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Tunisia: A Political Profile

  Jerry Franklin

Tunisia: A Political Profile

Jerry Franklin A

Major Events 2021-2023

On 25 July 2021, President Kais Saied granted himself full executive powers by dismissing the Prime Minister, Hichem Mechichi, froze the parliament, and revoked legislators’ parliamentary immunity. Simultaneously, Tunisia dealt with three interconnected crises: the pandemic, worsening economic condition, and political stagnation and polarization. Initially, the power grab gained popular support as people wanted the economy back on track and root out corruption. However, the opposition called the move a coup against the revolution and the constitution. On 11 October 2021, Saied appointed a new government under Prime Minister Najla Bouden Romdhane. Later, he issued a presidential proclamation that allowed him to rule by decree.

In 2022, Saied dissolved Tunisia's High Judicial Council and dissolved the parliament. On 26 July 2022, Saied bought a new constitution for referendum. People supported the new constitution that increased the president’s powers and limited the parliament's powers. On 17 December 2022, elections were held to elect members for the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP). The elections received a low turnout after major parties, including the Ennahda party, boycotted the election.

On 13 March 2023, Tunisia's new parliament convened, marking the first time the country had a functioning legislature since Saied suspended the previous parliament. The main opposition alliance, National Salvation Front (NSF), stated that they will not recognize the new parliament, claiming the elections held in December were unconstitutional. Saied was accused of using the judiciary as a tool of repression. In recent months, thirty opposition figures, deemed critical to President Kais Saied, were arrested including Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda party, on charges of plotting against state security. This was widely considered as Saied’s move to subdue his political opponents and consolidate control. Besides, a series of protests are ongoing against Saied over the country's high unemployment rate and rising inflation alongside opposition parties' continued calls for anti-government protests. 

Major Actors

Kais Saied:The President, is at the centre of the entire political crisis. He does not belong to any political party. His term in office turned controversial after his unilateral replacement of a parliamentary system with a presidential system.

Rached Ghannouchi: A former Tunisian Parliament Speaker and politician heading the largest party, the Ennahda Party. Ennahdha, a self-styled “Muslim democrat” party with its roots in political Islam, has dominated politics in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution. Ghannouchi has emerged as one of Saied’s biggest critics, aiming to maintain the legacy of Tunisia’s revolution and the pro-democratic struggle in Tunisia and the Arab world.

Nabil Karoui: A former member of the Parliament, he leads the country’s Heart of Tunisia Party, one of the parties that had a large majority of seats in the now-suspended Parliament, after Ennahda. Unlike the Ennahda party, the Heart of Tunisia demands a secular state.

Ahmed Nejib Chebbi: Leader of Tunisia’s National Salvation Front, an opposition alliance consisting of the Ennahda Party, Heart of Tunisia Party, and other political groups with the ultimate objective of restoring democracy in the country.

Abir Moussi: A key leader in Tunisian politics in opposing the Islamist Ennahda Party. She has been leading the country’s Free Destourian Party, devoted to restoring the ideologies of the Constitutional Democratic Rally party that was the ruling party at the time of the pre-Tunisian Revolution.

Civil Society Groups and Tunisia General Labour Union (UGTT) Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail demand to safeguard their economic and social rights, criticizing the worsened living conditions due to inflation and lessening purchasing power.

The ideologies and demands of each anti-Saied actor differ from each other, marking a polarised opposition.

Major Issues

1. Political Divide

Saied used scorched-earth policies to expand his powers and suppress his opposition which led to a series of protests in Tunisia demanding the step down of Saied from the presidency. The National Salvation Front coalition is leading the anti-government rallies in Tunisia. Civil Society Groups and Tunisia General Labour Union (UGTT) play a critical role as they mobilize people to conduct protests and rallies against the current regime. They have been demanding national dialogue, press freedoms, union freedoms, and political freedoms.

2. Polarised Society

President Saied's power grab and policies have deepened the split between pro- and anti-Saied groups, leading to a polarized society. The pro-Saied group supports his campaign against corruption, and against external interference. The anti-Saied groups accuse him of taking control of all authority and striking at democracy. Additionally, people are dissatisfied with the collapsing economy.

3. Violation of Rights

There is a significant decline in the freedom of press and expression. The government has harassed, detained, and prosecuted activists, journalists, political opponents, and social media users for alleged violations of free expression, including criticism against President Saied, the security forces, and the army. Some were tried before military tribunals. Occasionally, police used disproportionate force against demonstrators. Tunisian law continues to discriminate against women in inheritance rights. After Saied made anti-immigrant comments against African migrants in February 2023, black African foreigners and sub-saharan migrants faced greater violence and arbitrary arrests.

4. Economic and Social Challenges

Tunisia faces a major trade imbalance, rising prices, and unemployment. Due to the country's limited access to foreign financing, local debt financing has been in crisis. Tunisia's  inflation rate hit 10.4 percent in February 2023, the highest in almost three decades, owing primarily to rising energy and food prices. These factors have put enormous strain on the economy, making it more critical to enact changes to promote long-term growth.

What does the political crisis in Tunisia say?

The democracy, which the country has taken a decade to build after the Arab Spring, is being dismantled by President Kais Saied. The new constitution provided a presidential system, institutionalizing the one-man reign of Saied, and concentrated authority in the presidency without checks and balances. Saied's power grab has weakened the government institutions that were supposed to check his powers. Saied severely weakened the judiciary's independence. These measures have slowed the country's democratic transition. By all indications, Tunisia's new government is moving further away from the liberal democratic form. The opposition parties and people who oppose the current regime consider the rule of Saied as a de-facto dictatorship. Tunisia was successful in building a democracy but failed to sustain it. The series of protests in Tunisia showcases the dissatisfaction of people with the leadership of Saied.

Jerry Franklin is a Postgraduate Scholar at the Madras Christian College, Chennai.

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