaffection with successive elected governments over the past decade, which has culminated now with the rise of the current government. These frustrations have given an open mandate to political figures who espouse populism.
The populist danger that faces Tunisia and other countries today is distinct. Populism is an ideology that idealizes a certain type of government. It is top-down and highly personalistic, as it revolves around charismatic leaders who claim to embody mass opinion. It targets the elite, and makes direct appeals to society in order to promise a restoration of past glory.
Most of all, populism rejects representative democracy and seeks to replace it with a vertical system of consultation. It exploits the mechanisms of democracy, such as elections and campaigning, but populists who gain power then reject accountability. They deny that any other institution, from the legislature to the judiciary, has any power to halt their policies. They also believe that if they should ever lose an election, the reason is foreign plots or domestic conspiracies. In essence, populism operates by division and vilification. Populists claim virtue and vilify their enemies, forcing citizens to choose sides while denying any possibility of compromise. For all these reasons, populism could only have struck in Tunisia. Nowhere else in the Arab world could leaders be populist, for they themselves are part of the elite class. There is an abundance of examples in which the advent of populism occurred only after a country crossed the threshold of electoral democracy, such as Hungary, the Philippines, and Brazil.
Across the broader region, counterrevolutionary patterns have produced an interlude after the Arab Spring. The interlude may be stable, but not necessarily enduring. This interlude of authoritarian retrenchment may give way to another era of popular mobilization, because the old problems of political and economic deprivation remain the same. Governments still do not have any answers.
However, this rejuvenation of democratic demands in the Arab world will face its own challenges to overcome. These challenges are separate from our experience with counterrevolutionary resistance, and must be addressed on their own. First, Arab societies can no longer look to the West as a model of political development, because of the ugly rise of populism. I am not saying this to give any Western-centric perspective. Rather, this is how global diffusion works. Historically, democratic practices and values have traveled from democracies to non-democracies. Immediately after the Cold War ended, for example, new democratic practices such as holding elections and building political parties were disseminated from the West to post-Communist countries.
The battle between democracy and populism is being waged across different parts of the world now. The first is China. The Chinese state has become a model of neo-totalitarianism, which over the past several decades combined absolute political control with the economic promise of capitalist growth. Populist leaders around the world often point to the non-populist, autocratic example of China as an alternative model to the West. They believe that they can replicate its unique pathway of control and economic success.
China has stumbled in recent years, however. It mishandled COVID-19 and new forms of political opposition as well as economic downturns have tarnished its reputation. The mishandling of the pandemic is no accident, for it reflects the lack of transparency and accountability that characterizes its authoritarian system. The coming decade will reveal whether the so-called Chinese model can succeed, but one recent development is important. Its leader, Xi Jinping, has grabbed enormous power, disrupting the internal equilibrium that has long defined the Chinese Communist Party. This alone exposes the limitations of the Chinese model, and we may well see this as China’s “Brezhnev-ian” moment.
The second battle is Ukraine, which has exposed the limits to Russian power. Both the decision to invade Ukraine and the conduct of Russian forces in Ukraine reflect deeply personalistic governance. While President Putin is not a populist, he also represents a model to populist politicians for a few reasons. As the leader of a powerful country, he rejects liberal principles. The system he leads has hollowed out Russian democracy, replacing it with an autocratic order. He has eviscerated domestic opposition and targeted dissidents, even those living abroad. This authoritarian state not only invokes the glory of its Tsarist past but also invokes the symbolism of Christendom in its hostility to a decadent West.
Russian failures in Ukraine, however, have exposed the weaknesses of this style of government. It suggests that the Russian power is far more limited than imagined, especially as its military has been forced to mobilize in an unprecedented way simply to preserve its small gains. Like China, the luster of Russia has dulled. This has global implications given that Russia was seeking to succeed by transgressing international law and playing the part of the so-called “exception.” Current events suggest that there is no such Russian exceptionalism.
However, the greatest battle to determine the health of global democracy is being waged today in the US. Here, the populist danger has emerged in an explicit way. We can trace its origins to the 2003 Iraq War, which created a sense of disenchantment with the promise of democracy. Not only did the world’s greatest power fail to bring peace and stability to Iraq, but the war cost trillions of dollars and killed innumerable lives. Next, the 2008 global economic crisis exposed deep inequalities. The recovery to that crisis required shifting the financial burden onto ordinary citizens and workers, creating a sense of alienation.
Social media was also a driving force behind American populism. Social media in its early years was presented as a grand experiment in free expression and creativity. Over time, however, social media morphed into something darker. Whereas it empowered governments in our region to engage in more intense surveillance of society, in the West it has engendered even worse problems. It gave voice to uncontrolled hatreds, exacerbated cultural divisions in American society, and amplified ideological polarization. It created echo chambers where people only communicated with others who shared their ideas, which further spread misinformation.
In this context, populism fills the gap. It is among the oldest types of political appeals made by rulers to the masses. Indeed, the classical Roman scholar Cicero recognized this in his critique against the Roman Caesar. What makes today so unique is the fact that only now has populist ideology fused with the misinformation of social media, creating a toxic anti-democratic platform. Such platforms are advantageous especially to the right, which unlike left-wing populism, thrives when trafficking in nativism through essentialist rhetoric. Immigrants and foreigners become the enemy.
It is no coincidence that President Trump’s most effective method of outreach to his supporters was through Twitter. Twitter and other social media sites have become critical mechanisms for populist rhetoric and ideology. Until social media prioritizes its content over a purely commercial business model that parades behind freedom of speech, then the problem will grow worse. While debates about these models continue in America, one important disagreement centers upon whether information on social media should be treated with scrutiny, or if social media should be completely unregulated and unfettered.
Historically, all populisms run their course. At the end of the day, we end up with populists without the people. Herein lies the danger. If autocratic rulers try to survive despite losing popular support, they devolve into sultanistic rule. With a shrinking coalition, leaders cocoon themselves into their personalistic bubbles, and rely heavily upon violent repression alone to control society.
I would contend that the winning strategy to reverse these problems today is not to engage in superfluous debates about the inherent good of democracy. To do so already questions the value of democratic politics. Rather, it means invoking ideas and language that can reach beyond ideological schisms: being practical and strategic. One example is elections. Delivering reliable information, in real-time, about matters like registration, turnout, and transparency can reverberate with people and have a meaningful effect on popular perceptions. Another is respect for human rights. The monitoring of human rights introduces universal concerns that are dear to all people. For instance, the human rights violations now occurring in Mexico and Brazil approach the level of abuse witnessed under their dictatorial predecessors. In sum, this means intelligent and strategic militancy. While learning from the past is essential, self-critique cannot take center stage. The fight against populist threats requires that we use our imaginations and think creatively.
As these struggles continue around the world, we should recall that there is one more important factor that determines the future of Arab democracy. That factor is Tunisia, and its ongoing political evolution. The current moment is an historical opportunity. Before, Tunisia was not considered a powerful state that would tip the balance by most other Arab countries. Its population and economy were small, and its diplomacy tended to support the pan-Arab consensus.
Now, however, Tunisia is a vanguard of the Arab world, and can tip the balance of democracy precisely because it stands at the center of the battle against autocratic backsliding. It was a leader in the process of democratization through post-revolutionary elections and coalitional government after the Arab Spring. And it still has a diverse civil society, powerful social movements, and a deeply engaged citizenry that desires a voice. Tunisia hence carries disproportionate weight in reversing the counterrevolutionary trends that have shadowed our region since the Arab Spring. If democracy survives in Tunisia, the singular success story of the Arab Spring, then it will have greatly strengthened both at home and across the region, and indeed the world.