More than a decade after the Arab Spring that swept away autocracies in the Middle East and North Africa, the wind has irremediably changed direction. Power consolidation projects that have been long in the making have reached their final stage in July 2022, at the same time when popular unrest has started rocking several countries causing unintended consequences. Despite the differences, all these developments have been informed by a global democratic regression recently compounded by the double shock of the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.
In the same month in which President Biden finally met with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (highlighting how interests more than values guide foreign policies), the roadmap unilaterally approved by the Tunisian President Kais Saied moved a decisive step forward. Despite a widespread call to boycott the vote and serious objections about a non-inclusive process, the referendum on the new Tunisian constitution went ahead on 25 July, with the new text approved by 94,6% of the voters, according to the Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Élections (ISIE). Without a quorum, as established during a dubious constitutional process in which an amended version was presented just hours after the final text had been made public; and with a very low turnout (30% according to the ISIE, which by the way has been completely overhauled a few months ahead of the referendum itself), the vote cemented the power grab inaugurated last year and yet to be completed with general elections late in December.
While Tunisia seems destined to be heading back towards a customary one-man rule, chaos in Libya has been exacerbated by the legitimacy crisis of discredited institutions. Power-sharing and political concessions are only protracting an untenable status quo that is pushing more and more residents to take the streets. Widespread protests on 1 July highlighted the role that popular mobilisation is now playing in offering a perfect springboard for a much-expected political reset. The risk however are the populist tendencies hidden in an unstructured protest movement that called for the dissolution of all existing bodies, with the exception of a Presidency Council that would retain almost all powers. Furthermore, the storming of the parliament’s building in Tobruk showed a violent drift that, in spite of the reasonable frustration for the lack of essential services, clearly represents an ominous sign not only for Libya but for democracy itself.
The attack against the Iraqi parliament by a storm of angry protesters in the same month confirmed a worrisome pattern that, despite significant differences, has implications that go well beyond the region. The condemnation of the Tobruk attack by the former UN Special Adviser Stephanie Williams has raised several objections but must be read in line with what has been described as the looming global disorder. A moment in which the old world is dying while the new world struggles to be born, where the storming of the parliament in Tobruk reminds the assault on Capitol Hill and makes parallels with the attack against the US Consulate in Benghazi almost ten years ago.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region