Tunisia, between crisis and opportunities

By Dan Sanaren, student at Sciences-Po Paris, Europe-Africa Programme.

On the evening of July 25th, 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied announced a series of exceptional and radical measures in a last-ditch effort to combat the dire situation Tunisia is faced with. The country faces trying times as it struggles to address a raging pandemic and rampant corruption. Tunisia has been touted as an exemplary democracy birthed from the 2011 Arab Spring. It is now, without a doubt, facing its greatest challenge since the revolution that brought down the oppressive and corrupt system of the Ben Ali – Trabelsi family.

Saied’s July 25th announcement of strict new measures raised questions and spurred diverse reactions: the international community and main opponents in the country initially denounced the proceedings as a “coup d’état.” In contrast, they were welcomed by the Tunisian public. Thus, protests on the 25th of July transformed into street celebration, with Tunisian youth saluting the President’s decisions – notably, his making good on an election campaign promise.

The surrounding fear of a democratic backslide brought forth by prevailing narratives in the international media doesn’t suit the sentiment from within Tunisia, which begs a few questions to be asked.  To what extent do the Tunisian President’s decisions endanger the rule of law and democratic values of the country? What is the future for the only successful democracy born from the Arab Spring?

Radical measures in a situation of “imminent threat to the nation”

The health situation generated by COVID-19 accentuates a cycle of relative political instability and ineffective governance in Tunisia and highlights a two-pronged instability of polarization and general preparedness in terms of ministries when dealing with corrupt systems. With the succession of nine governments since the fall of Ben Ali’s regime, all marked by scandals, the government was clearly underprepared for the subsequent global event. The two latest governments, under PMs Fakhfakh and Mechichi, were condemned for further dividing the population across the political spectrum. Displays of violence were even witnessed within the Tunisian legislative organ, the Assembly of the People’s Representatives (ARP).

Since the start of the pandemic, Tunisia has been confronted with several issues mainly deriving from structural problems of its health system and the morphology of its economy, where the rural and working class are highly dependent on daily migrations. It was therefore impossible for the Tunisian government to prepare effective quarantine measures, a European norm and necessity, without drastically slowing the economy and/or possibly condemning a part of its population to a humanitarian catastrophe. Thus, the circulation of the virus was never effectively stopped, pushing the Tunisian health system to its limits in the Summer of 2021.

The emblematic failure of the Mechichi government was the massive vaccination mobilization on the two days of Aid al-Adha (Eid). The drive was announced by the Minister of Health Faouzi Mehdi just two days prior to the vaccination campaign. The rapid exhaustion of vaccination doses forced centers to close roughly one hour after opening, with outbreaks of public violence. A public denunciation of the Minister of Health was later issued by the head of government, PM Mechichi, showing the overall fragility and lack of coherency of the government. 

Tunisian public health authorities found themselves forced to implore the diaspora for help. Facing an incomplete and slow vaccination campaign, a saturation of patients at hospitals, and a weakened economy, people went to the streets to protest and demonstrate against Tunisia’s leading party, the moderate Islamic Ennahda, and the Mechichi government on the 25th of July. 

The same day, Tunisia’s fairly conservative president Kais Saied, elected in 2019, had decided to affirm himself as a leader capable of restoring order and security in the country. Saied could be considered a reformist and is rather opposed to the parliamentary system. He invoked Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, stipulating that the President can take exceptional powers “in the event of imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions or the security or independence of the country”. 

Saied, having evoked this key article, dismissed PM Mechichi and most of his government, suspended Parliament for thirty days, and stripped parliamentarians of their legislative immunity. He announced a series of restrictive measures to contain the spread of the virus and a massive anti-corruption campaign that didn’t spare MPs. In an unprecedented crisis, Saied opted for unusual drastic measures. 

The international community, notably the EU and the U.S. as well as foreign media, have been critical of Saied’s maneuvers. Until now, representatives and delegations have been pressuring Saied, urging “a swift return to a constitutional order, in which an elected parliament plays a significant role.”. Because Tunisia is politically close to the West and an essential ally in regional crises, notably in the Libyan case, concerns of a democratic backslide and an authoritarian turn are well founded. Yet, recent developments in Tunisia are falsely compared to the Libyan or Egyptian scenarios.

What threats to the Tunisian democracy?

The absence of any effective counterweight to balance Saied’s accumulation of executive, legislative, and judiciary powers is worrisome. The President, unpredictable and relatively new to the political scene, supervises the prosecutor’s office and extensively uses presidential decrees. He extended the measures, initially limited to 30 days, for an undefined period, while his anti-corruption campaign failed so far to deliver visible results and went up to targeting ex-presidential candidate Nabil Karoui.

Previously mentioned measures were seen as a constitutional power grab by Western powers. Even if President Saied’s discourse is one of appeasement, reassuring of Tunisia’s allies, all the potential threats of Tunisia’s democratic process reside into the president’s future policies. After his power grab, he is undoubtedly the man with quasi-all the power in Tunisia, and without actual limitations. While his political maneuver seemed at first glance to be a legal application of the Constitution, it is impossible to affirm the matter with certainty due to the absence of a Constitutional Court. The Court, of highest legal jurisdiction(articles 118 to 124 of the 2014 Constitution), is one of the many victims of political disagreements and lack of consensus in Tunisia. Since the adoption of the Constitution on January 26th, 2014, only one candidate was able to meet the requirements to become a Constitutional Judge. Hence, the Constitutional Court was never created.

Yet, we may ask ourselves, is Saied leading Tunisia towards a new Sissi-like regime? Towards an inner violent conflict? Tunisia’s democratic experience gives reason to believe that this crisis should not be its anticipated outcome. Overall, Tunisia’s democracy rests on two fundamental pillars: an apolitical army supporting the democratic process and a resilient political elite which can address crises, despite everyday disagreements.

The Tunisian army’s deeply entrenched tradition makes an Egyptian-like armed power grab unlikely. As opposed to Egypt where army-officials have been intertwined with politics, Tunisian armed forces underwent a long process of depoliticization and overall weakening under the Ben Ali and Bourguiba regimes. Those two regimes were mainly reliant on police forces and the National Guard, which explains current distrust between those two institutions and Tunisian civilians. 

Tunisia’s army links with the political elites were also feeble, giving it the opportunity to benefit from a good reputation. This also enabled the army to focus on its professional prerogative – the safeguard of Tunisian territory and population. It was in fact the army which had given, back in 2011, the last blow to Ben Ali’s regime, pledging its support to the Revolution. After Ben Ali’s ousting, the army was a pillar to the state’s relatively new democratic transition, supporting the new democratic elite and its efforts to restore safety and order in the country. 

Therefore, Saied’s decision to place the army in the frontline of his handling of the COVID-19 crisis breaks with a long tradition of military neutrality, yet can also be perceived here as an assurance to the Tunisian population, not the threat of a violent takeover. 

Tunisia can still be saved

Tunisia’s democratic experience was also consolidated with the emergence of a democratic culture that can be seen even with radical or religiously-oriented parties. Ennahda constitutes the best example of this: a dissident movement at its creation, Tunisia’s anti-democratic branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a consistent lobbying force which favors the institution of Islamic law, has undergone its transformation towards a moderate party. Ennahda, as the most important political organization, espoused democratic and republican principles throughout its history. Its democratic trajectory can be traced to the 2003’s “Appel de Tunis” and was affirmed during multiple crises. Main opposition to Saied, Ennahda strongly criticized the President’s decisions but finally opted for a less vocal critique and promoted the idea of a “national salute government”.

In the past months, Ennahda has been widely criticized and blamed for being responsible for the state of the country – as the largest movement in Tunisia, the head of the Movement, Rached Ghannouchi, accepted a part of the collective responsibility for the state of the country but continues to assure Ennahda’s commitment to a democratic, rule-of-law abiding Tunisia. Through this crisis, the Movement is trying to redefine itself and it is still not to be seen as irrelevant or weak. In case of an authoritarian turn, Ennahda – as well as other parties – will be able to gather a large popular and political support to preserve Tunisian republican identity.

Although Tunisia’s democracy is challenged by a variety of internal/domestic tensions, its past experiences can allow for an optimistic view of its future. The international community should worry more about the degradation of its economic situation. Tunisia is determined to politically resolve its internal issues, and several tools can be mobilized: the President is getting ready to amend the Constitution, while the idea of installing a “government of national salvation” is preferred by opposition parties. Yet, Tunisia is in dire need of economical support that would prevent a Lebanese-like crisis. Supporting Tunisia in this crisis is an opportunity for the West, and especially the EU, to reaffirm itself as a true supporter of Tunisian democracy and the Tunisian people.