So it happened. The first and last “bright spot” of the Arab Spring is no longer. When speaking of Tunisian democracy, one can now speak in the past tense. I’ve written about this elsewhere, so rather than belaboring obvious points, I want to try to understand the Tunisian case in a broader context, because what happened last week—the promulgation of a constitution enshrining one-man rule—wasn’t just a tragedy for Tunisians. It was a tragedy for tens of millions of Arabs who deserve better, but who are too often dismissed as somehow incapable of self-government. It was also a dark day for the democratic idea, broadly understood.
One might argue that people get the governments they deserve. I find this unconvincing for the simple reason that the success or failure of a coup, once attempted, is contingent. A given coup’s success is not foreordained. In hindsight, it may seem that it was inevitable—where skeptics of Arab democracy can say, ‘see, we told you so’—but it is worth remembering that nothing becomes inevitable until after it happens. This should be obvious enough. No one, to my knowledge, intimated that a coup in Tunisia was inevitable before it actually started almost exactly one year ago, on July 25, 2021.
If we acknowledge this contingency, then it means that Tunisians didn’t deserve this any more than, say, Americans deserved Trump. Hillary Clinton almost won after all, and any number of factors could have tipped the balance in her favor. So, in a sense, Americans simultaneously “deserved” two diametrically opposed presidents, which is to say that no one really deserves one thing, as long as another, very different thing might have happened instead.
It is easy to blame the victim and say that this is what Tunisians wanted. And it’s true! Early on, an apparently quite large majority of Tunisians supported the coup. Before President Kais Saied’s autogolpe, his approval rating was around 38 percent. After he sent tanks to suspend and shutter the democratically-elected parliament, Tunisians rejoiced, setting themselves against the very parliament that they themselves had elected in the previous legislative elections. Saied’s approval rating quickly jumped to over 80 percent. Did these Tunisians know that this would entail the end of democracy? No, many of them apparently deluded themselves into thinking that the democratic transition would continue, just now on firmer ground with a firmer hand. The hand, it turns out, was extremely firm.
It is also worth pointing out what should be increasingly obvious at this point: While most human beings say they support democracy in theory, they do not necessarily support democracy in practice. This raises an interesting question. Which version of a particular person should we believe—the part of him that votes for the parliament or the part of him that supports the coup that undoes his own vote for that parliament? It appears that individuals contain multitudes.
The reality is that even in advanced democracies such as our own, it becomes challenging to believe in small-d democracy under conditions of duress. We, as Americans, are currently living under such conditions. By this I mean something quite specific. When electoral outcomes seem personally threatening, because so much (or too much) is at stake, then it becomes easier for one to put aside his or her supposed commitment to democracy. We are seeing a version of this with a Republican Party that, to various degrees, has indicated discomfort with—or outright opposition to—an election outcome in 2020 that was not to its liking. I don’t think Democrats would have been nearly as bad, but I do think that the counterfactual history of a Trump victory in 2020 would have created some degree of political instability, driven by the inability of tens of millions of Democrats to come to terms with the legitimacy of a second-term Trump presidency.
(I made a version of this argument in the lead-up to the election and I have openly said that, knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have written it, not because I think the central argument was wrong, but rather because everyone has limits when it comes to the degree of opprobrium they’re willing to withstand from the mob. Some things simply aren’t worth it).
I hope to develop this argument further in the future, but, for now, I will put forward part of the argument in the form of a question: Are we willing to say that Tunisians got what they deserved, because not enough of them were willing to fight for democracy? If so, are we willing to say that Americans will have gotten what they deserved if enough of them vote for Donald Trump in 2024? They will have cast their votes knowing full well that they are voting for someone who does not accept the results of elections not to his liking.
It is worth considering the implications of a future that is more likely than we might like to admit. How we will think about ourselves as a people and a nation if a plurality of our countrymen—as expressed through the extremely irritating but legitimate system of the Electoral College—vote, for the first time in American history, for a candidate who is, plainly put, not a democrat? It is perhaps the most basic of propositions for a citizen or candidate to accept, but it can no longer be taken for granted even in the world’s oldest democracy, to say nothing of one of the world’s youngest.