Tunisian leaders have responsibility to make system work for all
So the counter-revolution seems to have come to Tunisia in the end too. On Sunday, following prolonged demonstrations and clashes within parliament, President Kais Saied suspended parliament and sacked the independent Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi (who used to work for him). He has now declared a curfew, suspended parliamentary immunity and announced that he will rule by decree.
Saied has claimed to be responding to popular discontent arising from the failure of any government since the revolution of 2011 to address the economic and security concerns of ordinary people. The system, he says, has become corrupt and unresponsive. It needs fixing. His opponents claim that his actions represent a coup d’etat — the unconstitutional restoration of an authoritarian order they thought had been overthrown with the removal of the Ben Ali regime and the return in triumph from exile in London of the charismatic Rached Ghannouchi, the founder of Ennahda, the main Islamist party, and currently the parliamentary speaker. They allege all sorts of conspiracies and suggest that the anti-Muslim Brotherhood campaign across the region, which started in Egypt in 2013, has claimed another victim.
What a mess. And how different from the grand hopes of a decade ago. From the start, I was never that starry-eyed about Tunisia, though lots of other people were. The fact that it was the first of the so-called Arab Spring revolutions gave it a particular cachet. And the way it was sparked — by the self-immolation of a poor street trader, Mohammed Bouazizi, in late 2010 — seemed to capture perfectly the romantic desperation of the times. But it was not unique. As in Egypt, Libya or Syria, deep economic and other material frustrations had been building for some time. The original protests involved a wide range of individuals and diverse groups. But, as elsewhere, Islamists, who came to the party late, proved to be the best organized and supported; something that led to the victory of Ennahda in the first general elections in 2011.
Although it initially showed weakness in the face of Salafi violence and its popular support declined rapidly once it was in power, Ennahda managed to maintain its political balance much better than the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Egypt, not least by agreeing to a cross-party government in the interests of national unity (and its own self-preservation). In public, the reaction of its leaders to events in Cairo in 2013 was restrained. In spite of considerable anger from its supporters, it sought to distance itself from the Egyptian Brotherhood — and indeed the Muslim Brotherhood internationally (of which Ghannouchi was a prominent symbol) — and to suggest, in doing so, that Tunisia’s political destiny would be different because it had a very different political tradition.
In some ways, this was probably true. Ghannouchi (with whom I sat for two hours in 2014 when I was writing the Muslim Brotherhood Review for the British government) was — and is — studious, thoughtful, urbane, adroit and pragmatic. He had also clearly learned from the multiple mistakes of the FJP in Egypt.
Economic improvements and personal security are, in the end, what people in the region most immediately want.
Sir John Jenkins
Above all, Tunisian society is different from that of its larger neighbors and its population smaller, with a highly educated elite. The army did not play the same role as in Egypt. Under Habib Bourguiba and Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, a certain civic if not political space was given to professional associations, women and secular intellectuals. In particular, the importance of the Tunisian trade unions — and indeed the employers’ union (UTICA), the Human Rights League and the Bar Association, founded in 1887 — as a counterbalance to Islamist movements cannot be overstated. In many ways, they fill the same role as the Muslim Brotherhood elsewhere in providing social welfare in lieu of the state: But they do it as nonreligious organizations with significant social capital, something missing in most of the rest of the region.
But none of this guaranteed political or, perhaps more importantly, economic success. And economic improvements — jobs, services, welfare and prosperity — along with personal security are, in the end, what people in the region most immediately want, as successive election results, the demands of protesters and regular polling by the Arab Barometer and others have all shown. Here at least, Tunisia is no exception. Although Ghannouchi claimed to have separated the political, social welfare and dawa wings of Ennahda in 2016, there has never been anything to suggest that he does not share the ultimate Brotherhood goal of an Islamized state. And neither he nor any of the other governments that have held power in Tunisia since 2011 have been able to heal the divisions between the relatively prosperous and secular Francophone north of the country and the poor, highly conservative and Arabophone south.
This has been exacerbated recently by the impact of the coronavirus disease. Tunisia has been badly hit, with tourism — a major earner of foreign exchange — collapsing. The government has been locked in a three-way struggle between president, prime minister and speaker, which has further inhibited action. And this is the point. The current crisis has not come out of nowhere. There is a long way to go yet — and a lot of maneuvering between the various actors, the police, the army and the major civil society groups — before we can tell what the longer-term outcome will be.
But the basic problem — that of effective governance that delivers to ordinary people the things they most need — remains unresolved in too many parts of the Middle East and North Africa. This is not something you can solve with the magic wand of democracy. It means having a vision and making tough choices in the interests of the whole country, not simply particular interest groups within it. That mentality is as much lacking in Tunisia as it is in Libya, Iraq or Lebanon.
Tunisia still has a lot going for it. I hope the current impasse is resolved peacefully — certainly within the 30 days that the constitution seems to allow. If that can be done, then politicians have a responsibility to make the system work for everyone and stop their ideological squabbles. Will they do so? They haven’t done so anywhere else. Perhaps this is the moment to demonstrate that Tunisian exceptionalism really exists.
• Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was corresponding director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, based in Manama, Bahrain, and was a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.