Two years after his 2021 power grab, Tunisian President Kais Saied is still struggling to consolidate his rule. His appeal to supporters was largely predicated on his promises to fix the country’s economic crisis — a promise he has failed catastrophically to deliver on. And yet despite rising inflation and shortages of basic goods, no coherent opposition has managed to emerge.
Monica Marks, an assistant professor of Middle East politics at New York University Abu Dhabi, has been a keen observer of Tunisian politics for over a decade. “I think if we’re going to really understand Saied’s ‘self-coup’ in 2021, what led to it and whether or not Tunisia can return to some sort of democratic path, we have to grapple with the so-called ‘Ennahda problem,’” she tells New Lines magazine’s Erin Brown.
Ennahda is Tunisia’s Islamist party. After the Arab Spring swept away the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the party emerged as the new democracy’s foremost political force. But the optimism of the revolution soon gave way to disappointment. It was in the face of corruption and economic woes that many Tunisians turned to a demagogue like Saied. “They claimed that Ennahda was primarily or even single-handedly responsible for the country’s failures to make good on its revolutionary promises of 2011,” says Marks.
“Do I think that there’s a future for democratic politics in Tunisia without Ennahda? Absolutely not.”
Likewise, many secular Tunisians fear that the party’s relatively moderate platform is a front for a more sinister agenda. They point to Erdogan in Turkey, whose stated commitment to secularism fell away the moment it became unnecessary. In Marks’ view, “When a lot of people remember that and say, well, listen, there’s no reason to think Ennahda wouldn’t do the same thing.”
But whatever reservations the opposition may have about working with Islamists, they may have to if they want to challenge Saied’s autocratic rule. “Do I think that there’s a future for democratic politics in Tunisia without Ennahda? Absolutely not,” says Marks. “The fact remains that Ennahda is the only political party that can mobilize big numbers on the streets.” Without a broad united front, the dream of the 2011 revolution may well be dead for good.
“Exiting dictatorship relies on building cross-ideological opposition coalitions,” she adds. “There is strength in unity.”
Produced by Joshua Martin and Erin Clare Brown