Tunisia's 'Conflicting' Two-track Superhighway

Published January 15th, 2022 - 06:15 GMT
Protests in Tunis
Tunisian demonstrators clash with police during protests against President Kais Saied, on the 11th anniversary of the Tunisian revolution in the capital Tunis on Friday. (AFP)

At a first glance one can say Tunisia is in chaos and has been so for quite sometime. Its president Kais Saied maybe trying to bring the country out of a self-inflicted crises but this doesn't seem to be bearing fruit. 

Today, the country is on a two-track superhighway, both equally volatile, both equally problematic. Its a "foggy" threshold. Many say this is the workings of the president himself who decided to take the "ruling executive powers" in his own hands - the action he took last 25 July when he "froze" parliament and sent its prime minister packing - while other call for calm in a "see-and-wait" attitude. 

President Saied is clearly perturbed by the actions he has taken arguing this were imposed on him because of the state of deadlock in parliament and the previous government which was dominated by Islamists but for all intense and purposes were unable to govern while Tunisia sunk further into a crisis exacerbated by the bickering between ministers and deputies, Covid lockdowns and economic malaise. 

His actions although harsh - deemed by many as a coup on democracy - are regarded by the constitutional professor-turned-politician as necessary prescriptions to put the country back to rights. Thus, 2022 is seen as a watershed year for Tunisians with the clock of change starting already. From now till March, he is eking out popular opinion - mainly online - on how best to govern Tunisia. In addition, there will be different committees deployed in the countries to seek those views of people who don't have access to the internet.

This is indeed an innovation on his part despite the fact that opponents are quick to criticise. They are saying these steps already fall short because only 66 percent of Tunisians have access to the internet. Officials suggest this is why committees are being deployed. But opponents are still countering, saying 18 percent of the population - at 2 million people - are illiterate. 

Regardless of the criticism, these opinions - and they are posed with a huge question mark on what is going to be done with them at an enormous amount of cynicism - will be collected and put forth for a constitution referendum in July 2020. Further, on 17 December there will be nationwide legislative elections.

Hurrah many would say, pointing to the fact that the path of democracy through representation would indeed be restored and this would prove what Saied has been saying all along that all he is interested in is putting Tunisia on the right path. But - and as they say the proof of the pudding is in the eating - the steps taken by the president on 25 July, 2021 and thereafter are worrying and disturbing to say the least not only by his opponents but by his supporters who maybe dwindling judging from the continuing economic crisis and lack of jobs. They say time is running out.

As well, the international community has expressed worry especially on the freezing of parliament and the rule by decree despite the fact that Saied appointed a government back in September. But this move continues to be seen as unconstitutional because it has to be approved by parliament that is not in session.  However, there is clearly other things that have been worrying. The first thing he did on the power-grab was to allow the police to arrest the leader of the Islamist movement Rachid Al Ghnonouchi. 

This may have increased tensions on the street and polarised the population of 10 million and pointed to disturbing developments further down the road because of the protests and large demonstrations Tunisia came to experience in the months following the so-called coup. This may be a feather in the cap of the Tunisian president however, who had allowed protests to continue to take place despite his actions of control. But it is difficult how long this will continue as the police are starting to use harsh tactics likely water-canons to disperse the crowds as happened recently as well as revamping arrests.

Other things continue to nag as well.  The fact that deputy chairman of Ennahdha Noureddine Bhiri has literally been snatched and is held by the state police is a disturbing tactic which Tunisians are certainly not used to up till now. It stands as a reminder of the old previous dictatorial regime of Zeine El Abedine Ben Ali who ruled the country previous to its Jasmine Arab Spring revolution at the end of 2010. 

He was snatched and bundled into a car together with another compatriot, Fathi Baldi and only days later the police admitted they were in custody. As of yet Bhiri remains in hospital because of a number of ailments he already had but he is kept under guard. Such tactics have become an embellishment on the Tunisian state long seen to be as near as possible to a stable post-Arab Spring model among the so many failed regional countries that experience revolutions including Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Syria with its civil war debacle as well as others.

Tunisians, or a major portions them are waiting to see whether Bhiri would be released anytime soon or more would be imposed on the Islamists and other different sections of society but many are fearing there is more crackdown on different sections like media organisations and journalists especially those who refuse to toe the government line. They are already complaining they are under restriction with regards to interviewing opposition leaders.

Hence, Tunisia is indeed undergoing changes in two sharp directions. The first on paper at least, as correcting the "democratic path" and maybe viewed as positive by some but this is coming at a very heavy price of increasing the powers of the deep state and restricting liberties and freedoms. We wait to see what happens next!

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