Tunisia trapped between one-man rule and economic woes

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10 min read
14 October, 2021
Analysis: As Tunisia's president unveils a new government and shows no signs of relinquishing power, there is widespread concern about the country’s dire economy and its threatened democratic transition.

Tunisian President Kais Saied announced a new cabinet on Monday that will ultimately answer to him rather than Prime Minister Najla Bouden, who had been tasked with forming it.

There has been mounting domestic discontent over the president’s power grab since Saied sacked the prime minister, suspended parliament, and took control of the country on 25 July, before moving to rule by decree nearly two months later.

Under Decree Law 117 of 22 September, the chief of state expanded the powers of his office at the expense of the government and parliament, granting himself the authority to appoint the PM, name cabinet members, and set the policy decisions of the cabinet.

"For the last 10 years, successive short-lived governments have failed to resolve the underlying economic grievances of the Tunisian uprising"

His drastic move in July was overwhelmingly welcomed by Tunisians following years of economic stagnation and political paralysis, but it has also triggered unease about emerging authoritarian rule with no set end for the exceptional period.

While the ongoing political crisis endangers Tunisia’s democratic gains after the 2011 revolution, public pressure is growing on Saied to address a soaring economic crisis that has plagued the North African country for the past decade.

A heavy economic legacy in Saied's new system

Newly appointed PM Najla Bouden said the government's main priority would be tackling corruption, though she did not mention an economic reform programme which would be needed for a financial rescue package.

Bouden, a geology professor with little experience in politics who comes from a non-economics background, is set to inherit the tough task of tackling the struggling economy, aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which will be a top priority for her upcoming government.

Before her appointment as prime minister-designate, she managed World Bank funded projects at the Ministry of Higher Education.

For the last 10 years, successive short-lived governments have failed to resolve the underlying economic grievances of the Tunisian uprising.

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There are fears that the premier will have little manoeuvring space given that the exceptional measures introduced in July remain in place, meaning that she will be solely responsible to the president.

It is unclear whether Bouden, without an economic portfolio, will be able to bring Tunisia out of its economic troubles with the ticket of finance, economy, and investment ministers she has selected.

Saied, for his part, has vowed to fight theft and corruption among the country’s political elite and state institutions and use the proceeds to fund development, though he has not articulated an economic policy nor announced any economic measures since his July intervention.

Fadil Aliriza, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute (MEI) focusing on Tunisia, highlighted that there are “very serious structural issues” that have worsened over the past 10 years, pointing to spiralling inflation that hovers at about 6%, public debt standing at over 80% of GDP, and set to reach 90% by December, and persistently high unemployment hitting 18%.

Last year, Tunisia’s economy shrank by more than 8% and its budget deficit reached 11.4% of the country's estimated economic output.

“All this will take a really serious long-term rethinking of the Tunisian economy. Until now, we haven’t seen a broad strategy or vision for reshaping the economy,” the politics researcher and analyst Aliriza told The New Arab.

In his view, Saied has not presented an actual plan, presumably because he does not have a clear economic vision of where to go. 

“If the president wants to accomplish something economically different from his predecessors, he will need to bring on board economists, development specialists, researchers, people with expertise and concrete ideas to have this rethinking,” he suggested.

In-depth Alessandra Bajec
Critics say Kais Saied’s power grab threatens Tunisia's democracy. [Getty]

The MEI scholar said that Saied has so far taken some “piecemeal steps” on the economic front, mainly asking businesses to cut the market prices for some products, which was not, however, sufficient to curb inflation.

In late July, he announced a plan allowing conditional reconciliation with over 460 business figures accused of corruption during the Ben Ali era who stole $4.8 billion of public money. Based on the scheme, amnesty from corruption charges is offered in return for investing in projects such as hospitals or schools in underdeveloped parts of the country. But it appears that the plan has not been put into action yet.

While Tunisia is facing an imminent crisis in public finances, the negotiations with the IMF for a loan programme have stalled since 25 July and cannot resume until a government is in place.

Aliriza remarked that discussion on a loan agreement and how to meet the country’s “very pressing” debt repayment obligations has not taken place within the Tunisian political elite, and no related strategy has come out of the presidency.

Tunisia currently needs about $5 billion more to finance its projected budget deficit and upcoming loan repayments.

The head of state has been criticised for showing no urgency about the economy while focussing on his goal of changing the political system.

Tunisians are growing impatient as they see their living conditions worsen while a protracted political crisis risks further reducing the chances of fixing the crisis-stricken economy.

"The democratic transition is practically at a standstill. The framework that's been imposed with the concentration of powers, dialogue on hold, lack of transparency [is] not compliant with the principle of democratic governance"

“We are watching to see what the incoming government is going to do about the socio-economic side of things. All segments of society are affected, people can’t wait for longer,” Abderrahman Hedhili, head of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), told The New Arab.

Hedhili spoke about the daily pressure he’s under from leaders of social movements and representatives of workers from every sector contacting him to know how their problems are going to be solved. He keeps telling them to wait for the formation of the new administration, then the FTDES will have an interlocutor to talk to.

Referring to long-running dossiers since the revolution, he mentioned some affected categories of people, including construction workers, missing illegal migrants, unemployed graduates, and rural women.

He has strongly advocated for a change to the decades-old economic model reinforcing regional disparities which has been maintained beyond the Tunisian uprising until today, despite the revolutionary calls for socio-economic rights back in 2011.

“The big trouble is that we’ve preserved this failed model. We need to revise the model, it’s long overdue,” he said. “Saied should open a national dialogue on this question along with UGTT, economists, and members of the civil society”. But he doubts whether the president is prioritising economic and social issues.

The UGTT Secretary-General recently held several meetings with representatives of political parties, foreign diplomats, academics, and lawyers on the developments of the country’s general situation.

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A deterioration of freedoms and rights

Following Kais Saied’s power grab - which critics denounced as a coup that threatens Tunisia's democracy - and the official consolidation of his near-total authority, opposition to his actions has been on the rise.

Decree 117 effectively concentrates the executive and legislative branches in one single person, as well as parts of the judiciary, with no checks and balances. It also suspends all constitutional provisions contrary to Saied’s new powers.

Moreover, it abolishes the provisional commission monitoring the constitutionality of laws, meaning no oversight. Instead, the president would draft amendments to the constitution with the assistance of a committee that he will set up.

“The democratic transition is practically at a standstill. The framework that’s been imposed with the concentration of powers, dialogue on hold, lack of transparency [is] not compliant with the principle of democratic governance,” Amna Guellali, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, told The New Arab.

“What is very worrisome is the total absence of counter powers and the fact that these decisions are not subject to appeal,” she said.

The deputy regional director specified that rights violations and abuses at the hands of Tunisian authorities had been documented well before 25 July, though less frequently and not on the same large scale observed today. However, she pointed out that the regime was previously based on the separation and balance of powers which at least allowed appeals on the legality of any act or law emanating from the executive authority.

“In the absence of any authority to review these interventions and protect rights and freedoms, and no possibility to call them into question, a fundamental right has been infringed,” Guellali said.

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Since the events of  25 July, the country has witnessed a series of politically motivated acts of repression and arbitrary restrictions on freedoms. [Getty]

She stressed that Saied’s unlimited leeway to change laws constitutes a huge worry. “The president can now legislate by decree-law in any sphere of life that can affect Tunisians,” Amnesty’s MENA deputy director noted, hinting at dimensions such as the organisation of political parties, associations and their financing, the press and information, justice, freedoms, and human rights. “The list is troubling,” she added.

Political parties in the frozen parliament and the powerful UGTT labour union have urged Saied to restore normal constitutional order.

Still, he has insisted that his "exceptional measures" are needed to “save” the country from economic and social crisis. He has also promised to uphold rights and freedoms and not to become a dictator.

“The monopoly of power held by Saied, without any control nor appeal, is alarming,” Bassem Trifi, vice-president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), stated in an interview on Mosaïque FM. “It’s a totalitarian atmosphere. Democracy has been suspended by virtue of Decree 117,” he added, while affirming that returning to before 25 July or 14 January is out of question.

Since the events of  25 July, the country has witnessed a series of politically motivated acts of repression and arbitrary restrictions on freedoms.  Several politicians, judges, and businessmen have been put under house arrests without being provided a justification or a warrant, while many more public figures deemed corrupt by Saied have been subjected to travel bans.

“It is inconceivable and unacceptable to go ahead with dismissals, raids, travel bans, house arrests, arrests and legal proceedings without any transparency," Tunisian public law professor Wahid Ferchichi said at a press conference.

Various MPs have been detained on old charges that were activated once their immunity was lifted and trialled in military courts. Yassine Ayari was the first among them to be imprisoned. The dissident blogger-turned-MP, who was released after serving his most recent two-month sentence, had been charged with insulting the army in a 2018 Facebook post.

"The monopoly of power held by Saied, without any control nor appeal, is alarming"

Tunisian authorities have carried out a number of violations of media freedoms, including the closure of Al Jazeera’s headquarters, disrupting TV shows critical of Saied's moves and attacks reported against journalists.

TV presenter Amer Ayad and his guest MP Abdellatif al-Alaoui were arrested on 3 October pursuant to a military court order on charges of “plotting against state security” following their statements criticising the president’s decisions in a televised programme broadcast on Al-Zaytouna TV. The media regulator ordered the channel to be closed for not being in possession of a legal licence. The double arrest has prompted warnings about the future of press freedom under Saied.

Bloggers and critics have been prosecuted because of posts on social media on the basis of their political views.

Police forces surrounded the house of constitutional law professor Jawhar Ben M’barek last week, according to local media sources. They knocked on the door with force in a move that his lawyer described as “harassment and intimidation”. Ben M’barek is one of the most vocal opponents to Saied’s “coup”.

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In a recent statement, Tunisia’s press syndicate (SNJT) voiced serious concern about deteriorating freedoms and the rise in attacks and prosecutions, particularly military trials of civilians based on opinions, ideas and publications. 

Rights groups have denounced the repressive measures and their serious impact on human rights and democracy.

With no time limits to Saied’s self-empowerment, much of the political elite, national organisations, and civil society have called on the head of state to set a clear timeline for lifting the state of exception.

Saied, however, still enjoys wide support from a public that has grown tired of corruption. Based on the latest poll conducted by Tunis-based EMRHOD Consulting, 87% still support his July intervention, 69% support Decree 117 and 68% think the appointment of PM Bouden is a positive development.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec