Where is Tunisia heading?

Tunisia is often presented as the only Arab country that succeeded on its political transition with the “Arab Spring”. Nevertheless, almost ten years on from this key regional event, the country is still struggling with political instability, economic problems and social unrest. How should we read this situation and what can we expect in the middle-long run? The OCC sat down with Tarek Kahlaoui, a prominent Tunisian political analyst. Tarek Kahlaoui is a former director of the Tunisian Institute of Strategic Studies, and currently a professor of history at the Mediterranean School of Business in Tunis.

Dr Kahlaoui, first question: Kasserine, a governorate that seems to be in constant turmoil, witnessed some tensions again a few weeks ago, after a man died incidentally when the building where he was sleeping was demolished. Is Kasserine a compass for the degree of sociopolitical unrest in Tunisia?

Kasserine is indeed a compass of multidimensional unrest. Maybe it is not widely known that even though the 2010-2011 revolt started in the town of Sidi Bouzid, it actually spread throughout the country only when it moved to Kasserine, early January 2011. It occurred right after the massacre of Tala, on the 8th and 9th of January 2011, an event that many see as the main turning point that led to the fall of former Tunisian president Zinedine Ben Ali. Kasserine had slipped out of the control of the regime in January 2011. The videos and the images of martyrs and their funerals, which themselves turned into popular demonstrations, triggered the quick spread of the revolt, notably to main urban centers such as Sfax (January 12th), and then Tunis (January 13th-14th).

This tendency towards resisting the power of Tunis has been proven throughout time. Its resistance was led by a tribal structure, which is still resilient: we cannot understand the local politics of Kasserine without reading its tribal cartography. The governorate of Kasserine has been the home of two main large tribes: the Frachich and the Majir. The most popular revolt against the Beys of Tunis was led by a tribal leader from the Majir, Ali Ben Ghdhahim Majri, in 1864-1867. One of the main anti-colonial armed revolts happened in Tala, in 1906. The main reasons of these revolts were: taxation and the central government control of tribal lands. Later, throughout the post-colonial period, Kasserine became one of the hot regions of social unrest, notably in 1984.

After the revolution, its mountainous nature and its location along the Algerian frontiers added to the ongoing social difficulties. All of these factors provided ideal circumstances for the establishment of the first Jihadi cells related to AQMI (Katibat Uqba) and then ISIS (Jund al-Khilafa). Aside from the Algerian leaders who mostly took control of these groups, the few Tunisian Jihadi leaders that emerged in the last ten years were leading the groups from these mountains: they included Jihadis from Kasserine in their ranks, notably Mourad Gharsalli, who was killed in 2015.

If we follow the timeline of social unrest for the last ten years as it has been documented for instance by the Forum Tunisien pour les Droits économiques et Sociaux (FTDES), we can observe that Kasserine is among the top regions where social contestation is more frequent than in the rest of the country. High unemployment, precarious jobs, and very limited infrastructure are among the main reasons for this.

Tunisia was thought to do well regarding the covid-19 situation, but new curfew and measures have been decided again recently. Is there any connection that we can establish between this governmental decision and its will to contain the situation in Kasserine?

I don’t think so. The current government led by PM Mechichi is perceived by many to be less rigorous and more lenient than its predecessor when it comes to implementing strict measures. The announcement of a curfew has been mainly a demand of the “scientific committee” who is in charge of monitoring the Covid-19 situation.

On the other hand, there exist concerns within the government regarding the possible impact of Covid-19 at a social level. This explains Prime Minister Mechichi’s very careful and maybe fearful approach towards any measures that could have an impact on the economy. We can also observe this in his tendency to push away all demands coming from the strong trade union UGTT, including the raise of salaries and the approval of a plan to incorporate precarious workers from municipalities within the public sector. Both decisions would increase governmental spending by 2 billion Tunisian dinars (TND), which would increase in turn the budget deficit.

Current Tunisian President Mr. Kais Saied, an atypical president, had generated a lot of positive comments and expectations when he came to power a bit less than a year ago. Things seem to have changed since then. Is it really the case, and how can we explain it?

First, we have to contextualize the large support that Kais Saied got in the last elections. In the first round of elections, he obtained around 620,000 votes, leading over his rival Nabil Karoui who had earned a bit more than 520,000 votes (their respective scores were 18% and 15% of total votes). The whole context radically changed before the second round and through the campaign for legislative elections. An anti-Karoui massive campaign rapidly unfolded, based mainly on the judicial accusations that he was facing, especially those related to a contract of political lobbying that he had agreed on with a former Israeli military intelligence officer in order to influence Tunisia’s elections. This high polarization was not based on expectations following Saied’s promises: actually, Saied was the only candidate that had not promised anything. As an anti-elitist outsider, he has only committed to listen to Tunisians. High expectations came certainly after he won a total of 2,700,000 votes, something unprecedented in the short history of Tunisia’s democracy, and that probably will not be repeated in an early future.

It is only after he became president that Kais Saied started to make promises. He committed for example to building the medical city of “al-Aghaliba” in Kairouan, after having apparently secured some of its funding from Qatar. But political instability was originally caused by the failure of the parliament’s most important block to form a government. The low popularity of the parliament as an institution, and the weak image of political parties overall, are a major striking characteristic of Tunisia’s current politics. Saied’s resilience in popularity is very clear in the many polls conducted during the last months, with numbers between 50% and 65% in average; but this comes most likely from the contrast between him and the parliamentary-party system. Saied’s popularity may decrease in the coming months, notably because he chose PM Mechichi and he may be paying the price of the possible failure of the government. In fact, Saied’s involvement in choosing governments is ending up making him a traditional average politician, the kind of politician that he was against. Yet, the gap between him and the rest of the political elite is too big to put him near the next popular figure.

Tunisia has also been marked all through the last year by governmental instability and the appointment of various Prime ministers. What explanation is there for this situation?

There are a number of reasons for that. First, the winning party in the legislative elections did not really gather an overwhelming number of seats: it only got a total of 54 seats, which is low compared to the last two elections, during which the winning parties had gotten over than 80 seats. Along with this “weak victory”, there is also high distrust and the existence of major conflicts between the different blocs that coexist in an already highly divided parliament. Ennahdha needed about six months to fix its relation with Nabil Karoui’s party, “Qalb Tounes”. Meanwhile, the Islamist party relied on the little but existing trust it had with the social democratic party Attayar and the pan-Arabist party Achaab to discuss alliances with them. At some point, under former Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh’s government, Ennahdha was leading a parliamentary troika that included the opposition parties (pro-Islamist Karama and Qalb Tounes) while it was part of the governmental coalition (including Attayar and Achaab) at the same time.

This leads us to an important other major factor: instability. The priority of Ennahdha was to guarantee its leader, Rached Ghannouchi, a high institutional position. The difficulty to present him as a candidate to presidential elections, and the opposition that he was expected to face if he had been proposed chief of government, left Ghannouchi with the position of house speaker as the only possibility. But this would have not been possible without the existence of a previous deal between Ennahdha and Qalb Tounes. Nabil Karoui is expected to always use this major card to pressure Ennahdha over any deals.

In addition to this, we also find the little trust that prevails between Saied and Ghannouchi. Saied had usually ignored the candidates of Ennahdha for the position of head of the government. This meant that the government found itself in a position where it had to follow a political line that would be close to the one of Kais Saied, including his anti-Karoui stance. Yet, Saied had no party representing him officially within the parliament, and even the parties that were close to him (for instance, those represented within the “Democratic Bloc”) did not have the parliamentarian majority. On the other hand, the alliance that was led by Ennahdha benefitted from a slight majority that allowed it to benefit from the government’s support. At the end of the day, the balance of power demands cooperation, but diverging political lines end up generating conflict.

We generally talk about Tunisia as the only “success story” of the “Arab Spring”. To what extent is this accurate?

Compared to the general Arab context, Tunisia did very well, despite its difficulties. But when we look into the details, we can also see and understand that Tunisia is going through deep trouble. The main issues are economy, and the failure of an unstable political elite to resolve the country’s main problems. There is also fear of social unrest, and all this ends up generating a problematic spiral. Deep down, Tunisia will ultimately achieve real success the day the deep social reasons of unrest that brought the 2010-2011 revolt will be dealt with. A democracy cannot be sustainable if the economy is in a deadlock. Yet, it is not clear what the road-map should look like. The IMF and its other partners are pushing for more austere policies, emphasizing that the main problems are the budget deficit and the need to lower governmental spending. This, however, may lead to major social unrest that would endanger the fragile democratic system. The right recipe for Tunisia’s problems has yet to be found.

To quote this article, please use the following reference: Tarek Kahlaoui (2020), “Where is Tunisia heading?”, https://crisesobservatory.es/where-is-tunisia-heading/

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