Freedom from fear flares again in Tunisia

The spirit of the Arab Spring lives on in public opposition to an elected leader’s grab for absolute power, causing him to acknowledge a need for judicial independence.

Demonstrators carry Tunisian flags during a protest against President Kais Saied's seizure of governing powers, in Tunis, Feb. 13.

Eleven years after Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring democratic uprising, its own democracy seems doused by a dictator. Kais Saied, a legal scholar elected as president in 2019, has suspended parliament, granted himself almost total power, and put his main opponents under house arrest. Most importantly, he dissolved a constitutional body of peer-elected judges, lawyers, and legal experts designed to preserve judicial independence.

Justice, he said, is “not a branch of government.”

Amnesty International calls the dismantling of the High Judicial Council “the death knell for judicial independence.” Yet curiously, Mr. Saied said Feb. 24, “We have no intention – but rather we refuse – to interfere in the judiciary. Once again, power is for the people.” Faced with a refusal by many Tunisians to be intimidated by his power grab, the president appeared at least momentarily to blink.

As he spoke yesterday, hundreds of judges and lawyers gathered in Tunis along with a broad array of the general public. They chanted “Freedom! Freedom! The police state is finished” and waved placards. They declared that the dissolution of the judicial council is the destruction of the rule of law.

“Tunisians tore down the wall of fear [in 2011] and they no longer feel intimidated by any form of repression ripped from the pages of the old regime’s authoritarian playbook,” says Noureddine Jebnoun, a political scientist at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. “Notwithstanding democratic reversal, they have already put an end to the disastrous pattern of ‘presidents for life’.”

Since the toppling of the 23-year dictatorship of the late Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisians have consolidated a culture of democracy with successive local and national elections. They approved a new constitution and held a national dialogue about atrocities under the past regime through a Truth and Dignity Commission. In 2015 civil society leaders known as the national quartet won the Nobel Peace Prize for shepherding a consolidation of constitutional reforms.

Those gains may be more durable than the moves by Mr. Saied to roll back democracy. His attempts to consolidate power face strong resistance from frequent and often large protests. Not even police water cannons have deterred protesters in recent weeks.

Confronted by an attempt to roll back the rule of law, Tunisians are showing that when a society is freed from fear and embraces democratic ideals, reversing that progress is difficult. The spark of the Arab Spring has not lost its brilliance.

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