In Tunisia, It’s Uncertain That Warming a Political Freeze Will Yield a Long Thaw

For now, the people support the president’s sudden move against a calcified system

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In Tunisia, It’s Uncertain That Warming a Political Freeze Will Yield a Long Thaw
Tunisian President Kais Saied holds a meeting at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, Tunisia, on July 27, 2021 / Tunisian Presidency / Handout / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Very early in the day on July 25, despite the heat and Covid-19 restrictions, rallies defying law enforcement’s calls to stay home formed in the main cities of the country, the people chanting for the resignation of the government and the taking of power by regular citizens. These demonstrations, unlike recent similar mobilizations, took on a different color when reports indicated scuffles between the police and demonstrators, particularly around the offices of the Islamist party Ennahda, which leads the government coalition.

Around noon, more than a thousand Tunisians gathered in front of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) and called for its dissolution. Other demonstrators yelled slogans against Ennahda, which seems to have been particularly singled out. Later in the day, events took a more serious turn when the president of the Tunisian Republic, Kaïs Saïed, invoked Article 80 of the constitution, triggering the freezing of ARP activities, the dismissal of the head of government and the lifting of the legal immunity afforded to members of the ARP. Saïed later announced that these measures will be effective for 30 days, after which he will have to present a government.

At this news, the demonstrators massed in front of the ARP exploded with joy. Throughout the country, scenes of jubilation took place. The majority of political parties present in the ARP reacted by accusing Saïed of misinterpreting Article 80 and rejecting his action as unconstitutional. Rumors spread throughout the country of alleged arrests of members of the ARP and the government, including ousted Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi. On Twitter, bots began posting videos of other events or starting rumors that the authorities were closing the airport.

The next day, July 26, tensions rose when the speaker of the ARP and founder of the Islamist party, Rached Ghannouchi, called on his base and the leaders of the main parties to make a forceful entry into the Parliament. The group found itself blocked at the entrance to the ARP by the army, which was enforcing directives from above. After Ennahda and presidential supporters exchanged blows and stones, everyone was evacuated. Later that evening, the president walked down the capital’s main thoroughfare and declared that he was “against the spilling of a single drop of blood” but nevertheless warned that anyone who “uses a bullet” against the security forces will be met with “a hail of bullets.”

On television, the president announced the start of a 30-day curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., a ban on public gatherings of more than three people and the closure of central government offices, local groupings and public administrative establishments for two days. He also added that he will preside over the public prosecution of ARP members following the lifting of their immunity. The president, who oddly considers himself a political outsider, accused the political class of “dividing the state and its assets as if they were their private property,” implying that he will prosecute them for corruption.

From that point on, anything became possible.

The episode we witnessed on July 25 was the result of a series of events in an internal power struggle that has been undermining the country for almost a year. Shortly after his appointment as head of government, Mechichi, who was initially proposed by the president – who saw in him a docile ally before the ARP – quickly joined the side of Speaker Ghannouchi. Since then, the president, the head of government and the speaker have engaged in a strategic war marked by a succession of evictions and co-optations of members of the government and the administration according to their allegiance. For instance, in January 2021, Mechichi replaced some members of his government with political allies in what is now seen as an attempt to isolate the president.

This reshuffle lent itself to a fiercer dimension to the conflict between the executive power’s two strongmen. The latest blow, in mid-May, was a document leaked from the presidency and subsequently published by the Middle East Eye website. The document outlined a plan to activate Article 80, giving the head of state (the president) all the powers necessary to confront an “imminent danger that hinders the functioning of public authorities.” The plan was quickly denied by the president, who disassociated himself from the document, and fueled tensions that reached their climax on July 25, when the president effectively made use of Article 80.

The events in Tunisia are reminiscent of scenarios already encountered in Turkey and especially in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power by force in 2013. However, before superimposing the label from the Egyptian scenario on what happened in Tunisia, it is appropriate to place the events in their context, which differs widely from that of the Egyptian one.

If the legality of Saïed’s decision to freeze parliamentary activity and trigger Article 80 as a whole is questionable, proving a constitutional violation will not come easy.

The arbiter of the article’s legality – as well as the body responsible for its termination – is the constitutional court. This court does not yet exist. Written into the 2014 constitution, which was drafted after the departure of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the formation of the constitutional court has been blocked since 2014 because of the multiple political fractures in the country, which of course take form in the political standoffs at the heart of the ARP.

Internationally, the news was received particularly well by countries hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where many social media users have welcomed the action of Saïed with the hashtag “Tunisia revolts against the Brotherhood.” The next day, July 26, the Tunisian president welcomed the foreign ministers of Morocco and Algeria, who visited the country with the explicit goal of “deliver[ing] an oral message to the president,” most likely indicating a sign of support from Rabat and Algiers. On the other hand, Tunisia’s Western partners, mainly the European Union and the United States, have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, expressing only mild concern and calling for restraint and dialogue. Turkey remains the only country to have spoken out forcefully against the “suspension of the democratic process,” explicitly labeling Saied’s actions as a “coup.”

Despite the lack of constitutional legitimacy, Saïed’s action has been welcomed by a large part of the population, especially security forces and most major trade union organizations.

Have Tunisians reached the end of their democratic adventure? Not yet clear. For starters, if the army supports these measures, it is mainly to continue to play its role as the guardian of the country’s stability and the integrity of the state, not to favor a particular political current. Indeed, unlike Egypt or Algeria, the Tunisian army is not involved in the political and economic life of the country. Its function as social glue among Tunisians gives it only a symbolic role that it has played during all the crises that the country has gone through until now. The powerful, 750,000-member strong workers’ union, the UGTT, argued that while Saïed’s actions were in line with the constitution, he must limit his extraordinary powers to 30 days. The main reason for this low bar of approval and avoiding direct condemnation is that the union wishes to present itself as a moderator to help ease the country’s tensions. As for civil society and other political forces in the country, despite most of them condemning the unconstitutional nature of Saïed’s action, the majority of organizations have issued rather neutral statements reaffirming “the importance of respecting the constitution.”

It is true that very early in the day of July 25, the first slogans were heard against the Islamist party Ennahda. Party offices, including its headquarters in Tunis, were attacked. Also, in front of the ARP, Ennahda is the main party singled out by the demonstrators who call for the dissolution of parliament. However, it should be remembered that if Ennahda is singled out it is mainly because it is the party with the plurality of seats in the ARP. Holding only 20% of the ARP seats, Ennahda is the largest party in an otherwise extremely divided assembly. Ennahda is also not the only victim. The Free Democratic Party of Abir Moussi – the main opponent of the coalition led by Ennahda – has also suffered material damage. And in his anticorruption statements, Kaïs Saïed expressed his desire to investigate the financing of parties other than Ennahda, including Qalb Tounes, which after Ennahda has the second most number of seats in the ARP.

The reasons that led to such a crisis are more profound than the ARP and the executive branch. When he left in 2011, President Ben Ali, who remained in power for over 20 years, left behind an extremely weak Tunisian economy. Despite attempts at neoliberal reform in the 1990s and 2000s, the Tunisian dictator was unable to reverse a dependence on a steadily declining tourist income, a drop in exports of agricultural products and low value-added manufactured goods. Following the election of a Constituent Assembly tasked with the drafting a new constitution, Tunisians expected more than the respect of civil liberties. They expected the creation of a more egalitarian economic and social model that gives equal opportunity.

Since 2011, Tunisia has had more than 13 governments, the majority of which have not stayed in power more than a year.

With the shadow of Ben Ali looming, the Constituent Assembly took a prudent route, drafting a constitution that allocated most political power to the legislative branch. In a new democracy where no balance of power is found because of a lack of trust among partners and, at times, a lack of political courage, parliamentarianism may prove to be obstructive. As a result of this, the country has quickly found itself immobilized (or even taken hostage) by the partisan transactions and calculations that are made to secure the parties’ positions. Since 2011, Tunisia has had more than 13 governments, the majority of which have not stayed in power for more than a year. While most debates in the ARP take the form of endless diatribes among parties, it can take up to a year for elected officials to decide, for example, on a finance law necessary for the state’s budget allocations.

Learning democracy is a long and exhausting road. It is even more so for Tunisians who are doing so in an acute economic crisis that has become chronic over time.

In 2010, the Tunisian economy was already poorly absorbing the shocks induced by the crisis of 2008 and the decline of foreign direct investment from Europe. Since 2011, not a single government has been able to propose an alternative economic and social model. In 2016, under pressure from international financial institutions, the country devalued its currency, generating levels of inflation not seen since 1991.

Last but certainly not least, the Covid-19 crisis has accelerated the crisis and exposed the Tunisian economy to obstacles that it simply cannot face in its current configuration.

For one, the pandemic has exacted a disproportionately heavy personal toll on Tunisians. With more than 17,000 deaths in a country of barely 12 million inhabitants, Tunisia has the highest mortality rate in the Arab world and on the African continent.

By the end of 2020, health officials raised the alarm bells that the system was on the brink of collapse. Hospitals all over the country are still calling for help because of a lack of equipment — from sophisticated oxygen concentrators to more basic equipment like masks and gloves. Not to mention the lack of qualified personnel. A whopping 80% of young doctors with diplomas have left the country.

What’s worse is that the unemployment rate, which was at 15% before the pandemic, had risen to 17.8% by the end of the first quarter of 2021. Women and young people aged 15-24 are particularly affected, with rates reaching 24.9% and 40.8%, respectively.

It is this youth that was seen on the streets on July 25. It is the same youth that largely voted for Saïed, seeing in him the promise of beating corruption. He presented the image of an outsider early in the campaign, and the message resonated strongly with voters. He was seen as the viable alternative to a corrupt political class.

The events taking place in Tunisia do not mark the end of political Islamism or the end of the democratic game, as was the case in Egypt. Above all, they are the cries of a large part of the population that has been taken hostage by a frozen partisan system. This time, the call was made without a single drop of blood. As for the future, Tunisians can only wait and see.

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