The outcome is very clear: 11 years of chaotic democracy and 12 governments have collapsed the economy, and the country is now technically bankrupt. The root cause is what has enabled a lasting incompetence to mismanage the country’s affairs, with the exception of the rare respected ministers and aides who have worked within the post-revolution governments.
The short-sightedness and political immaturity of those who drafted Tunisia’s constitution following the 2011 revolution have defined the present outcome. Indeed, in countries like Tunisia, dictatorship is always confounded with leadership. What was seen at the time to be the ‘Tunisian Miracle’ was the clear outcome of 40 years of leadership, in spite of a clear tendency for dictatorship. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Tunisia is far from being the only country which achieved fast and scalable socio-economic progress without being a holy grail democracy — as defined and much expected by the West. To cite a few other countries in this category: Singapore, Malaysia, China, and neighboring Morocco are thriving models of such socio-political systems. Moreover, democracy has never shed its light on any country in the Middle East and yet, there’s little political and media appetite to talk about that today. So long these countries are doing well economically, everyone praises those countries leaders for the achieved performances and democracy ‘s almost never part of the debate.
What Tunisia’s constitution of 2011 has done is to rid the country of dictatorship; but it has also decimated its leadership. It has generated a Bermuda triangle (Parliament, Government and President) so political that the interests of the country constantly slip behind those of the political parties. In the words of Montesquieu, “Government should be set up so that no man need be afraid of another“. Instead, the post-revolution constitutional government model in Tunisia features one angle of the triangle which lives in constant fear of the two others. This has irreversibly eroded the trust landscape and made every decision into a political calculation. What Tunisia needed after the revolution was competent, visionary and mature leadership, not kindergarten politics acting as a democratic travesty, and dramatized by international media. In view of the national (social, political and economic) dynamic of the past 11 years, how can any reasonable, responsible and credible source (including renowned international media outlets) still promote democracy in a country where a statistically significant proportion of:
- car drivers completely disrespect road traffic regulations, resulting in climbing death rates due to automobile accidents;
- government employees do not perceive or execute their jobs as a true public service to fellow citizens, but instead act as abusive landlords of the public administration;
- the political establishment almost exclusively works in the best interests of their own party and members, instead of serving the people who elected them and the interests of the country they should have been leading?
Today, nobody can say Tunisia hasn’t tried democracy. We tried, and they failed.
What the 2011 constitution also achieved was to offer political apprentices the opportunity to groom their incompetence and normalise it through a widely biased electorate. Moreover, in a country where Facebook has become both a national sport and the most powerful political party, voices are diluted, truths distorted and public opinions easily manipulated. Easily, because in a country with a learning poverty rate of 65% and with a population in which 98% of adults do not read books or engage in any fact-checking before making up their opinions, anyone can claim or become anything. Look around. It is unprecedented mayhem in a country where the elite has been sidelined and true competence completely ignored. Once claimed as a national skill, social intelligence in Tunisia has become eroded especially as a result of the plague that is represented by political parties, none of which are competent enough to stand up to the challenges the country has faced since the 2011 revolution.
Now that the July 2022 referendum seems to have reinvigorated presidential powers, things have once again become complicated. First, because the current president doesn’t have a single atom of visionary leadership in his DNA. Second, because dictatorship is the flip side of successful national leaders, including past Tunisian Presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali. But when a president as charismatic (ahem) as Kais Saied grabs power, the only thing we see in the robotic and nonsensical character of his speeches is a boring, undiplomatic dictator. In the two remaining years of his presidency, there is microscopic hope he will develop anything akin to an inspiring character, let alone become a leader. Third, what the referendum did is replace an incompetent democracy by an incompetent president. Unless the latter grows roots beneath his throne, his mandate comes with a timer set to end in 2024. In the meantime and in the current situation, Tunisia seems to be stuck in a cycle condemned to put the country’s future in the wrong hands. Freezing an incompetent parliament was probably the right thing to do, but the president lacks so much vision that he never really knew what the next move would be. It’s like someone who dug a big hole to prepare for the foundations of a house to then realise he has neither the skills nor the resources to build the house. Indeed, not so much as a thought was given to the ladder that might be used to climb back out of the hole. Stuck by design.
Tunisia is not entirely back at square one, but the next electoral cycle will be interesting because the rules seem to have changed, along with my expectations. The country clearly does not need politics. Not now, not ever. Tunisia needs an experienced and visionary leader who can surround him- or herself with equally bright minds to get us out of these dire straits. And if this leader turns out to be a dictator too? Well, perhaps an omelette is the national dish that the country has always craved.
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