Tunisia’s Political Crisis: A Slide to Authoritarianism?

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In July 2021, following massive street protests, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied sacked the prime minister, suspended parliament temporarily, and stated his intent to move forward with widespread prosecutions as part of long-promised anti-corruption efforts. The military was then deployed, preventing legislators from entering the parliament building; while police stormed the headquarters of news broadcaster Al Jazeera. Roads leading to the building were also closed, while large public gatherings of three or more people in streets and squares were banned.

President Saied invoked emergency powers under Article 80 of the Constitution – a document heavily criticised by Saied in the past. The article grants the president the right to “take any measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances”. However, the document does not include the right to suspend parliament which is supposed to remain in place as a check on power. As such, opponents have accused Saied of staging a coup. Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, condemned the move as an “assault on democracy” and urged citizens to protest.

Before Tunisia ended its 30-day emergency period, Saied announced that the measures were being extended due to “imminent” danger, increasing fears of another power grab and, worse still, an end to Tunisia’s nascent experiment with democracy. With no constitutional court, there is no real way to prevent Saied from extending the measures indefinitely.

Roots of unrest

Despite being seen as the only “success story” of the Arab Spring, various factors have continued to impede the country’s uneasy democratic transition. Tunisia’s democratic process has been built upon consensus politics with a highly divided parliament and increasing polarisation between secularists and those who want a greater role for political Islam. This has underpinned much of the weak governance and poor decision-making capabilities seen in the last decade.

Saied’s measures are the culmination of discontent between the two highest offices and the president and parliament more generally. Saied and Prime Minister, Hichem Mechichi, had long been enmeshed in a power struggle, jeopardising the stability required to push through much-needed reforms. The crisis came to the fore at the beginning of this year when parliament approved a cabinet reshuffle aimed at shoring up the government. Saied rejected the appointment of new ministers citing a lack of women and a potential conflict of interest.

Deepening rifts between political forces have led to constant changes in government structure and leadership. As such, the country has had ten different governments in a decade. The 2019 elections brought in the most fractured government in the country’s history with parties finding it difficult to form a government. Ennahda eventually became the country’s biggest political party despite holding only a quarter of the seats in the assembly. Each side has since been accused of tweaking the law to suit their interests. All of this occurring against the backdrop of another Covid surge – the worst on the continent – social unrest and economic decline. The country’s economy shrunk by eight per cent last year with unemployment reaching seventeen per cent.

Domestic support

While political opponents have accused the president of staging a “coup”, broad swathes of Tunisian society have backed the measures, viewing the strong-arm tactics as necessary to break the stagnation plaguing the country’s economic and social systems. There is major dissatisfaction with the current political parties, particularly Ennhada. In the face of this dissatisfaction, the president saw an opening and seized the reins of power for himself. Saied said that he would take over public prosecutions and remove immunity from members of parliament. Parliament has repeatedly been plagued with allegations of corruption.

For many Tunisians, the country’s experiment with democracy has not brought sound governance or prosperity. The failure to stem corruption, improve services or create jobs has caused people to lose faith, with many taking to the streets to show their anger in some of the most sustained and widespread protests since the revolution.

International response

The significance of the crisis extends beyond Tunisia’s borders. In recent years, regional actors have been battling for political influence in the county. As such, countries including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were quick to react to events. While Turkey strongly condemned the development, Saudi Arabia voiced its support for the president’s measures. The foreign ministers of both countries talked on the phone shortly after with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, stressing the need for security and stability in the country. Qatar, on the other hand, has called on all parties to avoid escalation and to resolve the political crisis through dialogue.

The United States has provided substantial foreign assistance and rhetorical support to Tunisia in the last decade. With this and the potential legal complications of a coup in mind, Washington has voiced concerns over the developments while refusing to take sides.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that “there have been a lot of developments even over the last 24 hours … We would look to the State Department to conduct a legal analysis before making a determination [on whether it’s a coup].” The US State Department also called for Tunisia not to “squander its democratic gains”.

Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General, urged the country “to exercise restraint, refrain from violence and ensure that the situation remains calm.”

It remains to be seen if the current crisis is merely a roadblock in the democratic building process or a more nefarious slide to authoritarianism last seen under the former President, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

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