Tunisian Youth Perceptions of Authoritarian Restoration: Withering Support to Democracy

Executive Summary:

Tunisia’s democratic transition was buried by Kais Saied's coup d'état on 25 July 2021, and the subsequent dismantling of the entire institutional edifice built since the revolution. After a decade of living under a democratic regime and learning about democracy in theory and practice, how do young people perceive the evolution of their political institutions and procedures in a process of autocratization?

To answer this question, the Arab Reform Initiative, in collaboration with its partner organizations, Génération Anti-Marginalization and We Start, conducted in 2023 a series of six focus group discussions with young people aged 18-35. The focus groups, which gathered 41 participants, were organized across two distinct locations: Kairouan and Kabaria. The focus group discussions sought to elicit from participants their perceptions of the political changes since July 2021, their main priorities, and what they perceived as the critical pathway for inclusive participation and greater social justice.

Youth in public life today: Political apathy persists. Two years after Saied's coup, the State is still struggling to achieve economic stability, security, and safety. Meanwhile, Saied continues to dismantle the achievements of the democratic transition. The current situation is perceived as a relative letdown for Tunisian youth who supported Saied since 2019, putting their faith in his anti-establishment and youth empowerment discourses. The lack of change coupled with the return to authoritarian tendencies has translated into youth growing disillusioned with Saied's vision and the political sphere in general.

Values and expectations show a shift from collective to individual interests: Youth consider values like awareness and responsibility essential in the Tunisian public sphere. However, they presented these values with an individualistic rather than a collective focus: lack of awareness and responsibility is the problem, and each individual should be an aware and responsible citizen and it is from the addition of everyone’s efforts that change will come. This testifies to the growing skepticism of young people toward the very idea of finding collective alternatives and solutions to the current predicament: the collective sphere is too unstable, too unpredictable to be invested with values, time, and effort, whereas the individual can still be invested, located, and evaluated. In a sense, this individualistic framing illustrates the political space’s closure, which is no longer a space to be invested with values. Now, it is the addition of individual efforts that is seen as the way out of Tunisia’s multidimensional crisis.

Perception of recent events: Initially, youth perceived Kais Saied's power grab as a fresh start for Tunisia, but not anymore. As time passed, Saied's appeal waned among them, as their calls for "Freedom, justice, and dignity" remained unfulfilled. They did not perceive a distinct shift in areas where they saw him as capable of bringing change, particularly in politics, the economy, and the justice system. Instead, they witnessed the presence of the same problems they had criticized during the democratic transition: lack of vision and a clear preference for institutional rather than economic change. But as support wanes, the absence of alternatives that meet their demands creates a vacuum that Saied continues to fill by giving hope that the demands for the moralization of politics are being answered by his authoritarian moves against opponents.

Perceptions of the past decade: Despite its abuses, a sense of nostalgia for the Ben Ali regime is growing among both Millennials and Generation Z. On the one hand, this nostalgia represents an idealized view of the past, embodying a longing for values that seem absent in their current reality, such as international prestige, economic stability, and security. On the other hand, the image of the former regime in their personal and collective memory remains mixed and ambiguous as many are aware of how violent the regime was.

Perceptions of development and public services: Public services are "out of service" while development seems stuck. In sectors like healthcare, transportation, and education, there is a consensus among youth that the quality of services is deteriorating in the capital and, more critically, in other parts of the country. The inadequacies of public services are not without consequences for the well-being of young people who are unable to carry out basic day-to-day tasks due to the state of these services, leading to a state of helplessness and despair. As the country's development horizon remains at a standstill, migration is one of the few remaining options for youth seeking better living conditions.

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.