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NIAS Africa Weekly
IN FOCUS | Tunisia's political crisis

  NIAS Africa Team

Africa Weekly #23, Vol. 1, No. 23
2 August 2022

Tunisia's political crisis: Five questions
With fragmented political leadership, a change of ten governments in a decade and the return of a strongman in Tunisia, the hope for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa is wavering.
Apoorva Sudhakar

What happened on 25 July?
Marking one year of President Kais Saied’s suspension of the parliament and dismissal of the government in 2021, Tunisians voted on the referendum on Saied’s proposed new constitution on 25 July. After the voting, Saied said: “Our money and our wealth are enormous, and our will is even greater, to rebuild a new Tunisia and a new republic, one that breaks with the past.” Previously, the spokesperson of the largest opposition party Ennahda said: “Ennahda calls for boycotting the constitutional referendum and considers it illegitimate, illegal and issued by a coup authority.”
The electoral commission's preliminary results revealed that 96.4 per cent of the participants voted “YES” and approved the proposed constitution. However, the voter turnout remained low; only 27.5 per cent of all registered voters voted. The referendum was faced by weeks of protests terming Saied’s decisions a threat to democracy.
What is the opposition to the new constitution?
In June 2022, Saied published a draft of the new constitution that increased the president’s powers and limited the parliament’s duties. The draft held that the government would be answerable to the president, not the parliament; with a two-thirds majority, the chamber can withdraw support for the government. The draft maintains that the president can present draft laws, be the sole power to propose treaties and state budgets, and appoint or dismiss ministers and judges. The president can extend his tenure beyond two terms if he deems any situation an unavoidable threat to Tunisia. Saied will also rule by decree until a new parliament is constituted through elections scheduled for late 2022.
The draft also said Islam will not continue to be Tunisia’s state religion; the country would be part of the wider Islamic nation with a Muslim president and it would work towards Islamic goals.
Who is Kais Saied and when did he start consolidating his power?
Saied is an independent politician and constitutional law professor who campaigned himself as a concerned citizen fighting the corruption that had plagued Tunisia’s governance. He was elected as the president in 2019 with a landslide majority.
Saied had always called for a new constitution and his gradual power grab gained prominence in 2021 when Saied took several measures to consolidate his power. 
First, in July 2021, Saied dismissed Prime Minister Hishem Mechichi and suspended the parliament. Saied said he would assume the executive authority with the assistance of a new PM. The speaker of the parliament, also the leader of Ennahda, termed Saied’s decision “a coup against the revolution and constitution.”
Second, the suspension of a Supreme Judicial Council. In February 2022, Saied abolished the existing judicial council and established a provisional one. With this, he gave himself the authority to appoint and dismiss judges, justifying his move by claiming that the Council previously sold positions and made appointments for political interests.
Third, the replacement of electoral commission members. In May 2022, Saied appointed new members to the commission. The development came after the previous head of the commission opposed Saied’s proposal for a referendum, arguing that it did not fall within the existing constitution.
What challenges do Tunisians face?
Since 2011, when the Arab Spring led to the fall of long-time dictator Ben Ali, Tunisians have not had a stable political system. In 2013, a national dialogue succeeded in a compromise between Islamist and secular parties to address the public’s discontent with the political system. However, this led to a parliament with several polarised small parties and a fragmented political scenario.
In 2014, the Islamist party Ennahda won a majority and formed a coalition government with the secularist party Nidaa Tounes. However, the coalition failed to address the economic woes of Tunisians that sparked the Arab Spring and ideological differences led to the end of the coalition. Several other leaders attempted to form governments; since 2011, Tunisia has had 10 governments.
Tunisia has been undergoing an economic crisis. According to Statista, the unemployment rate stood at 16.1 per cent in the first quarter of 2022. In 2021, the World Bank data showed that the Tunisian GDP had shrunk by 8.8 per cent in 2020. Saied’s first challenge is to address the economic crisis he was met with in 2020 immediately after he was elected in 2019. For this, Tunisia is seeking assistance from the IMF. However, opposition parties and trade unions opposed the conditions for an IMF bailout. The bailout conditions included a need to contain its civil service wage bill and replace generalised subsidies with direct transfers to the poor to tackle fiscal imbalance. Despite the opposition, Saied’s heavy-handed governance is likely to disregard the same and move ahead with the talks.
What are the takeaways from Tunisia’s crisis?
First, with the new constitution, Saied awarded himself control over the three pillars of democracy - the executive, judiciary and legislature. In Africa, Saied is not the first strongman leader to grab power through democratic means and military coups. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, South Africa’s former president Robert Mugabe and Sudan’s former military ruler Omar al Bashir are examples of the same.
Second, the protests against Ben Ali in late 2010 led to his fall in 2011, sparking a series of anti-regime protests across the Middle East and North Africa in Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Syria and so on. These countries slid into a civil war, were crushed by a monarchy, or went into military rule; only Tunisia successfully established a democratic transition in the Arab Spring. However, with a fragmented political leadership, a change of ten governments later and the return of a strongman in Tunisia, the hope for democracy in the MENA is wavering.
(Note: Parts of this commentary were previously published as a short note in The World This Week)

26 July – 2 August 
By Apoorva Sudhakar
Government ready for talks with Tigray 
On 28 July, the security advisor to the prime minister tweeted that the government is ready to hold talks with the leaders of Tigray “anytime, anywhere,” without preconditions. The government has also lifted restrictions on diplomats from the US, EU, UK and UN from traveling to Tigray. Further, the security advisor called on the African Union to lead the negotiations and “solicit logistical support from any source.” (Hanna Temauri, “Ethiopia ready for talks with Tigrayans 'anytime',” BBC, 28 July 2022)
24 killed in torrential rains in the east
On 1 August, Reuters reported that 24 people had died in eastern Uganda due to torrential rains. The Uganda Red Cross spokesperson said 21 bodies were recovered from Mbale and three from Kapchorwa. The region experienced rains after prolonged droughts across different regions in Uganda. (“Floods kill at least 24 in Uganda - Red Cross, govt officials,” Reuters, 1 August 2022)
15 killed in anti-UN protests in the east
On 26 July, at least three UN peacekeepers and 12 civilians were killed in protests against the UN which began on 25 July in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The protesters said the UN has failed to protect civilians from armed militia groups. On 27 July, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the violence; the UN deputy spokesperson said Guterres maintained that “any attack directed against United Nations peacekeepers may constitute a war crime.” Guterres also called on the DRC government to investigate the same. Meanwhile, some media reports quoted activists and a Reuters journalist who said the UN forces also shot at protesters resulting in some deaths. (Djaffar Sabiti and Fiston Mahamba, “At least 15 killed as anti-U.N. protests flare in east Congo,” Reuters, 27 June 2022; Silja Fröhlich, “DR Congo: Death toll from deadly anti-UN protests rises,” Deutsche Welle, 28 July 2022)
Two killed as UN peacekeepers open fire
On 31 July, two people were killed when UN peacekeepers opened fire while trying to enter DRC from Uganda. Deutsche Welle quoted a statement and reported that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was "outraged" by the incident and demanded accountability. The special representative of the Secretary-General of the UN in Congo said the suspects had been arrested. ("Democratic Republic of Congo: 2 dead as UN peacekeepers open fire," Deutsche Welle, 31 July 2022)

15 soldiers and three civilians killed in two attacks
On 27 July, 15 soldiers and three civilians were killed in two separate attacks on three military camps. The army said six soldiers were killed and 25 wounded in an attack on a military camp in Sonkolo. Nine soldiers were killed in an attack on a military camp near Kalumba town. An attack on the military base near Mopti was unsuccessful. The army said 48 militants had been killed in Sonkolo when the army retaliated. The attacks come a week after a major attack on Mali’s main military base near the capital city Bamako. (“Militants kill 15 soldiers, 3 civilians in two Mali attacks,” Reuters, 28 July 2022)
Ruling coalition and opposition claim victory in parliamentary elections
On 1 August, the governing coalition and the opposition claimed victory in the parliamentary elections which concluded polling on 31 July. The head of the ruling coalition claimed that they had secured 30 of the 46 administrative departments; however, the opposition dismissed the claims and said it had defeated the ruling coalition in most departments. The elections took place amid speculations that President Macky Sall may extend his tenure beyond the two terms. (Ngouda Dione and Diadie Ba, “Senegal's ruling party, opposition both claim victory after legislative vote,” Reuters, 1 August 2022)
Four killed in anti-military protests, says opposition
On 29 July, the opposition claimed that four people were killed during the anti-military in the capital Conakry. On 28 July, the death toll stood at one. Protesters were demonstrating against the junta’s slow pace to return to civilian rule. The opposition also said that 102 people had been arrested on 28 July. (Saliou Samb, “At least four shot dead in Guinea protest, opposition group says,” Reuters, 29 July 2022)
Over 80 people arrested for gang rape for eight women
On 1 August, 84 people were arrested allegedly in connection with a gang-rape of eight women on 28 July, in a town close to Johannesburg. The women were shooting a video near a mining dump when illegal miners ordered young men to rape the women aged between 19 and 37. The men were also ordered to rob the women. On 1 August, the police started producing the suspects before the court. The Police Minister said the incident was a “matter of shame” to South Africa. (“SA gang rape is 'shame of the nation' - police minister,” BBC, 1 August 2022)
Algeria, Nigeria, and Niger revive gas pipeline deal
On 28 July, BBC reported Nigeria, Niger and Algeria had signed an MoU to construct a gas pipeline across the Sahara. The development comes after the deputy director-general of the European Commission’s energy department said that Europe was seeking alternatives to Russia’s potential supply cuts. The pipeline through the Sahara is proposed to supply 30 billion cubic metres of gas to Europe. The deputy director-general said currently, Nigeria was  supplying 14 per cent of the EU’s gas imports He said: “If we can get up to beyond 80%, at that point, there might be additional LNG that could be available for spot cargoes to come to Europe.” The revival of the pipeline comes more than a decade after an agreement was signed in 2009. (Ahmed Rouaba, “Algeria, Nigeria and Niger agree gas pipeline deal,” BBC, 28 July 2022; “EU looks to replace gas from Russia with Nigerian supplies,” Reuters, 23 July 2022)
Lavrov concludes tour of four African countries
On 27 July, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov concluded his tour to four African countries: Egypt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Ethiopia. Lavrov conveyed that Russia was a better partner for Africa as it does have the alleged colonial mindset of the US and other Western. Lavrov emphasised that Russia was not responsible for the food crisis in Africa and dismissed the West's allegations that Moscow was "exporting hunger." Further, Lavrov appreciated "the balanced position of Africans on what is happening in and around Ukraine." (“Polina Ivanova, “Sergei Lavrov on Africa tour to counter accusation Russia is ‘exporting hunger’,” Financial Times, 24 July 2022)     
Macron criticises Africa's position on Russia
On 28 July, France's President Emmanuel Macron concluded a three-day visit to three African countries: Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau. Macron focused on Africa's current position on Russia amid the war in Ukraine. Outlining the global food crisis fuelled by the war, Macron accused Russia of using food as a "weapon of war." Macron emphasised that African leaders had failed to condemn Russia and said: "The choice that has been made by the Europeans, first of all, it is not to participate in this war, but to recognize it and name it. But I see too often hypocrisy, especially on the African continent." (“Macron calls Russia 'one of the last imperial colonial powers' on Africa visit,” France24, 28 July 2022)

Abandon neocolonial attitude, Mali tells Macron
On 31 July, Mali’s military government criticised France’s President Emmanuel Macron’s view on Mali. The government spokesperson said: “The transitional government demands President Macron permanently abandon his neocolonial, paternalistic and patronising posture to understand that no one can love Mali better than Malians.” The statement comes after Macron’s remarks during his West Africa tour wherein he said it was the responsibility of West African countries to ensure that Malians “express the sovereignty of the people.” (“Mali junta criticises Macron's 'neocolonial and patronising' attitude,” France24, 1 August 2022)

Tunisian Foreign Ministry summons US envoy over Blinken’s concerns 
29 July, Tunisia’s Foreign Ministry summoned the US acting chargé d'affaires over the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s concerns over Tunisia’s constitution and referendum. The ministry said Blinken’s statement was unacceptable and an “interference in the national internal affairs.” On 28 July, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a statement on the new draft constitution and the referendum held on 25 July. The statement said the new constitution could “weaken Tunisia’s democracy and erode respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The statement outlined that the threat to democracy has been evident since July 2021 when Saied suspended the parliament, consolidated executive power and weakened independent institutions like the judiciary. On  (“Tunisia’s July 25 Referendum,” US Department of State, 28 July 2022; “Tunisia's foreign ministry summons U.S. envoy,” Reuters, 30 July 2022)

About the authors
Apoorva Sudhakar is a Project Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies.

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