Tunisia and the Global Fight Against Constitutional Authoritarian Populism

José Ignacio Hernández G. / 21-08-2023

Source: CSID

The democratic backslide we are witnessing in the 21st century is not a result of traditional coups but, mostly, a consequence of an inside-out process. As USAID’s Administrator Samantha Powers said, democracy is under attack

Within the common trends of this backslide, we can highlight two: (i) the abuses that simulate authoritarian behaviors beneath a veneer of constitutionality and (ii) the justification of such behaviors to protect “the people”, in a sort of “direct democracy” that disregard the efficiency of the representative governments. The result is authoritarian regimes that, in appearance, work as constitutional democracies. 

We should consider those cases -that follow a handbook- as Constitutional authoritarian populism.  Autocratic regimes use constitutional forms to cover authoritarian decisions under the argument that it is necessary to protect the people from “threats”. Crucially, we must pierce the veil of the constitutional façade, revealing the unmistakable authoritarian essence concealed within

Tunisia is the most recent case, as I have explained elsewhere. The autocratic advance conducted by President Saied has been covered with constitutional formalities, beginning with the state of emergency declared in July 2021 and advancing with the new Constitution approved, in violation of the 2014 Constitution -considered an example of constitutional democracy in the Arab world. 

The constitutional formalities have provided Saied with a powerful shield rooted in the non-intervention principles: The international community cannot interfere in domestic affairs, and, as a result, the constitutional formalities must prevail over the authoritarian essence. 

On June 1, 2023, the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID) organized its 21st annual conference on “Why the U.S. Should Support Democracy in the Muslim World, and How?”. Damon Wilson, National Endowment for Democracy (NED) President and CEO, in the keynote remarks, analyzed Tunisia as part of a populist narrative that criticizes democracy as an inefficient system that obstructs the people’s protection, particularly in the Middle East and, specifically, in Tunisia. 

As Damon Wilson concludes, there is a global autocratic movement that Countries like Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Tunisia “are connected to a global collaborative of authoritarian actors who are actively working to undermine democracy where it exists and stop it from taking root where it doesn’t.”. In all those countries, Constitutional authoritarian populism is part of the sharp power, that is, international autocratic efforts to erode democratic values using disinformation. 

That disinformation starts with the distorted concept of the Constitution. From the brilliant American solution to protect freedoms and foster the common good, the Constitution has become one of the most potent tools of authoritarian regimes to deprive human dignity. 

The cunning strategy of these autocratic regimes, cloaked in sheep’s clothing, continues to yield results. Despite their authoritarian nature and egregious human rights violations, they skillfully maintain the illusion of ‘sovereign governments’ operating within constitutional bounds. Even in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its active role in the U.N. Security Council is a vivid example of the insidious advance of false constitutionalism. 

Tunisia demonstrates that it is urgent and necessary to create a global movement against Constitutional authoritarian populism. We need to rescue the Constitution from the severe’s grasp.