Where is Tunisian democracy headed?

Giorgio Cafiero

Yesterday’s ‘coup’ has raised serious questions about the country sliding back into the era of strongman rule, away from the democratic ideals espoused by the 2011 Jasmine Revolution.

Yesterday was the biggest setback and challenge to Tunisia’s 2011 Jasmine Revolution since the North African country’s crisis of 2013/2014.

Amid a period of growing street anger, President Kais Saied evoked article 80 of Tunisia’s constitution and dismissed the government, froze the democratically elected parliament, and sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi.

Crowds in Tunis and elsewhere in the country immediately set off fireworks to celebrate the president’s move. It is important to understand why a significant number of Tunisians were cheering Saied’s action.

There is much legitimate anger directed against the country’s parliament, which became very unpopular. Corruption, mismanagement, political paralysis and other problems have contributed to this widespread opposition to the government that Saied dismissed.

Hard hit by Covid-19, this global pandemic has exacerbated many other problems in the country. Unemployment is rising. Tunisia’s economy contracted by 8.8 percent in 2020. State services continue to crumble. Currently, the country also faces a surge in Covid-19 infections and deaths.

Against the backdrop of growing populist currents and widespread rage, the “coup” was not necessarily shocking to many.

“Most Tunisians had foreseen such a scenario playing out,” said the International Interest’s Sami Hamdi in an interview with TRT World. “President Saied’s allies have been threatening to suspend the constitution, with some in recent months openly calling for the army to take to the streets.”

Yet, even if expected by many observers, the president’s latest move could have serious consequences. Not all Tunisians are behind it.

Ennahda’s leader Rached Ghannouchi said Saied’s “coup” targets the “revolution and constitution”. Karama’s leader and Tunisia’s former President Moncef Marzouki called it “the beginning of slipping into an even worse situation.”

Besides these two figures, many other Tunisians are deeply troubled as their country experiences this crisis with segments of Tunisia viewing Saied’s action as a “coup”.

Although the recently frozen parliament gave many Tunisians good reasons to despise it, it had democratic legitimacy. The new government in charge will not. How much support Tunisians give this new government and how long it lasts remain to be seen.

One key question is whether the military will back Saied or not. If not, this episode may end up becoming another political crisis following the one of 2013/2014.

Will there be an extrajudicial sweep-up of the president’s opposition? Some experts expect one.

Saied is likely to “embark on a political purge of his political opponents,” said Hamdi. “The reality is that this offering is likely to be accepted by a significant number of ordinary Tunisians…There are similarities with what happened in Egypt in the ouster of the democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi in that the loudest advocates for the President’s move to suspend parliament are those political parties that have consistently failed to win at the ballot box, and that do not believe they can do so anytime soon.”

International variables

Between the Gulf Arab states—chiefly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—along with Algeria, China, Egypt, France and Russia, Saied may have some success in terms of finding some friends abroad who could have his back.

As the Tunisian president has moved Tunisia closer to the counter-revolutionary bloc of Arab powers (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE), it is likely that Cairo, Riyadh, and/or Abu Dhabi will be best positioned to best capitalise on this current crisis in Tunisian democracy.

Some Emirati media outlets like 20FourMedia and pro-government Twitter users in the UAE are hailing Tunisia’s president as a hero.

In the UAE, and in other Arab countries ruled by regimes that also hated the Arab Spring and feared democratisation in the Middle East, officials will probably portray Saied as a courageous leader who saved Tunisia from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Given Abu Dhabi’s longstanding problems with Ennahda, it is easy to understand why the UAE might see itself as having much to gain from this recent development.

Abu Dhabi has viewed Ennahda as attempting to “proliferate political Islam across the region through alliances with Emirati rivals, Qatar and Turkey,” as explained late last year by Anna Jacobs, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Where will Washington be? As a presidential candidate on the campaign trail, Biden criticised Trump for betraying American values when it came to US foreign policy.

But how will his administration deal with Tunisia considering this recent development? This situation could pose a serious dilemma for the White House. Yet as of writing, the Biden administration has not officially responded to this “coup”.

The US leadership — both under Trump and Biden — has mainly treated the North African country as a “non-controversial democracy that is perceived as doing well.”

The current US president and his predecessor have never devoted much in terms of resources toward Tunisia. But, if there is major instability there, Biden’s team may conclude that this North African country deserves more of the White House’s time and energy.

It will be critical to observe how Saied’s move plays out vis-a-vis Libya’s complicated situation to see how this “coup” will impact the neighbourhood.

Democratic development in Tunisia and Libya have been deeply intertwined since 2011, as Dr William Lawrence, a former US diplomat who is a Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the American University, has frequently pointed out.

Positive steps in the growth of democracy in one of the two countries necessarily bodes well for the other, and “failure of one makes the failure of the other more likely.”

Just as Libya’s ceasefire and political process, which has been prioritised by the Biden administration, is now jeopardised by developments in both countries, “Tunisia will likely rise on the Biden administrations priority list.”

The failure of Tunisia’s political elite

Across the Arab region, political parties are failing to deliver to the citizens what they have promised. In Tunisia, many who were once optimistic about the Jasmine Revolution’s potential to improve life in the country have become disillusioned and deeply disappointed.

Tunisia’s political class has governed in ways that leave many of the citizens feeling much rage, ultimately giving rise to a populist politician.

Saied is an “anti-politician politician,” as Lawrence added in an interview with TRT World, maintaining that the Tunisian president is somewhat comparable to Trump in certain ways. Now Saied will assume executive authorities that put him on par with Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba in terms of his grip on power.

There are grave concerns about the country sliding back into the era of strongman rule, away from the democratic ideals espoused by Tunisia’s 2011 revolution. It will be extremely critical to keep an eye on the reactions from Ennahda and other political parties which oppose this “coup”.

In the Western world, many statesmen have spent the past ten years hailing Tunisia as a hopeful Arab democracy. These figures frequently labelled the North African country as the Arab Spring’s sole success story.

Now, those in the European Union and United States will have to make important decisions about how much their shared “values” with Tunisia will impact their dealings with the country’s de facto government that segments of Tunisia will not see as legitimate.

Courtesy: TRT World

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