2022: The World This Year

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2022: The World This Year
Tunisia: The end of the Jasmine Revolution

  Apoorva Sudhakar

TWTW#196, 31 December 2022, Vol. 4, No. 45


What happened? 

On 13 February, President Kais Saied passed a decree establishing a new provisional Supreme Judiciary Council, thereby abolishing the existing High Judicial Council and providing the president control over the selection, promotion, appointment, and transfer of judges. It also establishes the president as a disciplinary body in charge of removals in certain circumstances. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) said the decree “consolidates power in the hands of the President,” and erases “any semblance of judicial independence in the country.

On 30 March, Saied dissolved the Parliament: "Today, at this historic moment, I announce the dissolution of the Assembly of Representatives of the people, to preserve the state and its institutions." Saied said: "We must protect the state from division … We will not allow the abusers to continue their aggression against the state." The development came after parliamentarians, led by former parliamentary speaker and leader of the opposition party Ennahda, Rached Ghannouchi, virtually met and voted to repeal a presidential decree that suspended the Parliament in July 2021. Saied termed the move “a coup attempt” and announced that a new constitution would be presented. 

On 25 July, Tunisians voted on the referendum on Saied’s proposed constitution, while Ennahda’s spokesperson said the party called for its boycott, terming it “illegitimate, illegal and issued by a coup authority.” The date also marked one year of Saied’s suspension of the parliament and dismissal of the government in 2021. According to the exit poll, 92.3 per cent voted “YES” to approve the proposed constitution. However, the voter turnout remained low as only 27.5 per cent of all registered voters voted.

On 17 December, Tunisia witnessed the lowest voter turnout for the parliamentary elections, held more than a year after the suspension of the parliament, with only 11.2 per cent of the nine million registered voters that voted. However, Saied said: “Turnout of nine percent or 12 per cent is better than 99 per cent in previous elections, which were welcomed by foreign countries even though they knew they were rigged.”

What is the background?

First, Tunisia’s unstable political situation. Since 2011, Tunisia has had ten governments. After the Arab Spring led to the fall of long-time dictator Ben Ali, a national dialogue struck a compromise between Islamist and secular parties in 2013, to address the public discontent with the political system. However, this led to a parliament with several polarised small parties and an equally fragmented government. 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; further, ideological differences led to the end of the coalition. After 2014, several other governments formed were short-lived. 

Second, Saied’s gradual move to consolidate power. In 2019, Saied, a constitutional law professor and an independent candidate was elected as the president with a landslide majority of 72.71 per cent votes after he campaigned as someone fighting the corruption pervasive within Tunisia. In July 2021, Saied suspended Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and the parliament. Saied also invoked Article 80 to assume executive powers and replaced cabinet ministers with acting ministers. In September 2021, Saied announced a decree to appoint a cabinet and draft and implement policies without objections. In December 2021, Saied extended the parliament’s suspension until December 2022 and said elections would be held on 17 December, a date that marks Tunisian Revolution, also known as the Jasmine Revolution, that sparked the 2011 Arab Spring. 

Third, criticism of the constitution. In 2014, Tunisia adopted a new constitution; Saied, however, opined: "This constitution is based on putting locks everywhere and institutions cannot proceed with locks or deals." Ennahda opposed the idea of rewriting the constitution and said, deviating from the 2014 constitution indicates moving away from democracy. As per the new constitution, the government is answerable to the president, not the parliament; with a two-thirds majority, the chamber can withdraw support for the government. The president can also present draft laws, maintain the sole power to frame 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.

Fourth, the waning public opinion. Tunisians have been holding demonstrations against Saied's power grab. Al Jazeera quoted several protesters who said that Saied has failed to see the ground reality; Tunisia has been undergoing an economic crisis and unemployment, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. In January, Saied launched an online poll to assess the public's opinion on rewriting the constitution. However, less than six per cent of the voters participated in the poll. The low voter turnouts for the referendum and the latest parliamentary elections indicate that the people do not see any favourable outcome from voting. 

Fifth, the end of the Jasmine Revolution. The political developments in Tunisia under Saied indicate that he is likely to stay in power, even amid strong opposition and protests. Back in 2011, Tunisians’ success in overthrowing Ali, sparked a series of anti-regime protests across the Middle East and North Africa. These countries slid into a civil war, were crushed by a monarchy, or transitioned into military rule; only Tunisia successfully established a democratic transition in the Arab Spring. However, with a change of ten governments and the return of a strongman in Tunisia, the Jasmine Revolution may have come to an end. 

About the author

Apoorva Sudhakar is a Research Associate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, India.

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