Tunisia is entering a difficult moment. Following the arrest in late January of a labor union official for organizing a strike by tollbooth operators, the government launched a relentless string of arrests against political opponents. The president accused the arrested individuals of “conspiring” against state security and/or labeled them as “terrorists” without in most cases presenting sufficient evidence for the charges.
This has given momentum to a protest movement organized by the trade union, known by its French acronym the UGTT (l’Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens). On March 4, the UGTT reportedly mobilized the largest number of people in any protests against Tunisian president Kais Saied since he took office, with similarly large protests being organized by a coalition of political parties, the National Salvation Front.
There are four imaginable scenarios for how this crisis would be resolved.
First, Saied could voluntarily step down in the face of rising opposition. This scenario is highly unlikely at this stage. In other cases of authoritarian leaders resigning under popular pressure, such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt (2011) or Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria (2019), important stakeholders upon whose backing these dictators relied influenced their decisions. For instance, Mubarak was urged to resign by the military (and the United States); Bouteflika by the country’s powerful ruling clans.
In contrast, and particularly since his consolidation of control over the country’s institutions began in July 2021, Saied has appeared increasingly isolated and uninfluencable. Assuming he acts consistently with his prior behavior, he will only continue to deflect blame, regardless of any voices trying to get in his ear or conditions on the street.
Second, and in line with Tunisian tradition, is that Saied could agree to a National Dialogue, as the UGTT is demanding. Most famously, in 2013, following two political assassinations and under deteriorating security and economic conditions, Tunisian civil society—led by the UGTT—organized a National Dialogue for divided political parties to overcome their differences in drafting a new constitution. Through this mechanism, the party in charge of the then-coalition government, the moderate Islamist Ennahdha party, agreed to hand over power to a caretaker government charged with leading the country to new elections.
Unfortunately, there are several reasons to doubt that a similar scenario could unfold today. The context in 2013 was unique: the country was still gripped by revolutionary fervor following the ousting of former president Ben Ali, and there was significant popular demand to stabilize security conditions—for which Ennahdha was largely being blamed. Additionally, the takeover by General Abdelfatah Sisi of the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt that same summer weighed heavily on the minds of Ennahdha leadership, which did not want to suffer the same fate.
Moreover, there was a clear objective around which to organize the dialogue: the finalizing of a new constitution, whose drafting process was launched based on consensus forged through popular mobilization. It is unclear what kind of broadly-agreed roadmap a new dialogue could hash out under current conditions. Agreeing on a new or revised constitution, or holding new legislative elections, wouldn’t make sense given that these were the culmination of Saied’s own unilateral roadmap declared in December 2021, which lacked popular legitimacy despite the fact that Saied still appears to retain a somewhat significant support base.
Third, a military takeover is possible. This would be a clear departure from tradition in Tunisia, whose first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba, deliberately cultivated a small and apolitical military. In 2011, the military secured its place as a beloved institution when it reportedly refused to fire on protestors, causing Ben Ali to flee. Since then, the armed forces have continued to enjoy a favorable reputation while also playing a key role in re-establishing security following a rise in terrorist activity between 2011 and 2015.
Under Saied, the military has expanded its prestige as well as its role in politics. The president, who was elected as an outsider without a clear support base, has always needed it as an ally. In July 2021, when tanks and troops blocked MPs from entering the parliament building following Saied’s dissolution of the body, observers grew concerned that the military was abandoning its traditionally apolitical role. All this makes it extremely murky how the military would respond in a situation of heightened unrest.
In the eventuality of a military coup, it is also unclear how those taking charge would proceed. The armed forces would almost certainly want to hand over power to a new civilian government as quickly as possible, but finding a neutral, caretaker government would be difficult given the highly fractured landscape. Even in 2013, when an effective caretaker government under the leadership of technocrat Mehdi Jomaa was established, the selection process was fraught. In the event that the military steps in to prevent violence from spiraling out of control, it is unlikely to be prepared to play such a role.
Fourth is a prolonged stalemate in which arrests and protests eventually die down and Saied remains in power. This is the most likely possibility, especially given that the outbreak of widespread violence, at least at this point, does not appear imminent. Unfortunately, under this scenario, given that Saied has failed to deliver any meaningful change and will be increasingly concerned with safeguarding his own power, socioeconomic and political conditions will continue to fester and decline.
Given these prospects, Washington must be ready to support Tunisia economically, especially if other lenders don’t come through. It should leverage this economic support to push the president to be more inclusive and widen the base of consensus. A National Dialogue that produces immediate results offers the most hope for calming the protests and allowing longer-term plans to be put in place.
Tunisia’s current crisis only represents the tip of the iceberg, as the entire North Africa/Sahel region slips rapidly into a state of profound instability. The United States should work with European partners to develop a wider regional plan of political reconciliation, human rights enforcement, economic cooperation, and socio-economic development.
Dr. Karim Mezran is the director of the North Africa Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
Sabina Henneberg is the Soref Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where she focuses on North Africa. Sabina was formerly a Senior Analyst at Libya-Analysis LLC.