Tunisia’s Democracy Is Hanging By A Thread

Once the only promising democratic transition after the Arab Spring in 2011 has now plunged into a full-blown political crisis after its president, Kais Saied, removed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspended parliament.

After anti-government protests on July 25, Saied appointed himself as head of the executive authority until the formation of a new government, and lifted the immunity of politicians for 30 days, citing a provision in Tunisia’s 2014 post-revolution constitution.

With living conditions deteriorating, Tunisians took to the streets against a political class they consider incompetent and corrupt. The protesters, not backed by any of the big political parties, directed their anger to the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, the biggest in parliament. Seeing them as an “imminent threat”, Saied invoked special executive powers.

Reasons behind the current crisis

Since his election in 2019, Saied, a law professor and social conservative, has been locked in a struggle with Tunisia’s parliament, mostly with the Ennahda party, over the country’s separation of powers, Guardian’s Peter Beaumont has described.

Under Tunisia’s constitution, political power has to be divided between the presidency and parliament and disputes between them must be resolved by a constitutional court. Here is where one of the problems lies: this court has never sat “because of disagreements over appointments and because Saied refused to ratify the bill parliament passed to establish the court”, further adds Beaumont.

The pandemic has also intervened in the current crisis. Tunisia is one of the worst-hit countries and its handling of the vaccination rollout has increased popular anger. The death toll is of more than 17,000 people in a country of 12 million and health care services have reached a breaking point.

With political corruption believed to be widespread, the overall economy is in a fragile state. According to the Middle East Eye, in May, the country started talks with the International Monetary Fund on a financial assistance package, which would be the fourth loan in ten years. In return, some austerity measures would take place such as increasing prices of basic goods and reducing public sector employment, deteriorating Tunisians’ life even more.

In this economic state, long-standing issues of unemployment, and crumbling infrastructure persist after 10 years of the Arab Spring. Particularly young people, who make up most of the population, face enormous difficulties when finding jobs and are desperate to make a living.

A coup or a needed action?

Saied’s decision is a controversial move that some regard as a coup, while others as a necessary move to redirect the poor shape of the country. For senior reporter Beaumont, his action is different from when Al-Sisi toppled the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013. He thinks that “Saied has a base far less organized than those of parties such as Ennahda and Nidaa Tounis, he would need to rely on the army and police to enforce a coup, and their position remains unclear.”

Some have celebrated the president’s actions and have seen it as a step forward to remove corrupt and incompetent politicians. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Libya are the main supporters. The Emirati news outlet 20FourMedia said that it was “ A brave decision to save Tunisia”, while on Twitter the hashtag “Tunisia revolts against the Brotherhood” circulated around Saudi and Emirati accounts, the Middle East Eye points out.

Saied has claimed to be bound by the constitution, but most outside observers see his invocation of article 80, as flawed because he did not consult parliament and its speaker, Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader. Ghannouchi immediately labeled Saied’s decision “a coup against the revolution and constitution” to Reuters. Nevertheless, according to Al Jazeera, it has now shifted in posture, saying that Saied’s extraordinary measures can be an opportunity to return the country to the democratic path.

Other secular parties such as the Heart of Tunisia, the second biggest party in the parliament, and the Marxist-Leninist Workers Party, have been critical of Saied’s move. The General Labour Union (UGTT), with more than one million members, has not explicitly reject Saied’s decisions, but emphasized “the need to adhere to constitutional legitimacy in any action taken at this stage.” Some countries have expressed concerns for Tunisia’s democracy such as Turkey, Germany, and Qatar.

At this point, Saied has not backed his power grab with military force but is willing to retaliate against “whoever fires a single bullet.” He has neither appointed a prime minister to form a capable government, which is raising the fears of another dictator-in-the-making. Most noticeably, the UGTT, France, and the United States have called on him to quickly announce a new government.

Additionally, it is reported that he will not allow parliament to return to work after the 30 day period of its suspension has passed and that he will issue new directives to delay its return, Secretary-General of the People’s Movement, Zuhair Maghzaoui, announced. Maghzaoui told Mosaïque FM that Saied was planning to carry out a “referendum on the system”.

What is going on in Tunisia is extremely scary. We are facing a growing political deadlock and no apparent moving forward since Saied’s decision last July. Instability can increase, and full authoritarian control of the President cannot be discarded until formal democratic procedures to reinstall a functioning government takes place. A new prime minister and the restoration of parliament must be put now into place to avoid an additional escalation in the health, political and economic chaos that Tunisia is living.

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