After months of denouncing "sellouts", "traitors to the nation" and "speculators" in his speeches, it seems that, since February 2023, the seeds sown by Kais Saied are finally bearing fruit. And the harvest of "traitors" looks promising. Since the arrest of Saied’s political opponents for having met with foreign diplomats, accusations of treachery have been rife, taken up here and there by regime supporters. Of course, these accusations are nothing new; the phenomenon is so recurrent that Arabic has made a word out of it: Takhwin.
This paper will first focus on this accusation of treachery, its origins, and its political utilities, based on several historical, political, and sociological observations. A historical return to the issue of "treachery" in Tunisia since the struggle for independence is necessary. If the accusations of the current regime recycle those of the regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali, they nevertheless form a continuity with the democratic transition: the same conspiracy universe, the same "hidden hands" hover in the air.
Secondly, it looks at the usefulness of the accusation of "traitor in the pay of the foreigner" for an authoritarian power. Indeed, by inventing plots and "traitors", the government installs the idea that the people are powerless and that they can only count on a "savior", Saied in this instance, while renewing the politics of waiting in the face of an increasingly difficult social situation. Moreover, the accusation of treachery creates national unity, while covering up class conflicts: for a state with an outward-looking economy like Tunisia, it is better to have a nation divided into "patriots” and "traitors" than one divided between the bourgeoisie and the working classes where the state remains in the hands of the first class. Added to this is a hardened discourse towards the West that suggests that the state is taking up the baton of national liberation. As such, the state maintains a diversion from what continues to be one of its main contradictions: a state that is both heir to the struggle for independence and a reproducer of post-colonial dependencies and subordinations.
Finally, the paper will question how effective this rhetoric is in today's Tunisia. Indeed, the imaginary of "treachery" echoes class tensions that are deeply affecting Tunisian society, particularly at the cultural level, and have crystallized into a strong resentment of the old political class based on accusations it has enriched itself at the expense of the people. This class dimension is used by the regime as an example in its treachery discourse. By diverting the issue, the regime responds to real social tension, which helps it create buy-in or even a social bloc that supports it. However, the absence of a political project other than the sidelining of traitors, and above all, the financial and political impossibility of returning to the post-independence social contract, silence for social protection means that this rhetoric cannot be sustainable over time.
Traitors of the past
The accusation of "traitor in the pay of the foreigner" seems timeless and is constantly being brought up to date by authoritarian powers. As in countries plagued by political instability, drawing a line between traitors and patriots is a way of "claiming power by trying to control the limits of what is politically acceptable and exercise authority in the face of constantly changing affiliations". In these moments of political instability, the accusation of treason serves to redefine the boundaries of the group according to the interests of those in power: opponents are thus transformed into intruders who have no place within the group since they are loyal to external powers. Such accusations have long been politically effective in countries that experienced colonization and where the promise of "real independence," that is, the end of neocolonialism, and more symbolically, the return to a form of "purity," continues to mobilize both those in government as well as the opposition.
The history of the "traitors in the pay of the foreigner"
Bourguiba vs Ben Youssef
A good starting point here is the conflict between Salah Ben Youssef and Habib Bourguiba over the leadership of the Neo-Destour and – ultimately – the independent state. If we cannot yet speak of treason in the pay of foreigners, it is necessary to return to this conflict because it started an era of forced unanimity in independent Tunisia. Without dwelling on how the conflict unfolded, which historian M'hamed Oualdi faithfully does in his book, we can ask ourselves about the reasons that led what could have been a healthy "political opposition" between two political visions to a violent conflict between two camps seeking a monopoly on the state left by France.
In seeking to explain the conflict, Oualdi points out a certain irony of history: "The new nationalist power seized on police and legal structures set up by the Protectorate and took up, in the course of this conflict between former members of the Neo-Destour, the terms and obsessions of the colonial power: that of order and the refusal of internal contestation."
A posteriori, as Oualdi notes, it was with a discourse on the absolute primacy of the state that Bourguiba justified the repression against Youssefism: "To break subversion and anarchy, we were obliged to strike energetically, without taking into account the past of men who were not afraid to attack the state at the risk of ruining its reputation and its capabilities and making it appear incapable of assuming the most sacred of its duties: to ensure order and the safety its people".
The question of the "reputation" of the state, or, to use an expression of the democratic transition, the question of the "prestige of the state" will come up regularly in contemporary Tunisian history. The state that emerged from independence is portrayed as a sacred entity, superior to individuals and social classes, almost a Spirit, in the Hegelian sense. The state, in this conception of politics, must be defended at all costs against any "attacks". Indeed, the sacralization of the state is coupled with a discourse highlighting the youth of the same state and therefore its fragility in the face of threats, most of them external. The state will always be portrayed as an entity in danger. In this nationalist context where "the Tunisian state is the state of the whole people, the state of every man in the nation", opposition to power thus becomes treachery, a conspiracy against "the security of the state". By transforming political opposition into an existential threat, those in power make the disappearance of political competition a matter of survival for the nation. What is the particular political interest of those in power becomes part of the national identity.
The fight against underdevelopment
Once the Youssefist danger had been eliminated, by the assassination of Ben Youssef in 1961, the need for order and the rejection of internal dissent continued to thrive. These colonial obsessions will be renewed through the discourse of catching up with "modernity". The urgency of "catching up with the caravan of nations", to use Bourguiba's expression, requires that the people, themselves backward, become one, and that they obediently follow the state, which is modern and knows the way. Therefore, in the name of the urgency of catching up, opposition or contestation will not be tolerated. In the words of Sadri Khiari: "His [Bourguiba's] motto is order; order is the state; and he is the state. Tunisians are by definition eternally 'immature', they need a teacher to feed and instruct them, clean and lecture them, correct them, and above all, avoid taking themselves for an adult." The state is thus both "young" vis-à-vis the outside world, and fatherly, vis-à-vis its people.
The newly independent state continues to be portrayed by the government as weak and threatened, especially on an international economic scale, where it is, in fact, a dominated state. The quest for "control over the institutions of international political economy" was to lead to “true" independence, with political independence being only part of the bigger task. This "weakness" of the state raises the specter of neo-colonialism in a "fragmented, subaltern, extroverted" economy. In the face of this threat, the ruling power demands nothing less than the unity of the people behind the state, to the detriment of all diversity and freedom: "National liberation took the place of all personal freedoms, it was the only thing that was real, true, sacred." The demand is all the stronger because the discourse of power establishes an immediate link between weakness and division, explaining the advent of Western colonization by the division of the nation: "From this long and painful history, 'lamentable', says the national discourse, the nation retains as its innermost threat the specter of division". The speech at the top of the state will make "division" a secular atavism of the people that the state must fight as part of the catch-up of the caravan of nations.
Hélé Béji rightly noted in 1982 that the same state that is economically weak on an international scale can be, within its borders, politically strong and repressive. In the current set-up, where the specter of a default on its payment of IMF loans is accompanied by arrests of political opponents for collaborating with foreigners, we can even allow ourselves to say with her, despite the forty years that separate us from her work, that "the economic weakness of the national state does not lead to its political agony, nationalitarianism grows as society deteriorates economically".
Thus, in Bourguiba's time, in the name of the need to stand on an international scale behind the weak state (whose independence is therefore fragile) and to catch up with modernity without wasting time, the state stifled all forms of opposition or divisions as forms of atavism or treachery.
Treachery under Ben Ali
The Ben Ali era had its traitors, too. They were either Islamists or leftists, in particular, those that were described as "human rightists", in what was in fact at Ben Ali's time the "Tunisian opposition". The weakness of the renewal of the political elites means that, among today's traitors, we very often find the very men and women who were the subject of accusations of treachery under Ben Ali.
Continuing the Bourguibian authoritarian modernist legacy, Islamists were radically “othered” by the government and part of the population under Ben Ali. Their repression by the authorities has been met with the indifference of a part of the left, which prefers the modern state to the defense of the political rights of its opponents. Islamists are accused of being "khwenjeya" who have come to import a model of society foreign to Tunisia. The "treachery" of Tunisian Islamists stems from their desire to import a "radical" Islam seen as foreign to Tunisia, and thus undermine a supposedly "plural" and "tolerant" Tunisian identity. Islamists are also accused of having supranational loyalties, through their alleged membership of the wider Muslim Brotherhood group.
For the "human rightists", the accusations are different. They are traitors paid by foreigners to damage Tunisia's image. This accusation should be understood as the first reaction of the authorities to the rise of human rights rhetoric and the beginnings of NGO-ization. "Human rightists" are questioned for their relations with non-governmental human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch. They have used advocacy channels to make their cases heard by the West, inviting them to "interfere" in what the state considers domestic affairs.
The (often false) paid nature of their work is particularly important: the state seeks to highlight the self-interest of the opponents and the fact they can be bought, which contrasts with the poverty of the good people and the disinterested spirit of the patriots who serve their nation and do not touch the money of the foreigner. This accusation also aims to isolate the opponents from the population: elitism, the often-forced cosmopolitanism of the opponents, due to exile, is put forward to deny them their belonging to the nation. These accusations will reinforce the idea that left-wing opponents are elites who do not seek to mobilize the "people" around their cause, an accusation often repeated by researchers who worked on Ben Ali's Tunisia.
In addition, the opponents were accused of "tarnishing Tunisia's image abroad". Thus, not only were they in contact with foreigners, but they would "speak ill" of the nation. This accusation can be explained on the one hand by the fact that the Ben Ali regime relied heavily on its good image as a modern and tolerant Muslim country to attract tourists and investors. "Tarnishing Tunisia's image abroad" was, therefore, in the eyes of the regime, a direct sabotage of its only economic strategy. However, this accusation must be understood as a nationwide revival of the idea that dirty laundry is washed in the family. The Tunisian state has often been very quick to use this metaphor which makes the country a big family (with the head of state as its patriarch). It is also taken up by the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nabil Ammar.
The democratic transition, a seamless dormancy
Compared to the despotic regimes of Bourguiba, Ben Ali, and Saied, the revolutionary period and then the democratic transition both seem to be havens of peace where the rhetoric of treachery had no place in the political field. However, a closer look reveals that while accusations of treachery directly addressed to political opponents were not made during the democratic decade, there has never been a break with this rhetoric. The first years of the democratic transition saw the "treachery to the nation" replaced by "treachery to the ummah of believers". This is perhaps the most important as the conspiracy universe linked to "treachery against the nation" ("certain parties", "dark rooms", "hidden interests/agendas" etc.) has been mobilized by all those who have been in power during this period.
During the constituent period (2011-2013), the Islamist party and its Salafist allies resorted to the "takfir" of opponents, i.e. the excommunication of the body of the ummah of believers. Ennahdha has been accused of having, at the very least, created a fertile ground for the political assassinations of figures such as Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013 through the “Tafkiri” rhetoric against the so-called "secular" opponents. The Arab-nationalist parties to which both men were affiliated directly accused Ennahdha of ordering the assassinations. This fear of the "takfir" had also given rise to some rather incredible episodes where the criminalization of takfir was constitutionalized in the text of January 2014 in reaction to death threats received by the then MP, Mongi Rahoui, now a regime supporter. The logic of exclusion from the body of the nation was thus followed by a logic of excommunication of the body of believers, which played more or less on the same registers. However, this logic has gradually lost ground: Ennahdha has been keen to transform itself into an "Islamist-conservative" party, while progressively working to marginalize supporters of this discourse such as Habib Ellouze and Noureddine El Khedher.
Along with the "takfir", another trend has emerged in the political arena, that of conspiracy theories. Very early on in the institutional process that began in 2011, the lexical field of the conspiracy theory has established itself as a pillar of political discourse: plotters, "hidden agendas", "hidden hands", and "dark rooms" where decisions are made without the knowledge of the people, and above all the "atraf (certain parties)" that want to destabilize, as they choose, the country, the government, this political party, etc. This discourse has been systematically adopted by the authorities but they never named the accused explicitly. However, like an end-of-season cliffhanger, they make it possible to spare the wait with a promise of a denouement that does not come. In addition, blaming "atraf" makes it possible for the authorities to shift the responsibility for their failures or delays to others without alienating potential future allies. This lack of responsibility contributed to creating a climate of generalized mistrust since the entire political process was, in the words of the "political leaders", parasitized by "atraf".
The usefulness of traitors in authoritarian situations
The return of old recipes
All in all, Kais Saied has only crossed the Rubicon with which politicians in power have long flirted between 2011 and 2021: after months of the usual accusations against obscure "atraf" promising names for later, he has started arresting his most vocal opponents. In a way, if Kais Saied's seeds are bearing fruit today, it is because the ground has been kept fertile by the actors of the democratic transition.
In addition, the current government is putting forward an alarmist discourse about the risk of state collapse, which would therefore justify the state of emergency. As such, the state has returned to the early days of independence to become again the weak and threatened entity behind which everyone must rally. Here, the weakness is twofold: there is, of course, weakness at the international level, namely the neo-colonial specter, which, in all likelihood given the country's multiple dependencies (food, financial, energy), is becoming more and more a reality. But there is also the specter of "division" weakening the country. This division is none other than the decade of political pluralism that the country has experienced, which has since become, in the words of the regime and the General Union of Tunisian Workers, "the black decade".
There is therefore a fairly clear discursive continuity between the first years of independence and the current situation. Power portrays the state as weak and threatened from the outside (colonialism or neo-colonialism), which forces it to be strong and refuse any internal opposition. In this scheme, political opposition to Saied becomes an existential threat to the state. By fighting against "traitors", the weak and threatened state aims to recreate the unanimity of society behind it. At the same time, vis-à-vis the opponents, it is the discourse of the Ben Ali era that is gaining the upper hand: Islamists are "foreigners" who have no place in the country and "human rightists" are "traitors" who wash the country's dirty linen in the West to push for foreign interference.
The "dark rooms" or the renewal of the politics of waiting through conspiracy
At the time of the multidimensional crisis that the country is going through, accusations of conspiracies and treachery are the only available lifeline for Kais Saied if he wants to continue to free himself from his political responsibility for the relentless austerity his regime is leading. Thus, shortages in certain basic products (bread, flour, coffee), where the figures show a drop in state imports of coffee by no less than 10 times between February and April 2022 and 2023 and a drop of 25.53% for soft wheat (bread) for the same period, will be explained by Saied by a conspiracy carried out in "dark rooms".
While doing away with the very idea of political responsibility, this permanent recourse to the conspiracy theory of "dark rooms" reinforces a feeling of powerlessness and dispossession of public affairs among citizens. Whatever they do, citizens do not have their destiny in their hands since it would be decided elsewhere, in unreachable dark rooms. This recourse to the conspiracy imaginary infantilizes and depoliticizes the powerless in the face of forces beyond them, the people can only entrust their destiny to a savior and wait. Hollywoodlike arrests of "traitors" punctuate this wait, to give the illusion that the struggle is moving forward when living conditions are becoming more difficult.
Unity and its traitors
The arrests of political opponents were accompanied by a fairly standard discourse denouncing "foreign interference" from the West (at least, those that do not suit the regime, Italian interference to push the IMF to make a quick loan to Tunisia being welcome). The "muscular" anti-interference rhetoric that has materialized in both Saied's speeches and those of his foreign minister creates a familiar illusion of power. Faced with the increasingly explicit specter of neo-colonialism, the figure of the Arab state protesting vocally to assert and enforce its sovereignty is indeed a familiar figure of resistance that remains quite popular in a country where the promise of genuine independence continues to animate hopes. This is how the state shows the public the spectacle of leaders who, for once, have stood up to the powerful of this world, thus offering a moment of pride in countries where we are used to being crushed.
This sovereignist discourse aims to "cultivate a sense of community by producing and reproducing collective political identities that unite the people around a shared political understanding of the facts, which can therefore serve as tools of political legitimization." Here, it is the reproduction of the unity of the nation in the face of imperialism that is sought. Thus, violations of human rights and political freedoms become an assertion of the sovereignty of the nation and its people.
This type of discourse is difficult to denounce in a political field where nationalism continues to be hegemonic and where, even on the left, it continues to be used as a liberating ideology. This hegemony makes it easier for the government to exclude from the "national community" those who protest or dare to talk about human rights. Opponents thus become traitors to the nation, henchmen of imperialism.
In addition to the anti-interference rhetoric, the regime has tried to use alternative levers in diplomatic relations, multiplying meetings and calls with Chinese and Russian officials. For a few days, the specter of the BRICS came to feed the discourse of the pro-regimes in the media. This quest for new allies in a multipolar world is a performance intended to gain recognition among the population, by signaling a state that is actively in search of solutions and not dependent on the West. It is also a way of signaling to Western partners, both American and European, that Tunisia can look elsewhere. However, while symbolically this is having an effect, no material translation of these initiatives has yet emerged. Worse, China, the main alternative creditor, has, through its ambassador, urged Tunisia to conclude a rapid agreement with the IMF.
While at the international level, the results are few and far between, at the local level, a national accord is far from being reached. There is no popular enthusiasm behind these speeches. It is rather the President's racist diatribes against migrants that are successful with a population in search of culprits and convenience.
Under Saied, as in the past, this eternal return of "traitors in the pay of foreigners" allows the state to divert attention from what constitutes, historically, its entire contradiction: The post-independence Tunisian state is a state that, while making itself the heir and continuator of the national liberation struggles, has been part of the continuity of colonial power on many levels. Economically, it has maintained an outward-looking economy where the prime ambition is to put itself at the service of Europe and where Foreign Direct Investment has long been the unit of measurement to give the national economy a clean bill of health. Politically and culturally, despite nationalist and identity-based discourses, the dominant culture continues to be cosmopolitan and therefore at odds with national culture. Faced with these contradictions, the authorities, and, to a certain extent, their opponents promote "an ideal of purity as a driver of change", where "we had to work again and again to be what we already were: nationals". The structural character of extroversion and dependence on the West is then transformed into a moral question: at the level of society this gives rise to the identity debates that periodically haunt the country, while at the level of individuals, it gives a scale of values ranging from patriot to traitor. Like the beast that eats its children, the state must therefore regularly resort to the hunt for "traitors" to "purify" a nation incapable of questioning its hybrid composition.
As to the question asked by Oualdi as to why the political opposition becomes, from the point of view of those in power, a sedition to be crushed, one can give as a possible answer the following: the post-independence state derives its legitimacy from its national and superior (even sacred) character. However, to maintain itself, it is necessary to mask its organic link with the ruling classes and, by extension, with the imperialist forces. To do this, the structural nature of inequalities within society must be denied, so the state forces unanimity, especially around the word “people” insofar as it “generates the feeling of equality”. However, since unanimity cannot last long because of growing social tensions (masking them, contributes to exacerbating them), the State must regularly resort to the figure of the traitor in the pay of the foreigner. In an authoritarian situation, transforming the political opposition into national sedition kills three birds with one stone: getting rid of one's opponents, quenching the thirst for social justice by attacking part of the elites, and strengthening the hegemony of the unanimous national ideology.
Does it still work?
"Traitorizing" class struggle
If the authoritarian power in Tunisia, as everywhere in the world, has always produced traitors when it comes to repressing the opposition, this production is not unrelated to the dynamics of exclusion and distinction that have been working in the social body since independence: if the state regularly produces its "traitors", it is also because society is ready to welcome these accusations. These social dynamics, borrowing similar registers (pure, impure; authentic, inauthentic, etc.), feed the production of traitors and vice versa.
I will focus here on the question of the place of "cosmopolitan" elites in society. By "cosmopolitan" elite, I mean people who, in postcolonial societies, sit, assert, and reproduce their domination by investing in material and symbolic rapprochement with the West. Whether it is through the foreign languages spoken daily, the type of education received at home or even the education received abroad, or the fact of having a dual nationality. Part of the Tunisian elite invests heavily in rapprochement with the West to maintain its domination and draw the boundaries of its social class. These classes actively seek to distinguish themselves from the rest of the population, or even to voluntarily exclude themselves from it. This effort at social distinction is paradoxically reinforced by a postcolonial national ideology in which being part of the nation and being part of the cosmopolitan elite are mutually exclusive.
The Egyptian anthropologist Noha Roushdy has done fascinating work on private international schools in Egypt. These schools, where middle- and upper-class parents fight to get their children into school, are invested in to offer cosmopolitan capital to children (foreign school curriculum, foreign language education, etc.) in a context where public schools are disinvested by the State. For these families, it is a question of strengthening and reproducing their belonging to the upper classes in an increasingly economically unstable context. However, these same parents see this as a threat to acculturation for their children since these schools are known to offer poor Arabic language learning. Tunisia is experiencing the same phenomenon: if historically "the French mission" and, to a lesser extent, the "American school", were the place of reproduction of cosmopolitan elites, today, in a context of commodification of education and abandonment of public schools by the State, we are witnessing an explosion of private schools claiming to be international (teaching Canadian, British, American and French programs).
In the Egyptian case, these schools convey to students discourses in which they are made to understand that they do not belong to the "real" or "authentic" Egyptian society. These are spaces where "everyone seems to agree that elite and national belongings are not the same in contemporary Egypt. For many, what it takes to raise middle- and upper-class children contradicts and often undermines what it takes to raise them as Egyptians." The school produces a "distinction between real or authentic Egyptians [the poor, who attend the national public school] and those who are 'not really Egyptian' because of their privileges and cosmopolitan way of life," instilling in the process a form of guilt in the students.
This mutual exclusion between elite and nationhood is based on a fundamental (and rarely acknowledged) characteristic of postcolonial nations: the existence of a "fundamental disconnect between the official and state-sponsored national culture and the de facto economically and socially dominant culture of the cosmopolitan elite."
Thus, despite nationalist and identity-based discourses and efforts at Arabization, "legitimate culture" in countries such as Tunisia or Egypt continues to be a colonially inspired culture, where being close to the West multiplies the chances of being at the top of the social hierarchy. In this configuration, the elites from the official national culture, i.e., Arabic-speaking, educated exclusively in the public school and university systems, face a glass ceiling, fiercely guarded by the cosmopolitan elites. This contradiction between official but dominated national culture and dominant colonially inspired culture is no better illustrated than those ministers or presidents of the Republic who make abundant use of patriotism and the rhetoric of the "traitor in the pay of the foreigner" against their opponents while sending their children to foreign schools.
The never-explicitly acknowledged character of this dissonance between dominated national culture and dominant cosmopolitan culture is accompanied by the refusal to translate it explicitly in terms of social class. What could have been expressed in terms of class struggle continues to be diverted by the various authoritarian powers in place towards a nationalist discourse operating a division between "real Tunisians" and, at your choice, the fifth column of neo-colonialism, or envoys from the Gulf, i.e., the contingent of "traitors in the pay of foreigners". In 2023 Tunisia, it is on this confusion that the agreement is played out between Saied, a pure product of the dominated national culture and, therefore, representing the impeded classes (his allies come from the Arab-nationalist ranks themselves dominated within the elites), and being a part of the popular classes in search of social justice: "us", the dominated, against "them". They are pell-mell: the "corrupt", the "cosmopolitans", the political class (and civil society professionals) who have taken advantage of the democratic transition to rise socially, economically, or politically, or to strengthen their dominant position, while a large part of the population has been impoverished.
Thus, a major contradiction within society, left fallow by a left that shies away from criticizing nationalism, is redeployed by the government to turn its opponents into "traitors” who are paid and enriched by foreigners. The aim is to give this hunt for traitors an appearance of social justice, among a population that has seen its living conditions deteriorate since the Revolution and that sees the extent of inequalities in the abundance, unprecedented in the history of the country, of luxury consumer products. In this respect, it is very interesting to note that many people in Tunisia believe that political opponents imprisoned by Saied are accused of corruption, or illegal enrichment (especially Ennahdha cadres) while the regime arrests them for "conspiracy against state security" and accuses them of collaboration with foreigners. What at first glance appears to be a simple confusion, reveals the fragile alliance between the government and its popular supporters. The government is taking up the old accusation of treachery in the pay of foreigners against its opponents, but these accusations do not drive mass mobilizations. It is the "fight against corruption" and illegal enrichment that drives people's minds, the thirst for some form of social justice among a population deeply affected by the simplistic and moralizing anti-corruption discourses that have dominated the political scene since 2014.
Power without horizons
However, if the accusations of "treachery" are based on powerful drivers within society, there are serious doubts about their ability to mobilize the population in the long term. The unity around the State in the face of "traitors" and the West leaves much to be desired. Except for certain diasporic elements and elites politicized by Arab nationalism, the nationalist discourses carried by the government and its allies do not find much resonance with the population.
The economy remains the population’s main concern, and it is precisely there that the authorities are taking intentional action. No agreement with the IMF has been reached, and the agreement with the EU seems to be compromised by migration figures that are not falling, and procedures that are not respected at the European level. The frenzied austerity is causing shortages that are making the population increasingly nervous, who are led to believe that these are conspiracies.
The recycling of the post-independence discourse, a weak, young, but protective State, does not take into consideration the fact that the Tunisian State of 2023 is not that of independence. If in 1956, the promise of "national liberation took the place of all personal freedoms", the state of 2023 has nothing to promise. Neither national liberation nor development, and even less a return to the social contract of the time, where silence and obedience were exchanged for effective social protection and democratized public services. Even the social contract under the Ben Ali dictatorship, where low wages were compensated for by low prices, subsidies, and the democratization of consumption through the use of bank credit, is now a distant memory.
Of course, financial resources are limited, and fiscal policy is openly austere, but it is the very nature of the state that has changed, swept away by the neoliberal wave since the 1980s, which has only accelerated with the democratic transition. Saied's State continues on the same path. Subsidies for basic foodstuffs, the last vestiges of social protection, are already de facto a thing of the past, as shortages have normalized the fact that people have to rely on their resources. Public services, especially health, transport, and education, were abandoned by the State several years ago, paving the way for privatization. In the absence of a new social contract, all the State can offer today is the mirage of "everything will be fine once the bad guys are out of the way." A renewal of the politics of waiting will reach its end and become less effective with a large part of the opposition behind bars.
In the medium term, as the economic situation worsens – with no signs of potential improvements – the convergence of interests between a population in search of social justice and the improvement of living conditions and Saied, champion of the people-spectator against "traitors" and "bad guys", will be put to the test. If today Saied calls on the people to be patient, it cannot be ruled out that he will, in the face of a possible increase in protests, expand the circle of traitors to other spheres and transform the protesters into the "manipulated". Unless the economic situation improves, the rupture seems inevitable.
However, the impact of a breakup must be put into perspective. While many expect the fall of a Saied caught up by the economy, the causal link predicted here is uncertain. The opposition itself does not have much to offer, and it is a safe bet that between an authoritarian and concentrated power with no economic horizons and a return to a confused, conflictual democratic game that is just as devoid of economic horizons, popular preference will move towards the authoritarian status quo.
Twelve years after the fall of Ben Ali, political management of inequalities and its impact on people's quality of life is still in its infancy. The political management of divisions implies the creation of visions of the country and the proposal of horizons. Something that has been sorely lacking since 2011. Neither Saied nor his opponents have any proposals at this level: The only proposed horizon for the future is that of purification, exclusion, or elimination of a given group (secularists, Islamists, corrupt, traitors, etc.). The horizon of people's lives, that of their daily lives, their health, their education, their means of transport, their quality of life, the meaning of freedom, democracy, and justice, all remain unanswered.
Creating Horizons requires a critique of nationalism as a liberating ideology. Nationalism has been used since independence to muzzle class divisions and calls for equality between regions. Today, unitary nationalism creates a political sterility where the only horizon is purifying the nation. The irony is that, in a country where the political elites have repeatedly declared the people too immature for democracy, it is partly their immaturity, materialized by the refusal to move away from nationalist, moral, or identity clichés, and to take political charge of society's divisions and struggles, that pulls the country back to dictatorship.
The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.