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Tunisia’s political crisis: Five questions

  NIAS Africa Team

With fragmented political leadership, change of ten governments later and the return of a strongman in Tunisia, the hope for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa is wavering.

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 from 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’s 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 has 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.

About the author
Apoorva Sudhakar is a Project Associate under the Conflict Resolution and Peace Research Programme at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. 

(Note: Parts of this commentary were published as a short note in The World This Week)

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