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The Arab Spring's last experiment in democracy is over

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This week, the last democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring came to a sputtering end. Voters in Tunisia passed a constitutional referendum giving President Kais Saied near-total power, weakening an already weak Parliament and sidelining the judiciary. And it is a symbolic end to the Arab Spring, the pro-democracy movement that was sparked in Tunisia itself more than a decade ago. I'm joined now by Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who is tracking this. Hey there.

SHADI HAMID: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So speak to the significance of this moment and of it happening in Tunisia where the whole Arab Spring began.

HAMID: Yes, sure. Well, July 25 was the day Tunisian democracy died. This referendum entrenches the president's one-man rule. So where we might have been able to speak about Tunisia as a democracy before, we can now no longer do that. So in that sense, obviously, a dark day for Tunisians but also the Middle East and, you know, for the Democratic idea more generally.

KELLY: And I suppose we should note that on July 25 of last year, President Saied had already suspended Parliament, dismissed the prime minister. He has been consolidating power over the last year already.

HAMID: Yeah. So about a year ago, that's when Kais Saied made his move. That's when this slow-motion coup started. There has been no Parliament. There have been no checks on his power. And it has, in effect, been a dictatorship. But there was hope up until this moment that somehow the worst could be avoided. But now the constitution has passed, so it makes a lot of this official. So the one-man rule that he had been doing provisionally for the past year is now letter of law.

KELLY: How is this playing in Tunisia? Do we know where public opinion is on this?

HAMID: Yeah. So the referendum itself had low turnout. The official numbers are about 30%, but most of the opposition boycotted the referendum. And that was their objective to basically delegitimize the result. After Kais Saied started his power grab last year, some Tunisian surveys put his approval rating at as high as 80%. There was overwhelming support for him in the beginning. Many Tunisians saw Kais Saied as someone who would fix things on his own. And in that sense, Saied was a self-styled populist, almost a bit of a Trumpian figure, if you will. For many Tunisians, the democratic transition was not something they loved because their lives didn't get better. The economy did not improve. So that's always the danger of revolutions. They raise expectations considerably. People think that once there is democracy, everything will work out, and they expect their lives to improve immediately. That did not happen in Tunisia. So what that led to was a disillusionment with the idea of democracy.

KELLY: Last question, and it's a big one, but just your top-line thought in terms of how this bodes for the region. Because Tunisia, you know, after the Arab Spring, it had an extended experiment in democracy. They set up a new elected assembly. They have held elections, unlike other places after the Arab Spring, where democracy never really took root. How does this leave you feeling about the hope for democracy in the Arab world going forward?

HAMID: Well, this is why Tunisia was really important as an example because as long as there was Tunisia, people could look at that and say democracy is possible in the Arab world. They could also say that Islam and democracy can go together because there was an Islamist party, Ennahda, that was part of various coalition governments since the initial uprising in 2011. Anyone who's looking for a more positive future in the Arab world now has to look elsewhere, and most likely they have to look outside the region entirely. It's always good to have one positive example that you can point to, even if it's one out of 20-plus Arab countries. At least that's one.

KELLY: Right.

HAMID: But now it's zero.

KELLY: Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Thank you.

HAMID: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Noah Caldwell