Who Will Save Tunisia?

Published April 4th, 2022 - 06:15 GMT
In Tunisia
In Tunisia (AFP File Photo)

What will happen to Tunisia is anybody's guess. Its a country that keeps going into a morass of woe with no stopping it. 

Its president Kais Said will not give up. He has a constitutional order to forge come what may. His latest dissolution of parliament is just one more step of Tunisian heartache. While the president may mean well in seeking to create political reform, the way he is going about it, is creating much alienation across society, in the economy and political institutions. 

Tunisia can't be dragged into modernity and development, there is a real existing economic crisis and it has to be dealt with. The change can't be based on one man's action and tough-minded procedure but it has to come through consultation, consensus and agreement. The pulling the bull by the horns approach can't work, because Tunisia has long been seen a state of plurality and diversity whether in its political system down to its society and economy. 

When Saied suspended parliament last July 2021 and froze the actions of parliamentarians, he was cracking down on a political system that has been in place since 2011 where a culture of political debate developed since the overthrow of the previous regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who ruled the country autocratically for 23 years. Regardless, of its faults, the Tunisian president shouldn't have at one stroke, froze parliament, sacked its government and decided to rule by decree, and bring the whole country back to draconian times. 

These actions were seen as particularly disturbing not only on the domestic level, although many initially supported Saied, but internationally where states begun to see them as disturbing and an attack on democracy. But leaving that aside from a moment, Saied should have quickly tried to rectify the deteriorating economic situation, lower its national debt, reduce its soaring unemployment, get people working and lower the cost of living.

That would have increase his popularity even more - having been elected in 2019 with a towering majority - but the situation continued and the screws began to be tightened even more.

What changed was the fact he consolidated power in its own hands and left parliament hanging. It was not dissolved but it couldn't meet. He also recently dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council and appointed one in his place. And thus, he slowly - without knowing it , or ignoring it, a broad constituency of opposition to his rule begun to be created and manifested itself in different political forces and included from those in the streets and the powerful country's trade unions who are beginning to show dissatisfaction although they still support the actions of the president.

However, the straw that broke the camel's back was the recent virtual meeting of parliamentarians who sought to abrogate the decrees introduced by Saied and which the president called an attempted coup on the Tunisian state. Its funny he should use the same term which Islamists used when he "frozen" parliament back in July. The then called it a "power-grab" and unconstitutional. 

However, rather than call for elections - which what the Free Destorian Party wanted, which comes second after the Islamists Ennahdha in parliament - Saied decided to continue with his plan to change the 2014 constitution that will be put to a referendum in July this year with full parliamentary elections at the end of 2022. 

Saied is on a long-term plan to get put  Tunisia right. He has already started the ball rolling. He has already ended what he calls an online campaign to seek the views of people on how best to govern Tunisia. That didn't turn out to be a flop because around 500,000 participated in it out of a population of just under 12 million but many criticized the survey for only 66 percent of Tunisians have access to the Internet and  18 percent of the population - at 2 million people - are illiterate. 

Thus, it would seem that Saied is continuing his road of reform despite the growing opposition to his rule. The police, security apparatuses and the army are on his side. He is cracking down on dissent and opposition through imprisonment, although this has not been as widespread as expected. Although, a sizable number of parliamentarians who took part in the "illegal" online venue are being questioned by the authorities. 

But there is clearly growing tensions between MPs and the president, both of whom say one is infringing on the authority of the other. But for the parliamentarians to take this move after eight months of suspensions clearly shows the frustrations they feel with the pace of the expected reforms and their "frozen role" in parliament. Already what is being said is that anybody who took part in the virtual meeting will be banned from the coming elections. which effectively means 124 deputies out of the 217-member parliament will be out of the picture. 

Commentators have been weary in covering Tunisia in the past eight months with its protests and strikes. There is a real crisis that is developing which the president keeps saying he is trying to fix. One commentator says the army can have a role in all this. They can step in - and according to the constitution - if they think the crisis will threaten the state but will it?

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