Has Tunisia Slipped into Presidential Dictatorship?


Photo source: ABC News

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

In the ending week of July 2021, President Kais Saied announced a host of measures, the most remarkable of which was suspending the work of elected legislature. He stripped the members of the parliament from their power, suspended the prime minister, consolidated the judicial and executive power in his hands, and initiated a thirty-day curfew. In doing so, the critics say that the president ruined the work which Tunisians had done to rebuild democracy in the last ten years. The decision put the many sections of public into a tailspin, as they believe that his actions are unconstitutional, and a threat to Tunisia’s democracy. They call it a coup.

Post Arab Spring, Tunisia was the only Arab country that transitioned to a democracy. The fervour of revolution had set the standards high for other Arab nations. It was in Tunisia, where more than a decade ago, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor, set himself on fire, and became the catalyst for the Arab Spring protests. His actions helped bring down five decades of dictatorship, which were marked by endemic corruption and repression of dissent, and economic underdevelopment.

Now, the cycles of mismanagement, according to many Tunisians, have turned the tides again. The anti president protestors believe that the 2014 Tunisian Constitution which was one of the most progressive in the Arab world, has been being ripped apart by Saied, who was also a constitutional law professor. But, in his defense, he said that he brought the recent ‘temporary’ legal change to bring social peace in Tunisia. At the same time he said that there was no scope of dialogue 'except with the honest', and that there was poor governance lately. Saied compared his purge to 'Autumn rains', which would cleanse Tunisia. He also added that corruption networks in Tunisia were 'longer and more complex' than the drainage networks.

It was in January 2021 when Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi dismissed five of his ministers, known to be close to the president, and assigned other officials to vacant posts in the interim period. Back then, the president had accused Mechichi of violating the provisions of the constitution, and refused to allow the new officials to swear their oath ahead of taking up their posts. Later, Saied also refused to seal a bill on the formation of the constitutional court, although it was approved by parliament on two consecutive occasions.

The anti-president demonstrators who burst into the streets of Tunis and other Tunisian cities in July 2021 chanted “The coup must fail,” and “Saied, you coward, the parliament won’t be humiliated." In contrast, supporters of the president and his latest decision flooded the social media with calls to establish a strong presidential system of government, and oust the Islamist Ennahda ('renaissance') party from power, so that the country starts running more efficiently.

But, if the presidential system is regulated, it by no means would be a cakewalk, despite public opinion polls showing growing support to escape the political impasse for a presidential system. However, if Saied seeks to acquire more power for himself, he will need support from parliament. He is not guaranteed a majority there, since the parties comprising the governing coalition have managed to secure economic and political advantages for themselves under the current system.

During the protests, there were videos which were posted on social media showing police beating anti-president demonstrators and dispersing them with enormous quantities of tear gas. Some unknown anarchist elements had also joined and attacked the Ennahda headquarters. These scenes recalled the huge demonstrations that erupted in 2013. That same year, two prominent public figures were also murdered – attorney Chokri Belaid and politician Mohammed Brahmi – which also sparked riots. The assassinations had taken place against the backdrop of Islamist terror attacks in Tunisia, that exacerbated the possibility of a civil war.

In an Oped in New York Times by Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda party, and supporter of the ousted Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, wrote: ‘the president cited Article 80 of the Constitution, which allows him to take extraordinary measures if there is imminent danger threatening the nation. But Article 80 also stipulates that he must consult the prime minister and the speaker of the parliament before doing so, and that parliament must be in a state of continuous session to oversee the president’s actions during this period. By suspending parliament, he has made impossible the condition under which the article can be invoked.’

By criticising the president’s move, Ghannouchi had thought the West, particularly France and the United States, would also mobilise against this measure, and press Saied to reverse course. But here, too, he was disappointed. That’s why, he later changed perceptions and announced that he would seek to reopen a dialogue with the president to get parliament reconvened. This announcement was an end of the protests, at least by the Islamist movements. At the same time Ennahda fears a fate similar to that suffered by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. How will Ennahda's aspirations shape up now?

If we talk about the protests, the preparations for it began months ago. According to inputs from Haaretz, marches traditionally took place in December 2020, in memory of Mohamed Bouazizi. In 2021, the unrest was relatively muted because of the coronavirus, but the protesters apparently decided to set the country ablaze on a no less important anniversary: July 25, the day when the newly independent country abolished its monarchy and became a republic in 1957. July 25 is also the day when Tunisia’s previous president, Beji Caid Essebsi, died.

‘This day has been a national holiday ever since, and it was on this date that the president chose to take the dramatic steps that shook the country,’ wrote Zvi Bar’el.

Tunisia has not been an inclusive economy, as the inequalities have not changed. Unemployment reigns high especially among the youth. A 2019 research done by the Brookings Institution also ascertained deep disparities in access to healthcare, natural resources, clean air and water, income, and education, with Tunisia's coast much better-served than its south.

There are a whole lot of protest movements in Tunisia that have been converging. Protests have been going on around the issues of consumer prices, police violence, the targeting of poorer neighbourhoods, where working-class people feel economically marginalised, as they were years before. Nothing has changed in those terms.

However, a section of Tunisians also believe that they can’t just live with freedom and then die of hunger, as they have had enough of the Ennahda failings, which is part of the government since the 2011 revolution. As per Audit Department's report, published in October 2020, about the legislative elections of 2019, many parties even received foreign funding, to finance their electoral campaign, in violation to Tunisian laws, especially the electoral law, reflecting new controversies.

The next generation Tunisians seems to be most affected by the bad policies of their leaders. Public anger had also been building over austerity measures when Tunisia negotiated with IMF for a $4 billion loan to help stabilise its economy. As part of those talks, Tunisia proposed cutting its public sector wage bill, and swapping subsidies for more targeted aid. But, the negotiations stalled.

Despite the long looming crises, several reconciliation aims appeared, too, especially when Carthage Agreement was culminated, signed in July 2016 by all the parties in the governing coalition and by most of those in the opposition, the country’s strongest labour union and the manufacturers association. That pact laid the groundwork for the way Tunisia is run today. But, the fact that the prime minister has been replaced three times since the Carthage Agreement shows signs that the political reconciliation is just a fa├žade.

The biggest political flaw in Tunisia’s political system is that the previous government hasn’t managed to enact the reforms needed to get Tunisia back on its feet. Dozens of laws have been submitted to parliament for approval, but as these laws haven’t obtained ‘consensual agreement’, they continue to gather dust. A reform of the military, which has been greatly weakened in favour of a stronger police force, isn’t also being implemented because of objections from the president.

Is Tunisia returning to the dictatorial regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled the country following the 2011 revolution? Is this a watershed event that could foment another continual dangerous crises? Could everything be resolved with firm agreements? Many questions need to be answered.


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