Tunisia: A 'Caesarian' moment without a Caesar: Part I

Tunisia: A 'Caesarian' moment without a Caesar: Part I
5 min read
30 Jul, 2021
Opinion: In Tunisia, with its faltering economy and Covid-19 crisis, talk of the need for a Caesar-like figure - whether desired or feared - is increasing, writes Thierry Brésillon.
On 27 July, 2021, Tunisian president Kais Saied announced by decree the suspension of the operation of public establishments and administrations as he dismissed the government and froze parliament. [Getty]

This is Part I. Read Part II here.

Tunisia: a 'Caesarian' moment without a Caesar

On 25 July, 2021, after a day of anti-government protests that included the burning of several offices belonging to the Ennahda political party, President Kais Saied suspended parliament and dismissed the prime minister. The head of state seized this moment of escalating crisis to present himself as Tunisia's much-awaited hero.

The spectre of Caesarism haunts Tunisia.

The scenario in which a strong leader, whether desired or feared, appears to restore order to a floundering state is a powerful political trope. After the fall of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011, many yearned for the return of the authority figure, the strong man, the visionary chief, the "zaïm" (leader) in the style of Habib Bourguiba, to whom Ben Ali was the slightly errant heir. A storm has been brewing on several fronts for months now, and talk of the need for a new Tunisian Caesar is increasing.

The wall of debt 

The fourth wave of Covid-19 that began in mid-May has overwhelmed the already-debilitated Tunisian healthcare system, and the summer has seen high death rates. The crisis has exposed the short-sightedness of the state, its inability to make urgent decisions in a fractured society, and the dilapidation of public services.

The shock comes alongside a financial moment of reckoning: after a decade of economic decline, the country faces a wall of debt. 

"Tunisia's credit rating has been downgraded by eight brackets in the last ten years"

Public debt has risen from 45 percent of GDP in 2010 to near 100 percent today. Tunisia is in the process of negotiating its fourth loan from the IMF. The economy seems trapped, committing neither to liberal reforms nor to an alternative economic model, but instead experiencing the protracted agony of an unsustainable cycle. 

The state no longer has the means to buy social stability, and its democratic credit with foreign partners has run dry. Tunisia's credit rating has been downgraded by eight brackets in the last 10 years. Moody's evaluated it in February as B3 with a negative outlook, with Fitch following on 8 July, putting the country in the lowest bracket before a default on payments would be expected.

The deadlines for the repayment of two $500m loans fall this summer. Tunisia is still seeking the 12bn dinars ($4bn) needed to make payments and to pay its public salaries for the next three months. It will probably avoid a payment default and an appearance before the Paris Club for debt rescheduling, in other words being placed under international guardianship, but at the price of increasing indebtedness and the exhaustion of its resources. The situation is untenable.


Trench warfare and a crisis of hegemony 

These health and economic crises have fanned the flames of open conflict between the president of the republic, Kais Saied, on the one hand, and the parliamentary majority and the Ennahda party, both presided over by Rached Ghannouchi, and the prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, on the other. Since January 2020, Kais Saied has attempted to steer the prime minister, imposing Hichem Mechichi on parliament after the departure of Elyès Fakhfakh in July 2020. However, Mechichi has sided with his parliamentary majority.

The two camps have now descended into political trench warfare. An offensive by Hichem Mechichi in late January 2021, in which he attempted to consolidate his power by reshuffling the government, in particular the Ministry of the Interior, was blocked by Kais Saied. 

Citing the fact that constitutional procedures had not been respected and raising suspicions of corruption by the proposed new ministers, the president refused to organise their swearing-in ceremonies. The government was left with five interim ministers: two sovereign ministers, the Minister of the Interior, and the Justice Minister. 

Kais Saied recently refused to enact an amendment to the law on the formation of the constitutional court, which would have allowed a reduction in the majority required to elect the court members designated by the assembly. Suspecting the parties of wanting to take control of supreme justice mechanisms, the president argued that the five years specified in the constitution for the formation of the court had expired.

On 7 June, the prime minister dismissed the president of the national anti-corruption agency Instance nationale de lutte contre la corruption (INLUCC), Imed Boukhris. Boukhris was received the next day by Kais Saied, who lashed out against the "attacking of people who combat corruption". 

The president is unlikely, in this context, to swear in any replacement for Boukhris, meaning the INLUCC is now without a head. Both camps have retrenched, with neither able to make decisive inroads. There is no agreement on the conditions for dialogue, who should take part in it, or what the agenda should be. Meanwhile, public institutions are being progressively undermined.

"This 'catastrophic equilibrium of forces' creates the conditions for a 'Caesarian moment': a re-imagining led by a charismatic authority figure. The question is not when, but who"

The current crisis is the direct result of the 2019 elections, which failed to deliver a parliamentary majority and elected a president opposed to the majority parties. These results themselves express a rejection of the political class and the deadlock of "consensus" politics, without suggesting any solutions.

The situation has all the hallmarks of what Antonio Gramsci called a "crisis of hegemony", or "organic crisis": economic collapse, rule by a divided and delegitimised elite incapable of maintaining the political conditions to keep the system in operation; degradation of institutions; "anachronistic" parties "empty of social content" with their "heads in the clouds"; and subordinate social classes without representation, unable to challenge the power of the state. 

This "catastrophic equilibrium of forces" creates the conditions for a "Caesarian moment": a re-imagining led by a charismatic authority figure. 

The question is not when, but who.

This is Part I. Read Part II here.

Thierry Brésillon is a journalist, reporting from Tunis.

This article was originally published by our partners at OrientXXI.

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.