Tunisia - Will There Be Another Spring?
The Citizen’s foreign affairs primer
Tunisia’s President Kaïs Saied, on July 25 2021, sacked the Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who had taken office in July 2020; suspended parliament; and assumed executive authority citing emergency provisions in the Constitution. Successive Prime Ministers, including Mechichi, since the 2019 elections, had failed to meet the people’s aspirations despite promising to address the economic and social situation, end corruption, rebalance public finances through talks with lenders and begin reforms to cut subsidies and programs sustaining organizations like State Owned Enterprises.
The dismal situation of the economy, his differences with the PM, the obvious ineffective governance of the establishment and parliament and increasing despair among the people had provided justification for the President’s actions. Saied said his actions were necessary to address the political paralysis, economic stagnation and a poor response to the coronavirus pandemic. He promised to uphold rights and not become a dictator. Since July 25 he had faced domestic and international demands to appoint a Prime Minister. Finally on September 29 it was announced that he had chosen Ms.Najla.Bouden Romdhane, a little-known professor of geophysics who implemented World Bank projects at the education ministry, to form a government as quickly as possible. She would be the first woman Prime MInister of Tunisia. But he had made it clear that during the emergency period the government would be responsible to the president. It remained to be seen whether she would last or just be a stopgap arrangment while Saeid consolidated his rule through changes in the constitution
He had also said that he would change the constitution which was not sacrosanct and could be amended. He had not put any time limit on his seizure of power, but said he would appoint a committee to help draft amendments to the 2014 constitution and establish "a true democracy in which the people are truly sovereign". Subsequently on September 22, 2021 moves were made to give the President almost unlimited powers. These rules were incorporated in the official gazette and would allow him to issue "legislative texts" by decree, appoint the Cabinet and set its policy direction and basic decisions without interference. The presidency said that, in the meantime, only the preamble to the existing constitution and any clauses that did not contradict the executive and legislative powers he had seized would remain in force. A Saied adviser was reported to have told Reuters that Saied was planning to suspend the constitution and offer a new version via a public referendum.
In the 2019 Presidential elections Saied a jurist and a retired university professor had been the outsider not affiliated to any party. But the desire for change in the country, with people tired of economic stagnation, corruption, and political and cultural polarization, was such a dominating factor that he had secured the Presidency supported by the moderate Islamic Party Ennahda and some smaller parties. The Arab Spring, known as the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, had been marked by sustained public protests and demonstrations that had led to the ouster of strongman Zine al -Abedine. While similar uprisings of the people had taken place in other Arab countries only Tunisia stuck to its determination to ensure the continuation of a multiparty democratic polity. Countries like Yemen descended into civil war while others like Egypt once again gave way to dictatorship. the Tunisian political forces had relied on dialogue and cooperation that had enabled democracy to survive. A new constitution had been framed in 2014 that provided for civil liberties and women’s rights while limiting the power of the armed forces. Hundreds of new newspapers were launched, along with political parties and civil society groups and there was hope that with a change in the system, the people’s aspirations would be met.
This had not happened. Tunisia had very consciously kept the armed forces out of politics. Parliament had, only in 2017, giving soldiers the right to vote in local elections and not in parliamentary and presidential ones. While Saeid’s actions of July 25 had met with initial approval there was some unease that he had gone against the constitution deploying the military to curb the protests that had been sparked off by concerns that he was gearing up to give Tunisia a polity under one man rule. Many of those who had supported him when he became President and had sided with him on July 25, had now begun to criticize him.
The Achaab party, which had been close to Saied, as well as five small parties, said they backed his move and asked to participate in preparing reforms.
But Tunisia's largest political party, the moderate Islamist Ennahda, which had supported Saeid in the Presidential elections had called his moves "a flagrant coup against democratic legitimacy" and called for people to unite and defend democracy in "a tireless peaceful struggle". Rached Ghannouchi said the announcement meant cancelling the constitution and that Ennahda, which had already declared Saied's July 25 intervention a coup, would not accept that.
A senior official in Heart of Tunisia, the second-largest party in parliament, accused Saied of conducting a "premeditated coup."
Saeid’s actions had caused internal problems for Ennahda. Since Saied's move in July 2021 , Ennahda officials had demanded the resignation of their leader Rached Ghannouchi, the parliament speaker, because of the way the party had handled the response to the crisis and the strategic choices that he had made since the 2019 elections. Ghannouchi had dismissed the party’s executive committee in an effort to calm the protests against him. More than 100 officials including lawmakers and former ministers, had resigned in protest against the party’s leadership.
Abir Moussi, the leader of the Free Destourian Party and a supporter of the former autocratic administration that was ousted in 2011, said suspending the constitution was dangerous. He said the move had created the biggest crisis since 2011 and negated the 2014 constitution that had split powers between an elected parliament and president.
The Attayar party, the third largest in parliament, had said it rejected any individual attempt to exploit the anger of the Tunisians and to impose a system that did not enjoy a consensus.
But perhaps the most significant symbol of the people’s anger was the position taken by the million member Tunisian General Labour Union or UGTT. At one time supportive of the President the UGTT had opposed the idea of suspending the constitution and called instead for new parliamentary elections. It had warned against consolidating power in the president's hands alone and that his intent to set up a commission to amend the political system was also a threat. The Union’s leader Noureddine Taboubi, however said they would support changes to the constitution and political system, blaming them for the gridlock that preceded Saied's intervention on July 25.
In July, just before Said dismissed the government, people had demonstrated in Tunis and other cities demanding the ouster of the Mechichi government and the dissolution of Parliament and had clashed with the police which used pepper spray to disperse the protestors. But by the last week of September 2021 public anger had focused on the President after suspicion strengthened that the President was looking to perpetuate his one man rule. A huge demonstration had taken place in Tunis on September 26, 2021 largely dominated by the youth calling for the country's constitution to be respected and demanding the impeachment of President Kaïs Saied. At present it was apparent that most of the political class had now come out in opposition to Saied, including the major parties.
There was some apprehension that the Saeid rule could see measures reminiscent of autocratic regimes. Arrest warrants had been issued against Nabil and Ghazi Karoui for illegally crossing the border. Karoui had been accused of money laundering and tax evasion and been in prison while the presidential election campaign was on. He was released in October 2019 with the courts saying October 2019 there had been procedural errors in his original detention. He had been the runner up in the Presidential election in 2019. Both brothers had recently been held in Algeria with which Tunisia had an extradition agreement. Human rights groups accused Tunisia of handing over to Algeria political activist Slimane Bouhafs, who had been sentenced to jail in 2016 for “insulting Islam” and there was speculation that the Karoui brothers’ arrest in Algeria was in exchange for the handover of Bouhafs.
In the midst of this political chaos, Tunisia’s economy continued to suffer.
Tunisia’s economy shrank 8.6 percent last year, and another 3 percent in the first three months of this year on an annualized basis, according to government data. Tourism, a bedrock of the economy was decimated in 2020. Manufacturing was also badly hit. The World Bank had reported in April 2021 that Government debt had reached 88 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by the end of 2020, compared with 72 percent in 2019.
The Covid pandemic had led to an unemployment rate of 17.4 percent by the end of last year, compared with a pre-pandemic level of 14.9 percent. In the first three months of 2021, it had risen to 17.8 percent according to the National Institute of Statistics.
Most significantly the economic crisis had affected those lower down on the wealth scale. Poorer households were said to have reduced the quantities of food they bought and had started eating less preferred foods rather than the usual staples.
The government had sought to increase the cash transfer programmes to households affected by the Covid crisis in like with the nature of fiscal support advocated by the IMF and World Bank.
Fitch Ratings downgraded Tunisia to a ‘B-’ with a negative outlook, citing the failure to agree to a new funding programme with the IMF. Fitch said that the President’s decision to suspend parliament and dismiss the prime minister might add further delays to an IMF programme that could help the country’s finances.
There appears to be little evidence that multiparty democracy would be restored in Tunisia soon. Saeid seems unlikely to rush into elections and one can only wait and see what he does with the constitution. The Tunisians had won the battle against autocratic rule in 2011—it remains to be seen whether there would be a sole Tunisian Spring in the near future since the other Arab Spring members appear to have effectively silenced dissent or are in the process of doing so. Perhaps if Covid disappears the tourism industry would again provide an impetus to the process of restoring the economy.