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Tunisian crisis: Between autocracy and economic collapse

Tunisia's political crisis: Between autocracy and economic collapse
8 min read
08 April, 2022
Analysis: With President Saied's dissolution of parliament, Tunisia has plunged into escalating political chaos that leaves the country's democracy in danger with no clear exit path for its worsening economic crisis.

President Kais Saied has dissolved the parliament of Tunisia, eight months after he suspended it in a power grab last summer, deepening the political and institutional turmoil in the north African country. The move comes as Saied prepares to overhaul the political system while taking the country down a risky road back toward autocracy.

The abrupt move, the latest in a series of increasingly authoritarian decisions by Saied, came after a quorum of MPs held a virtual session in defiance of the parliamentary suspension and voted to repeal presidential decrees that cemented the head of state’s one-man rule.

He justified the decision by invoking Article 72 of the Tunisian charter, which stipulates his role as guarantor of state’s “independence and continuity” and “respect for the constitution". However, under Article 80, parliament cannot be dissolved if the president holds “exceptional powers.” 

Since 25 July 2021, President Saied has seized legislative and executive powers and disbanded an independent judicial council in what his rivals have labelled as a coup, threatening democracy in the birthplace of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Under a presidential ruling, issued on 22 September, he suspended much of the 2014 Constitution and entitled himself to rule and legislate by decree.

Shortly after the announced dissolution, the president ordered investigations against the 121 parliamentarians who attended the online plenary session, accusing them of “conspiring against the state’s security”, which prompted anti-terrorism police to start summoning the participating deputies for questioning.

The threats of bulk legal action against the more than half of the members of parliament on charges that risk carrying the death penalty signalled a new escalation in Saied’s crackdown on the opposition as more political parties have been more openly confronting him.

Although many Tunisians welcomed the president’s decision to dissolve the legislative body, expressing distrust in their elected representatives, many too have been critical as he has seized more power.

In July, the head of state received overwhelming support from ordinary Tunisians when he froze the largely unpopular parliament, which he blamed for years of political paralysis and economic stagnation.

While Saied retains public support, more citizens have shown apathy vis à vis his project of rewriting the constitution with the economy sinking and food prices rising.

Tunisians protest against President Kais Saied's seizure of governing powers near the parliamentary headquarters in Tunis on March 20, 2022. [Getty]

The national e-consultation on a new constitution launched in January only saw 5 percent participation of the electorate, a disappointingly low turnout analysts attribute to popular fatigue and the increasing disapproval of the chief of state who has so far proved incapable of improving the country’s situation despite he promised to tackle political corruption and prioritise economic growth.

Adding to that, Tunisians have been severely affected by delays to salary payments, shortages of wheat-based staples and medicines and soaring food prices in the past weeks.

Though decreeing the dissolution of the assembly should trigger a new legislative vote to be held within 90 days, as constitutionally required, Saied stressed that he will stick to his roadmap to draft a new constitution which will be put to a national referendum on 25 July, and maintain the 17 December date for a parliamentary poll.

In the current environment, analysts believe that this would very likely lead to unfree and unfair elections resulting in a parliament aligned with the presidency. Various parties and civil society groups have been united in calling for early elections within three months.

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Saied’s order to terminate the parliament has further put Tunisia’s democratic future in doubt. What is going to happen regarding the political system is thought to depend on how capable civil society and other major players will be in striking a balance between the president and the opposition.

Observers say one main variable that may play a decisive role is the powerful UGTT labour union which, despite criticising Saied’s measures, has been broadly supportive. It backed the president’s latest action describing it as “necessary”, but also demanded that he end his accumulation of powers and resume the course of democracy. The trade union leadership could gain his consent to hold a national dialogue, but whether the process will be inclusive remains the crucial question.

In recent days, the Tunisian leader said he would only talk to parties that were not responsible for the country’s crisis, an approach the labour union has rejected. To what extent he may be willing to negotiate with all political parties along with civil society organisations is still unclear.

The union has leverage over mediating a resolution. According to Riadh Guerfali, a Tunisian lawyer and human rights activist, the regional and local UGTT branches, rather than the union’s national executive board, could potentially play a major part to that effect.

“The UGTT can act as an arbiter in the current political standoff if it preserves its neutrality,” Guerfali told The New Arab.

Analysts believe the other variable to watch in the coming period is the army, which has until now mainly favoured Saied’s moves. The chief of state is relying on the support of the security forces as he becomes increasingly isolated, and while the military establishment seems to back his power grab, it does not necessarily stand by him unequivocally. 

“Saied’s options to crush Tunisia parliament are not as wide-ranging as he suggests. Army is not wholeheartedly with the coup. If MPs hold their nerves and close their ranks, they can push Saied into corner”, Sami Hamdi, Editor-in-Chief of the International Interest, tweeted last week.

As explicitly stated in Article 18 of the constitution, the army is “required to remain completely impartial”. But since 25 July the parliament building has remained closed off and guarded by security forces, preventing its elected members from entering. The military has the power to restore access to its members, yet it is hard to predict what its position will be.

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Guerfali explained that it is essential that the military keep away from political matters, adding that the only “red line” would be resorting to force in the event of protests.

“The army must stay out of politics and adhere to its role of defending the nation. Though it can disobey orders from the president when asked to fire on protesters”, he underscored.

How the trade unions and the military are going to behave is uncertain, the civil society member pointed out.

Last week’s developments risk not only exacerbating polarisation in Tunisian politics but also further complicating the situation in terms of obtaining a rescue package amid ongoing talks with the IMF over a $4 billion loan. An agreement would involve austerity measures such as subsidy cuts and a public sector wage freeze, which the UGTT has already rebuffed.

Several economists warn that the country will be forced to default on its debts if it does not quickly agree on a deal with the fund.  

Credit rating agency Fitch forecasts Tunisia’s public debt to GDP to reach 84 per cent this year. Earlier this month, it downgraded its sovereign debt rating to junk status. The country is passing through its worst economic crisis in recent history, and many ordinary citizens are struggling to afford basic necessities.

Tunisia’s key partners, particularly the United States, the EU and its member states have called on Saied to return the country to its democratic path. International donors have clearly required a more inclusive and participatory dialogue that should take place ahead of his planned constitutional referendum.

Yet, if Saied continues to discard an inclusive political process, external partners will likely consider withholding assistance or oppose an IMF deal. The US has the power to block a possible agreement if it wants to.

Exerting economic pressure on the Tunisian government could also lead to reductions in bilateral funds. The European Commission recently announced that it would lend Tunisia’s government €450 million in budget support. Either losing European financial assistance or failing to secure a loan would expectedly hit the Tunisian people harshly.

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“Kais Saied’s plan for transition is raising concerns among international donors. If the US were to block a rescue package, such a move could spark protests across the country,” Nate Grubman, a teaching fellow in Civic, Liberal and Global Education at Stanford University, said to The New Arab.

For Grubman, if social tensions continue to build up in the short to medium term, the UGTT will become an increasingly key partner for the president who may at that point accept to sit down with the relevant parties and discuss the country’s pressing problems.

“There seems to be declining enthusiasm for Saied’s political project as Tunisians are more concerned about what he could offer for addressing social and economic issues. That created a little extra space for Western powers to criticise his actions,” he contended.

On the other hand, Grubman maintained that the opposition, however growing, remains divided and has not put forth, to date, a “credible and broadly supported alternative” to Mr Saied’s plan which he believes makes it difficult for Western states to put more pressure on the country’s leader.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec