Commentary

George Joffé

It is a profound irony that the Jasmine blossom of Tunisia’s democratic revolution should wilt, just ten years after blooming in 2011, despite widespread convictions that Tunisia, perhaps alone in North Africa, would survive.  The reality seems to be, however, that autocratic resilience has emerged to choke it over the last ten years, as elsewhere in the region.   And that irony is only deepened by the serious malaise affecting the rest of the region, such as the impending and concomitant collapse in the latest United Nations-sponsored plan to resolve the crisis in neighbouring Libya, not to speak of the worsening breach in diplomatic relations between Morocco and Algeria or the domestic crisis over failing oxygen supplies in Algeria itself![1]

The Tunisian collapse  

The reasons for the Tunisian collapse are not hard to find.  Fundamentally, they reflect the partial nature of the original revolution which, essentially, left social and economic issues untouched, and reflected the innate problems of the Tunisian political scene since the revolution occurred.  More immediately, of course, they also reflect growing popular frustration over the chronic problems of economic reform – or the lack of it – and the unpredicted outcomes of the presidential election in September and October 2019 which brought Kais Sa’id, a political neophyte and constitutional lawyer who lacked any party backing, to power. 

The direct cause of the crisis, however, was the president’s unilateral decision to invoke Article (80) of the constitution on July 25, 2021, the sixty-fourth anniversary of the founding of the independent Tunisian state.  The Article empowers the president to act independently to protect the institutions of the state, should they be threatened, provided that the premier and the speaker of the parliamentary assembly have agreed and the president of the constitutional court has been informed.   President Sa’id, however, acted quite unilaterally without the necessary agreements, dismissing the government, proroguing the National Assembly and stripping its deputies of their parliamentary immunity for thirty days, a step that he renewed for an indefinite period a month later.

His actions immediately caused a storm of protest from commentators, parliamentarians and legal analysts.  But it was also, undeniably, welcomed by the mass of the population, frustrated by chronic economic crisis and endless squabbling, to no obvious purpose, amongst the institutions of the state and its political parties.  Thus the president and the premier, Hicham Mechichi – the president’s own choice as premier after his predecessor, Ilyas al-Fakhfakh, had been forced to resign the previous July – had been at loggerheads over the latter’s choices for five ministerial posts, which the president had refused to endorse last February on the grounds that the new appointees were corrupt.  The fact that the dismissed ministers had all originally been suggested for their posts by the president probably did not help in any resolution of the crisis! 

The makeup of the cabinet is according to the constitution, however, a prime ministerial prerogative, formally approved by the president and the parliamentary assembly which, under its speaker, the Ennahda party leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, did not agree with the president.  Sa’id, in turn, had retaliated by refusing nominations for a constitutional court, required under Articles 118-to-124 of the constitution to ensure executive and legislative conformity with its provisions, so this essential legal bastion still does not exist.  That set the president at odds with the parliamentary speaker with whom he was already on bad terms because he believes that the speaker has repeatedly encroached on presidential prerogative by his independent contacts with foreign powers.

The protests against the president’s decision to invoke Article (80) of the constitution arose, however, from the fact that Sa’id, a retired university constitutional lawyer, appeared to have acted unconstitutionally.  Article (80) only applies if the parliamentary assembly remains in permanent session and the premier and the parliamentary speaker have agreed, whilst the suspension of parliamentary immunity requires the approval of the constitutional court – which is not yet appointed!  In addition, the president tried to take control of the judiciary and enforced his authority over the army as commander-in-chief.  He also used the army to physically block access to the assembly, thus in effect forcing its suspension despite protests from the speaker and other deputies.[2]

Six weeks later, the situation appears to remain substantially as it was at the end of July.  No new prime minister has been appointed, the parliamentary assembly remains prorogued and arrests of individuals accused of corruption have been threatened, with the president still in sole charge of the country’s fortunes, despite his attempted control of the judiciary being denounced by the High Judicial Council.  Although the army command appeared initially to support the president’s position, it is traditionally apolitical and it is notable that its forces have only blocked physical access to the National Assembly building so that all other aspects of security control have been subsequently left to the police.

Most political parties concur that the president’s actions have been illegitimate, even the Free Destourian Party, under Abir Moussa, which had initially approved them.  Only the People’s Movement (Harakat Sha’ab), the party of Mohammed Brahimi who was assassinated in 2013 by salafist extremists, has openly supported the president, blaming Ennahda for what has happened instead.  The influential Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) has condemned the president’s actions whilst supporting the nationwide protests which preceded them because of the country’s parlous economic situation.

The underlying causes

The president had taken these steps, with the backing of Tunisia’s security forces he claimed originally, in response to widespread demonstrations and protests over the country’s health and economic crises.  The COVID-19 pandemic in Tunisia had peaked at 9,000 cases a day in the first half of July and that, in the searing summer heat and alongside the collapsing economy, had provoked the demonstrations.[3]  According to the World Bank, Tunisia’s gross domestic product (GDP) declined 8.5 per cent in 2020, while unemployment rose by 2.8 per cent to 17.8 per cent, with 24.9 per cent of women being unemployed, as were 40.8 per cent of youth less than 24 years old.  Extreme poverty in the 11.7 million-strong population was below 1 per cent but poverty (earnings of less than $3.20 per day) rose from 2.9 per cent to 3.7 per cent in 2020, while those vulnerable to poverty (earnings of less than $5.50 per day) rose from 16.7 per cent to 20.1 per cent over the year.

Although a new IMF support package is under discussion, offering a three-year £4 billion loan to stabilise Tunisia’s balance of payments as the current account deficit declined from 8.5 per cent in 2019 to 7.1 per cent of GDP a year later, it is not yet agreed, despite government cuts to food and fuel subsidies, and the macro-economic indicators reveal only part of Tunisia’s economic malaise.  The real drama resides in the ongoing imbalance between the effects of the economic crisis in the interior of the country, as compared with the situation within the coastal Sahel.   This disparity has always bedevilled domestic economic relations and, because it has still not been resolved, is a crucial concern today.  Tunisia is variously estimated to have provided between 6,000-to-8,000 of the recruits to ISIS (Da’ish) in recent years, mainly from the interior, the majority of them going to neighbouring Libya.  One of the main drivers for this has not been ideological conviction but simply the economic benefits it offered for those with, otherwise, no hope of independent financial viability.

The result has been a profound estrangement from the experiment in Tunisian democracy, such as it has been.  And this has been compounded by the obvious corruption of the parliamentary process inside Tunisia itself.  Nor is that corruption merely financial in nature, although that aspect of the problem is one of the president’s main justifications for his actions and parliamentary deputies, judges and politicians have been placed under house-arrest or banned from travelling abroad as investigations continue.  Most Tunisians (76 per cent in 2017) considered that financial corruption – “bad use of authority or power or function for personal interest” according to Article (2) of the Decree-Law 2011-120 – is worse than it was under the Ben Ali regime, when the Trabelsi family controlled 662 companies – 0.2 per cent of private sector companies generating 5 per cent of private sector output and 16 per cent of private sector profits.  They have experienced petty corruption in medical care (16 per cent), from the traffic police (13 per cent) in the courts and at school (8 per cent in each), especially along the border with Libya (Yearkes and Muasher 2017).[4]

Much of the frustration is, however, a response to the corruption of political discourse as well.  Part of this is structural, in that Tunisia’s secular parties innately dislike and distrust the country’s Islamist movement, Ennahda, despite the fact that it has repeatedly demonstrated its widespread popular support base and that it has been quite sincere in its adoption of the rules of the democratic process.  Not only has its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, formulated a convincing justification for such a choice drawn from Islamic cultural and ideological sources,[5]  despite some early glitches it has consistently sustained democratic practices in its engagement in the Assembly and in government.  It suffers, however, from growing internal dissention, much of it directed against its longstanding leader who at least one hundred members of its executive bureau now want to stand down – a demand that Rachid Ghannouchi has rejected.  It also suffers from the inveterate distrust felt by those opposed to political Islam to any claim by its adherents to agonistic co-existence.  And, of course, there is evidence – from Egypt and Turkey, for instance, not to speak of salafism and Saudi Arabia – for their distrust

But part of the problem is also a consequence of a wider issue that has long bedevilled popular political participation; the lack of an appropriate political culture to accommodate the agonism that is an innate part of democratic politics and, instead, the abuse of party politics as a substitute.  The result has been an endless struggle between Ennahda, as the best organised and usually numerically dominant party in the parliamentary assembly and a collection of resolutely secular parties which found it impossible to create a common political front or project but which were not prepared to cooperate or compromise with political Islam in any form at all.  The result has been endless bickering between the two groups which has blocked political movement and has had an adverse effect on the country’s political life.  That, in turn, has further alienated popular attitudes, a frustration that fed into the presidential elections in the autumn of 2019.  In the two-stage election in September and October of that year, a candidate with no political experience – Kais Sa’id – won with 72.7 of the vote, in a turnout of only 55 per cent of those registered to vote.

The political challenge

The problem has been complicated by what appear to be the political convictions of the new president himself.  These touch upon two specific issues: the role of the presidency and the nature of political representation.  Neither has been defined in any detail and the president, so far, has not deigned to provide this essential information.  It appears, however, that he seeks an executive presidency, rather than a parliamentary system in which executive authority would reside elsewhere than as laid down in the 2014 constitution at present, substantially in the National Assembly but in the presidency instead.  That has been, after all, in the French tradition the Tunisian practice in the past and part of an ongoing political dispute with Ennahda’s preferences derived from its long exile in Britain before the Ben Ali regime was overthrown.  It would demote, of course, the government from being an executive entity that depends on the democratic authority of the parliamentary assembly, into a mere appendage of the presidency, and thus undermine the role of representative democracy in Tunisia’s political process.

Quite apart from this issue, however, the president has other ambitions in terms of the political institutions he would apparently like to introduce.  Alongside his clear desire to root out corruption – an objective that the vast majority of Tunisians would endorse – the president seeks a very different mode of political representation, although it is by no means clear what this really means.  He has suggested that local representatives of Tunisia’s political aspirations should be chosen ‘by merit’ not by formal electoral choice from a party list, and that a national system of electoral choice be abandoned in favour of local representation instead.  Although this is not a detailed presidential project as yet, it does suggest a radical departure from the representative democracy that Tunisia has adopted to date and it raises questions as to what Tunisia’s future political system might become if the president retains overall control of it.

Some commentators have suggested that this sounds suspiciously like Colonel Qadhafi’s concept of the jamahiriya.  This was the ‘state of the masses’ based on ‘popular sovereignty’ in which executive and legislative power in principle resided in basic people’s congresses to which all Libyans had rights of access and which had decisional power,and popular committees with managerial authority.  The decisions of the basic people’s congresses were then to be mandated upwards and were binding upon the General People’s Committee – the equivalent of a ministerial cabinet to coordinate the managerial activities of the popular committees – and the General People’s Congress – an assembly reflecting the popular sovereignty to which it was subservient.  Its decisions, therefore, were supposed to reflect the aspirations of the basic people’s congresses and inform the general people’s committee as to its own objectives and activities.

This does not appear, however, to be what President Sa’id has in mind, beyond the idea that sovereign power should originate through a decentralised system.  Its representatives, however, are to be individuals, not representatives of political parties, and the methods to determine ‘merit’ in their choice is unclear.  He regards representative democracy as ‘obsolete’, largely because it is dominated by an electoral system that promotes party interests over those of the collectivity.  Instead, he seeks a system of ‘elevatory’ (tas’idiyya) democracy in which local assemblies and regional assemblies select their memberships and ‘elevate’ individual representatives to a national assembly which could then determine and legislate policy as set by development plans elaborated by the local assemblies (Fa’idi 2021). Ironically enough, the president, who has conservative social views, recognises his debt to Islamic paradigms although he does not consider himself to be an ‘Islamist’,  yet he was supported during his presidential campaign by Ennahda.

Outcomes

It is not yet clear what, in practice, the president’s objective now are; does he intend to ‘renew’ Tunisia’s democratic experiment or will he ultimately replace it with a populist and potentially autocratic alternative?  That was after all, what happened in neighbouring Libya where the colonel’s idiosyncratic jamahiri system had eventually to be bolstered and disciplined by the Revolutionary Committee Movement, thus transforming what was meant to be the perfect democracy into an absolute autocracy instead.  It also seems to be what the president’s foreign supporters, such as Egypt and the Gulf states, anticipate.  The president himself, however, has yet to provide a guide to his ultimate intentions.

What does seem to be clear, however, is that the original Tunisian initiative for democratic transition, as conceived in 2011 and over the past ten years, is over and the constitution has been sidelined.  It may, of course, spring back to life, phoenix-like, from its own ashes but even then it will have to change.  Despite the anger of Tunisia’s ‘commentariat’, most Tunisians, now seriously irritated by their chronic economic problems, acutely concerned over the government’s failure to manage the pandemic more effectively and tired of endless squabbling amongst its political parties, do not seem overly disturbed by the president’s unilateral action, although that, of course, may radically change if the problems that they face do not receive some redress soon.  Despite his strictures over democratic failure and his promise of yet another constitution, the president seems in no hurry to abandon his unilateral control of the country’s fortunes, however, although he has not ruled out some new variant of democratic choice.

If that is to be the eventual outcome, then other circumstances will have to change as well.  Key to any viable future, however, will have to be some significant and permanent improvement in Tunisia’s economic fortunes.  This will not simply involve the country’s domestic economic institutions, but, given the problems of corruption, the growing tensions between the revived institutional remnants of the Ben Ali era and the new economic institutions now emerging, will involve external actors as well.  Quite apart from the role that could be played by the international financial institutions in this respect, the European Union – which has said little about the country’s problems, economic or political, to date – should have a major responsibility through an effective response by means of its Partnership and Neighbourhood policies. 

But the core problem will continue to revolve around the approach adopted towards Tunisia’s political concerns.  It is evident that, despite its success at constructing the institutions for democratic governance, particularly the constitution and the parliamentary assembly that it informs, the country has not yet developed the political culture that must inhabit them.  Not only is the rule-of-law still deficient but the incorporation of an agreed agonistic political arena is yet to be internalised by Tunisia’s quarrelsome political parties, of which, ironically, Ennahda appears to be the most mature, despite its own inner tensions.  Nor is the concept of that arena and the culture associated with it properly rooted within civil society as their prime referent, rather than in the specific programmes of the political parties.  Whatever new democratic model eventually emerges from the current crisis – if, indeed, democratic it is to be – must internalise these principles or, like its predecessor, it will fail.  

Bibliography

Fa’idi M.A., “Interpreting Kais Saied’s measures in light of his political vision, The Legal Agenda (August 8, 2021)

Ghannūshī R. (2015), al-Ḥurriyyāt al-’āmma, 2nd edition, Dār al-Mujtahid li’l-nashr wa’l-tawzī (Tunis)

March A.F. (2019), The caliphate of man: popular sovereignty in modern Islamic thought, Belknap Press (Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA)

Yerkes S. and Muasher M. (2017), Tunisia’s corruption contagion: a transition at risk, Carnegie International Endowment (October 25, 2017) https://carnegieendowment.org/2017/10/25/tunisia-s-corruption-contagion-transition-at-risk-pub-73522


[1]  In July 2021, COVID infections suddenly peaked, officially from 200 cases a day to more than 1,900, with deaths rising to 4,291 in the last week of July, although unofficial medical sources suggest that the true figure for infections was 25,000-to-30,000 per day.  The main cause appears to have been a sudden and massive shortage of oxygen, to which the government has, so far failed to respond effectively. Acherchour M., “Tempȇte sanitaire sur les hôpitaux algériens,” OrientXXI (August 23, 2021.

https://orientxxi.info/magazine/tempete-sanitaire-sur-les-hopitaux-algeriens,4983

[2]  Rachid Ghannouchi articulated his concerns in the New York Times, in an article entitled “My country has been a dictatorship before. We cannot go back,” on July 30, 2021

[3] According to the John Hopkins coronovirus site, on July 27, 2021 573,000 persons had been infected, 18,800 had died and only 7 per cent had been fully vaccinated. https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html

[4]  Tunisia is listed 69th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2020

[5] See also March 2019