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Disintegration of Democracy in Tunisia

For years, Tunisian fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi would operate a fruit stand on the streets close to the Mediterranean beach, lamenting to his mother after work about customer corruption. Police officers would march in every day and rob the vendors of handfuls of fruit, cackling as they subjected the workers to various indignities. Over time, Bouazizi would get routinely targeted by officers. This reached the last straw on December 17, 2010, when a female municipal officer slapped him, confiscated his electronic weighing scales, and made her aides beat him. Upon not receiving any support for his losses from the governor, he stood in the middle of flowing traffic. “If you don’t see me, I’ll burn myself,” he screeched. “How do you expect me to make a living?” With that, he doused himself in gasoline, lit up a match, and immolated himself.

In the days following Bouazizi’s demise, a new worker’s revolution was incited. Protests initiated by labour unions spread across the Arab world, demanding human rights for all. While protests were largely unsuccessful in the other Arab countries, Tunisia was an exception. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the former autocratic dictator of Tunisia, had plunged Tunisia into a state of political unrest with high unemployment and inflation. Ben Ali was ousted after 28 days of protests in January of 2011. He fled to Saudi Arabia while a transitional democracy was set up in Tunisia with Mohamed Ghannouchi.

Mohamed Ghannouchi
Mohamed Ghannouchi

Soon, protesters asked for a new interim Prime Minister devoid of association with the former one, coupled with a parliamentary government. Beji Caid Essebsi was appointed by parliamentary speaker Fouad Mebazaa. Protesters further demanded general elections, which were eventually held in October 2011. The Islamist party, Ennahda, legalised only in March, won the elections with 41% of the vote, as reported by the Guardian. At last, the flickers of a fresh fire had been lit in Tunisia, where the nation would get another chance.

The Current Coup

Ten years have passed since the first Tunisian revolution, also referred to as the Jasmine Revolution. Peace has not lasted long in the so-called success model of the Mediterranean region. Tunisia is once more on the verge of a socio-political collapse. This year, in the middle of summer – July 25, 2021 – President Kais Saied removed Hichem Michichi, the Prime Minister at the time, from power, suspended Parliament – the Assembly of the Representatives of the People – and sacked the Islamist Ennahda government in a sudden action regarded as a coup by political opponents of Saied. Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution legitimised what he did, as it stipulated him to take extraordinary measures if there was “imminent danger threatening the nation”. He claimed his actions to be justified after the joblessness and mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic preceding nationwide protests.

Among many countries throughout the globe, Tunisia was one that sustained damage from the COVID-19 pandemic. During the second quarter of 2020, the International Food Policy Research Institute recorded a 46.4% decline in Tunisian GDP, with the industrial sector being affected the most. Social welfare for the poor was underwhelming, and the common people lacked adequate necessities to stay alive. COVID-19 deaths were also rapidly increasing, with Reuters data showing over 25,000 deaths, meaning that the per capita death rate is higher than any other African country. Witnessing a morgue of COVID-19 victims and an exploding unemployment rate of 40% among the youth as researched in June 2021 by the World Bank, everyone pointed fingers at the government. Mere shards of post-revolution Tunisia remained. Successive coalitions avoided fixing economic stagnation. Keeping this in mind, Saied shut down the government and deployed the army to protect state buildings, a rare form of self-coup.

Though Saied cites parliamentary mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic as his reasoning for the coup, media experts assume this is an anti-Islamist strategy to tackle the Ennahda party. October 2020’s general election was fragmented and polarising. The Ennahda Islamist party managed to triumph with a plurality of seats in Parliament, but received only 25% of the votes, according to Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow at Carnegie’s Endowment for International Peace. Only in February could a government be formed, however even then Parliament was driven apart by ideological rifts. No one agreed over how to resolve issues of public finance and debt plaguing the country. Saied opposed the Ennahda from the get-go, although he has not affiliated with any political party himself. He won the presidential vote through populism – he was a new face in politics.

President Kais Saied
President Kais Saied

In fact, President Kais Saied ended up appointing Hichem Mechichi on July 25, 2020, as Prime Minister due to his belief that he could help distance Tunisian citizens from the political polarisation destroying the country’s democratic experiment, holding high hopes that he would help salvage what was remaining of the economy.

Unfortunately, the crisis lay unsolved and tensions escalated to complete chaos, leading to the July 2021 breakdown.

At the end of September of this year, a new Prime Minister was appointed in Tunisia, Najla Bouden Romdhane. Kais Saied claims this will end the era of despair, but he still currently possesses most of the executive authority in Tunisia. Rather than the Prime Minister, the newly appointed cabinet will be responding to him. Additionally, he will preside over prosecutors’ offices preparing charges against parliamentarians as well as meetings of the council of ministers. He has awarded himself the power to appoint a committee to amend the 2014 Tunisian Constitution and then put it to a popular referendum, but there are no further details beyond that. No clear programme has been announced to restore the original constitutional order. Saied’s plans are unpredictable.

Opinions, Effects and Backlash

The people of Tunisia have not stood silent in the entire ordeal. From the beginning, the former Ennahda government had a troubling relationship with citizens. Politicians represent the ruling class of Tunisia, wrestling with each other in foul play until one of them reigns on top. Tunisia is a battlefield of political personalities, not ideologies. Continually, Presidents and Prime Ministers have clashed with each other for political power – the needs of real democracy have gone unaddressed.

Public opinion polls conducted by the International Republican Institute in September-October 2020 indicated that only 20% of Tunisians believed their government’s actions in addressing societal challenges was effective. As time passed, belief in political parties diminished. In March 2021, people took to the streets in protest to express their grievances and redressals, indicating governmental failure. Popular disapproval of the Ennahda government is self-evident. Throwing stones and shouting slogans, they demanded the dissolution of Parliament.

Kais Saied has used protests as a shield for all he has done. Yet in spite of his assertions, he has done nothing to restore power to the people. His every step forward has just resulted in backlash and kerfuffle, crumbling the backbones of the country further. The primary concern for a financial rescue package has remained unaddressed. In the 11 weeks it took for him to establish a new government, proponents of his decisions have dwindled down. “We will not accept the coup. Enough is enough,” Yassin ben Amor, a protester, affirmed in October 2021. Prominent social activists in Tunisia, such as Jaouhar Ben Mbarek, oppose the coup as it signifies the betrayal of those killed in the 2011 revolution.

At the same time, a journalist from Reuters reported 8,000 demonstrators have rallied in support of Saied for the same. Agitation is overflowing; the worry of possible street confrontations between opponents is growing. For all of Saied’s aspirations of uniting Tunisia, he has just divided them further. No future plans, no proper government, nothing. Every clue implies that if there is no working-class intervention, Saied’s allegedly progressive plan will disintegrate into a counterrevolutionary dictatorship where he assumes all power. Every time he is confronted by a dissenter over his decision, he shows pictures of the conditions inside parliament, attempting to persuade people that it was an environment of violence and he will provide the solution. Back in July, he shut down protests on public television by leaving people with a warning. “I warn any who are thinking of resorting to weapons… and whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets.” In other words, he is threatening protesters with military force.

International Response

The country’s decaying economy, due to the president’s neglect, is in need of support from supranational organisations. Prior to the coup, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was engaging in talks with Tunisia for a monetary rescue package. Seeing the delay in proper government formation, however, the discussions have paused. The Central Bank governor of Tunisia warns of dire economic consequences if there is no immediate solution. The fiscal years 2021 and 2022 will struggle to be financed unless there is debt repayment, but money for such repayment can only be collected through a loan deal with the IMF. Further bilateral assistance will only be unlocked if Tunisia has a political roadmap. If there is no plan for reforms tackling subsidies or state companies making losses, Tunisia should forget about IMF aid.

Western donors are also frowning upon the Tunisian coup. On June 30, 2021, the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) of the United States struck a $498.7 million compact with Tunisia to improve the transportation, water, and trade sectors. The five-year grant program aims to implement economic reforms which Tunisia could not enact by itself, due to political infighting. Just a few weeks ago, though, the US Department of State issued a statement urging Saied "to respond to the Tunisian people's call for a clear roadmap for a return to a transparent democratic process". They disapproved of Saied’s decisions so far.

Other than the US, the European Union is Tunisia’s largest trade partner, accounting for 57.9% of trade in 2020, described the European Commission. They are responsible for over 80% of foreign direct investment in Tunisia. The EU generates mountainous amounts of revenue for Tunisia. With the current erratic leader, EU’s investors are discouraged. Foreign direct investors do not want to waste money on a nonexistent government. Foreign donors are losing trust in a country they now consider illegitimate. Both benefactors and Tunisian allies continue to utilise their influence to convince Saied into relinquishing his power to rescue the country’s economic state.

The Democratic Outlook

President Kais Saied, beyond the shadow of a doubt, identified that Tunisia needs to reset its political stalemate if the country is to progress beyond petty arguments in legislative bodies. The lack of cooperation between the President and the Prime Minister, along with the differing opinions of Parliament, cannot bring about a change in economic policy. The path Saied took, though, is one that lacks constitutionality. His citation of Article 80 to legalise his coup is incorrect; the article states: “In case of imminent peril [...], the president of the Republic may take measures imposing a state of exception after consulting with the head of government and the president of the Assembly of Representatives of the People, after having informed the president of the Constitutional Court.” He needed to consult the PM and Assembly President before making any rash commitments. Both Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and Assembly President Rached Ghannouchi had denied any prior discussion with Saied about the course of events he would be embarking on. Both have referred to all events as illegal and unconstitutional.

Saied has not protected the constitution of Tunisia. He is trampling over it with his feet, crumpling up the laws like a piece of paper and throwing them in the trash. Saied has shown again and again his disdain for the country’s democratic institutions. He has expressed desires to return to the pre-revolution way of governing, with a strong head of state. Indirectly, he has shown support for the same authoritarian ruler against which the majority of Tunisian people revolted. Checks and balances do not mean much to him, seeing as he’s seized and removed any state body which could oppose him. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the true intentions of Kais Saied with the socioeconomic conditions of the working class as Tunisia descends further into poverty. Power has gone not to workers, but to reactionary policies.

Tunisia must get serious about tackling corruption and tax evasion if it wants to improve the economy. That means addressing corruption everywhere, especially in business and politics. A drastic reduction in the number of political parties needs to be enforced by establishing a threshold for representation. While it is not a complete solution, faith in parties would be somewhat restored if those which only exist to fuel a politician’s ambitions are destroyed.

Economic policies need to be revised and people must be listened to, rather than autocratic rulers. An international revolutionary mobilisation of protesters should advocate against draconian laws and the unfettered power-grab of the wealthy. The world must step up and take a stand so Tunisia does not drift further into suffering. Ultimately, with Saied holding almost dictatorial power, the Jasmine Revolution must be looked at as a model of what Tunisia could be once more.

Ten years ago, the people of a country riddled with economic and social issues had converged to riot against a murderous system that opposed every fibre of their being. Ben Ali, an authoritarian ruler who has caused corruption and despair, was overpowered by the unit of the common people as he fell from his royal seat into the grave. In memory of every worker, every oppressed person who had fallen victim to the social ills of a system trying to kill them, people arose in frustration. They succeeded, but only with prolonged pressuring. Just 28 days of protesting altered the country forever. Silence is not an option for Tunisia. The president cannot be allowed to further consolidate power which undermines Tunisia’s nascent democracy. People must rise up, as they did a decade prior, in response to a fruit seller’s suicide. After all, Kais Saied and Ben Ali are two sides of the same coin.

Written by Eshal Zahur

Edited by Adi Roy and Veda Rodewald



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