The establishment of a new powerless parliament in 2023 and the drafting of a new constitution that grants President Kais Saied almost unchecked powers, all orchestrated under his personal agenda of 'bottom-up construction.’ In this era of authoritarian populism in Tunisia, political opposition figures are being eliminated under the so-called cases of ‘conspiring against state security’ and dissent voices are silenced by Decree 54, a law that was supposed to criminalize the spreading of ‘fake news.’

Located in North Africa on the Mediterranean coast, Tunisia has a rich history and a strategically important location. Influenced by Phoenician, Roman, Arab, and Ottoman civilizations, it has a deep historical background. In 1956, Tunisia officially gained independence from the French protectorate, and by 1957, the Beylical monarchy was abolished, leading to the establishment of a Tunisian Republic under the leadership of ‘Zaiem’ Habib Bourguiba. Unlike its resource-abundant neighbors, Algeria to the west and Libya to the east, Tunisia has a modest natural resource base, primarily consisting of hydrocarbons, phosphates, and mineral deposits. The country maintained a foreign policy of “pragmatic neutrality” since independence, preserving its traditional stance until a populist shift occurred in the 2019 presidential elections when Kais Saied came to power.

Populism in Tunisia gained prominence only in 2011 due to severe restrictions on electoral politics and public expression since independence. The three-decade autocracy of Habib Bourguiba, led by the Socialist Destourian Party, which was succeeded by its heir, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD or Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique in French) after 1987, impeded the growth of pluralist democracy. Despite promises of openness, pluralism, and liberties after the bloodless coup by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on November 7, 1987, these aspirations turned into two decades of dictatorship. The one-party system, coupled with a deeply depoliticized military, significantly hindered the emergence of populist forces.

While a distinct populist tradition may not be widely recognized in Tunisia, there are discernible remnants of key populist principles such as anti-elitism and people-centrism. These echoes can be traced back to the political strategies employed by the Neo-Destour movement, particularly in the 1930s. This vibrant rural intelligentsia from Sahel’s provincial towns distinguished itself from the perceived urban ‘elite’ centered in the capital, Tunis, associated with the Destour Party.

The Neo-Destour, led by the charismatic Habib Bourguiba, played a pivotal role in the anti-colonial struggle, emphasizing populist nationalism as a crucial strategy for achieving independence (Lewis, 2013: 147). Notably, during the naturalization crisis of 1932-1933, they secured a significant triumph by rallying tens of thousands of Tunisians against the burial of naturalized individuals in Muslim cemeteries, expanding their support to provincial towns and rural areas that the previous party had neglected or struggled to mobilize (Lewis, 2013: 161). Moreover, the Neo-Destour populist approach to Islam was evident in the public’s challenge to Taher Ben Achour over his fatwa regarding the naturalization issue, highlighting a shift where ordinary people, rather than religious authorities, played a key role in determining matters related to Islam (Lewis, 2013: 161). This period marked the Neo-Destour’s successful takeover of the nationalist movement from the traditional urban ‘elite.’ However, it should be noted that the employment of the terms ‘populism’ and ‘nationalism’ within this anti-colonial struggle context should not be confused with their present-day connotations (see Mabandla & Deumert, 2020).

The period of Tunisian socialism, spanning from 1962 to its abrupt end in 1969, could be understood as a populist economic policy. Ahmed Ben Salah’s initiative, under the leadership of the ‘Supreme Combatant’, posed a challenge to the influential rural bourgeoisie, seeking to garner support in rural areas by directly engaging and aligning with the small peasantry (King, 1998). However, by the late 1960s, the socialist policy failed, leading to Ahmed Ben Salah being tried for “high treason” and sentenced by the Supreme Court to ten years of imprisonment.

In the 1980s, under the governance of Prime Minister Hedi Nouira, gradual economic liberalization marked a shift toward orthodox macroeconomic liberal policies that paved the way for World Bank structural adjustment programs and International Monetary Fund (IMF) austerity measures. A combination of authoritarianism and general discontent with economic liberalization led to the Bread Riots (1983-1984) and the rise of the Islamist Movement (MTI), known today as ‘Ennahda,’ as an important voice for the neglected Tunisians (King, 1998).

Efforts to eliminate the MTI group and other leftist political opposition through Bourguiba’s repressive state apparatus, involving trials and mass persecution, proved unsuccessful. In the first post-transition elections of 1989, the group, now called Ennahda, had the opportunity to challenge the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD). The political freedoms introduced by Ben Ali’s reforms were short-lived, revoked following the electoral success of the Algerian fundamentalist movement and the ensuing civil war. Ben Ali’s regime responded by banning the sole opposition political party, Ennahda, resulting in the establishment of a police state and the prevalence of crony capitalism. These authoritarian measures defined his 23-year-long reign, which lasted until January 14, 2011.

Tunisia gained international recognition following the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, marking the start of a remarkable democratic transition from 2011 to 2014 and establishing it as an ‘Arab anomaly.’ Despite initial discontent driven by consensus politics between ‘Islamists and secularists’ and a declining purchasing power, the pivotal moment came in the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections when Tunisia experienced a distinct shift towards radical populist elements in its electoral landscape.

In October 2011, Ennahda, led by Rached Ghannouchi and previously banned, secured over 40 percent of seats in the constituent assembly and formed a coalition with two small leftist parties. During intense debates on the role of religion in politics, an Islamist-populist discourse emerged. The escalating identity-based divide manifested in the “us” versus “them” antagonism between Ennahda and the ‘networks of the so-called secularists and the old regime elites’ (Huber & Pisciotta, 2022). Hammadi Jebbali, Ennahda’s secretary-general at the time, encapsulated the party’s anti-elitist stance with his famous 2012 declaration: “Our tragedy is in our elite. The Tunisian elite did not participate in the revolution, and the majority of them were aligned with the previous regime.” This statement serves as the most succinct summary of the party’s rhetoric against the elite. Consequently, Ennahda successfully portrayed itself as both an ‘outsider’ and the genuine defender of ‘the people’s revolution.’ The Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda places a slightly greater emphasis on the salience of populist rhetoric but is in line with other Tunisian parties in terms of the level of populist discourse (Plaza-Colodro et al., 2023).

While populist rhetoric extends beyond the Ennahda party, a noteworthy trend emerged among the new political parties that emerged in 2011—they exhibited various forms of populist discourse. One such example is the Populist Petition Party, established by journalist and entrepreneur Hachmi El-Hamdi. This party successfully obtained 26 seats, a feat largely attributed to El-Hamdi’s populist talk show on his satellite TV channel, Al Mustakila.

The killings of two opposition figures in 2013, Chokri Belaid, the leader of Watad, and Mohamed Brahmi, the founder of the People’s Movement party, heightened the existing polarization between Islamists and secularists. This escalation resulted in a political crisis, prompting the establishment of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet to address and resolve the political impasse. The formation of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet successfully resolved the political crisis, ultimately paving the way for the 2014 grand coalition between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda.

Founded in 2012, Nidaa Tounes presented itself as a modern alternative to the Islamist Ennahda Party. Led by the familiar face of Béji Caid Essebsi, a former interim prime minister, the party notably included followers of Tunisia’s Destourian (Constitution) movement and former members of Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party. The party secured 86 seats in the 2014 parliamentary elections, surpassing the Ennahda party (69 seats). Additionally, Béji Caid Essebsi’s victory over President Moncef Marzouki in the presidential elections of 2014 marked a significant shift in Ennahda’s balance of power.

Despite the partnership between the ‘anti-Islamist’ alliance Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda, significant social and economic challenges were left unattended. Governments stumbled through the political transition, addressing demands for employment through temporary public sector hires to appease protesters, but broader issues persisted (Weipert-Fenner, 2023). Moreover, this alliance not only signifies the narrowing of the political arena to those on the inside and the establishment of an institutionalized elite class (Boubekeur, 2016) but also represents an ideological betrayal for certain Islamists and secularists (Murphey, 2023).

In this context of bargained competition, Tunisians’ confidence in the parliament dropped to 20 percent in 2016, an 11-point decrease from 2013, with political parties experiencing the lowest trust, as only 12 percent expressed confidence (Robbins, 2016). Similarly, the state’s withdrawal from service provision, coupled with elevated poverty levels, restricted employment access, and the absence of clear development prospects, has intensified public discontent (Meddeb, 2020).

Given the outlined circumstances, the 2019 presidential elections provided a conducive environment for the anti-establishment rhetoric of “political outsiders,” aligning seamlessly with the increasing public discontent. The final two contenders in the presidential race, Nabil Karoui and Kais Saied, represent two “almost diametrically opposed forms of populism” (Grewal, 2019).

Nabil Karoui is politically aligned with the ‘anti-Islamist’ camp. He co-founded the Nidaa Tounes party with the late President Beji Caid Essebsi, offering support through his satellite channel Nessma TV. Additionally, he played a role in organizing the 2013 ‘Two Sheikhs’ meeting in Paris between Beji Caid Essebsi and Rached Ghanouchi, which ultimately resulted in the formation of the 2014 coalition (Khaddar, 2022). Although he wasn’t a political ‘outsider,’ his spectacularized charitable activities, such as the Khalil Tounes show on Nessma TV, helped him secure the support of underprivileged socio-economic groups in Tunisia. Nevertheless, Karoui’s populist discourse wasn’t rooted in a Manichaean worldview. He presented himself as the ‘voice of the poor’ and the champion of neglected Tunisians in deeply impoverished rural regions. While some media outlets dubbed him ‘Tunisia’s Berlusconi’ (The Guardian, 2019), drawing a comparison to the Italian media guru, others favored comparing him to the populist mayor of Naples, Achille Lauro (Cristiani, 2019).

Contrary to Nabil Karoui’s populism, Kais Saied, a professor of constitutional law, framed his electoral campaign rhetoric in an extreme Manichaean worldview under the slogan of “The People Want.” While he didn’t explicitly present himself as the ‘uncorrupt candidate,’ the narrative of a ‘righteous man’ with ‘clean hands’ versus the ‘thieves’ of the ‘corrupt’ establishment was largely constructed through social media, particularly Facebook groups (see Redissi et al., 2020: 52-61). Camau (2020) argues that Kais Saied’s discursive repertoire during the campaign “performs an unusual combination, blending the radicalism of the populist, the legalism of the positivist jurist, and the orthodoxy of the Islamic conservative.” For instance, he unequivocally asserted that, in his view, intermediary political bodies, as a whole, have ‘betrayed’ the revolutionary aspirations of the people. According to him, the ‘elites’ in power have been actively ‘conspiring’ against ‘the people,’ prioritizing their ‘self-interest.’

Furthermore, Helal (2022) delineated the populist characteristics embedded in Kais Saied’s inaugural speech. These features include a Manichean dichotomy portraying “a quasi-homogeneous demos” against “self-serving oligarchic elites,” a sense of nostalgia for a hypostasized, mythic, and utopian past, conspiratorial views assigning blame to the ruling elites for corruption and inefficiency while obstructing the people’s revolutionary aspirations, and a radical form of populism rooted in an Islamic theocratic imaginary. Along the same lines, Kais Saied secured victory in the presidential elections with an impressive support of nearly 2 million votes. Although Nabil Karoui did not win the presidential race, his populist party, Qalb Tounes, achieved notable success by obtaining 38 seats in the parliamentary elections. A significant development in the Tunisian political landscape unfolded as two extremist political forces, namely the Al-Karama coalition (21 seats) and the Free Constitutional Party (resurrection of the RCD), played a pivotal role in the suspension of the parliament on July 23, 2021, through a presidential decree (Elleuch, 2021).

Al-Karama Coalition, also known as The Dignity Coalition, is a far-right populist Islamist party founded in 2019 and led by Saifeddine Makhlouf, a controversial lawyer whose reputation as the “terrorists’ lawyer” gained him significant public attention. The party successfully capitalized on the sentiments of Islamists and Salafists who perceived Ennahda’s concessions toward the secular current, especially Nidaa Tounes, as an ideological betrayal and abandonment of the principles of political Islam. The discursive strategies employed by the coalition include opposing ‘the liberalism of everything goes,’ such as gay marriage, advocating for the death penalty as ‘divinely mandated,’ and promoting conspiracy theories linking terrorism in Tunisia to ‘foreign secret services’ (Lorch & Chakroun, 2020). Moreover, the depiction of the Tunisian people as an ‘underdog’ is articulated by critiquing the modernist project of Habib Bourguiba. The party’s narrative argues that Bourguiba’s policies left the country underdeveloped, and as a result, Tunisia continues to grapple with ‘French colonialism,’ with the ‘francophone elites’ accused of hindering the revolutionary path (Murphey, 2023).

At the opposite end of the Secularists/Islamists spectrum in the parliament, the Free Destourian Party, led by the notable lawyer Abir Moussi and holding 17 seats, adopts counter-revolutionary rhetoric framing the ‘Tunisian people’ as victims of a regional conspiracy—the 2011 uprising, allegedly orchestrated by the ‘octopus’ branches of the ‘Islamic brotherhood’ in Qatar and Turkey (Wolf, 2020). Abir Moussi strategically leverages the nostalgic appeal of Tunisia’s ‘golden age’ under Ben Ali and Bourguiba, asserting that during this period, the Islamist ‘threat’ posed neither a security nor an identity concern. The party’s populist rhetoric primarily revolves around othering the Islamists, portraying them as an extension of a conspiring foreign entity.

As Murphey (2023) outlined, both the Al-Karama coalition and the Free Destourian Party initiate their political trajectories by aligning themselves at divergent points on the ideological spectrum. Al-Karama symbolizes the religio-revolutionary extreme, while the Free Destourian Party serves as its Bourguibist secularist counterpart. An exacerbated polarization disrupted the political landscape and added to a series of health crises during the COVID-19 pandemic (Sebei & Fulco, 2022), ultimately resulting in an authoritarian shift.

Today, Kais Saied has effectively eroded nearly every hard-won democratic gain since 2011. This began with the dissolution of the parliament in September 2021, followed by the declaration of a state of emergency under Article 80 of the constitution (Nabli, 2021). Subsequently, it became inevitable that other democratic institutions, including the Supreme Judicial Council (Gasteli, 2022), the Independent High Authority for Elections (Derbali, 2022), and the judiciary (Boukhayatia, 2023), the municipal councils (MEMO, 2023) among others, would be undermined. These actions were justified under the pretext of restoring ‘sovereignty’ to the ‘people’ and ‘cleansing’ the Tunisian state from the alleged ‘conspiring enemies of the people.’

Anti-democratic parliamentary elections were held on December 17, 2022, to elect the third Assembly of the Representatives of the People. Run-offs were held on January 29, 2023, in the vast majority of constituencies after only 21 candidates were elected in the first round. Voter turnout in the first round was just 11.22 percent, as the election was boycotted by most opposition parties. President Saied lost his legal legitimacy hugely in the face of abstention rate. The rejection of the political class in general, coupled with the calls for a boycott on the part of the main parties as well as the disinterest in an assembly with considerably restricted powers, lead as expected to a massive disaffection of the voters, who are more concerned about the economic conditions which affect the country (Amara & Mcdowall, 2023).

The ‘Path of July 25th’ is ongoing, marked by the establishment of a new powerless parliament (France24, 2022) and the drafting of a new constitution that grants Saied almost unchecked powers (Cordall, 2022), all orchestrated under his personal agenda of ‘bottom-up construction’ (Elleuch, 2023). In this era of authoritarian populism, political opposition figures are being eliminated under the so-called cases of ‘conspiring against state security’ (Ziadia, 2023), and dissent voices are silenced by Decree 54, a law that was supposed to criminalize the spreading of ‘fake news’ (Tounsi, 2023).

Various segments of the population, including the Amazigh ethnic community, Black Tunisians, and LGBT+ people, remain underrepresented in electoral politics. The first party dedicated to addressing Amazigh interests, the Akal Movement, was formed in 2019. Black Tunisians have achieved some progress in advancing their political interests, including passage of an antiracism law in 2018, but they are largely excluded from leadership positions and often conflated with foreign migrants. Societal discrimination and laws criminalizing same-sex sexual activity impede active political participation for LGBT+ people, and political parties largely fail to address LGBT+ issues. Both the 2014 constitution and the new charter adopted in 2022 state that the president must be a Muslim (Freedom House, 2023).

By Jesser Aniba

January 1, 2024


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Geographic Location: Northern Africa, bordering the Mediterranean Sea, between Algeria and Libya

Area: 163,610 sq km

Regime: Unitary Semi-presidential Republic

Population: 11,976,182 (2023 est.)

Ethnic Groups: Arab 98%, European 1%, Jewish and other 1%.

Languages: Arabic (official), French (commerce), Berber (Tamazight).

Religions: Muslim (Sunni) 99%, other (includes Christian, Jewish, Shia Muslim, and Baha’i) <1%

GDP (PPP): $162.097 billion (2023 est.)

GDP Per Capita (PPP): $13,248 (2023 est.)

Socio-political Situation: Fragile

Main Populism Factors:

  • Tunisian nationalism
  • Secularism
  • Islamism
  • Islamic nationalism
  • Anti-Islamism
  • Bourguibism
  • Anti-Bourguibism
  • Anti-corruption
  • Francophobia
  • Sovereignism
  • Racism

Regime’s Character: Dictatorship

Score: 35/100


Kais Saied

Photo by Hussein Eddeb.

Position: President of Tunisia

Ideology: Social conservatism, Islamism, anti-Bourguibism

Populism: Right-wing

People’s Movement

Leader: Zouhair Maghzaoui

Ideology: Secularism, democratic socialism, pan-Arabism, Nasserism, Arab nationalism

Populism: Left-wing

Position: 12/161

25th of July Movement

Leader: Fathi Hakimi

Ideology: Pro-Kais Saied, populism, presidentialism

Populism: Big tent

Position: 80/161 seats in Parliament.


Leader: Rached Ghannouchi

Ideology: Social conservatism, Islamism, anti-Bourguibism

Populism: Right-wing

Position: 0/161 (Banned)

Al-Karama Coalition

Leader: Saifeddine Makhlouf

Ideology: Populist Salafism, Islamism, conservatism, Islamic nationalism, anti-Bourguibism.

Populism: Far-right

Position: 0/161 (Banned)

The Free Destourian Party (PDL)

Leader: Abir Moussi

Ideology: Bourguibism, anti-Islamism, nationalism, statism

Populism: Far-right

Position: 0/161 (Banned)