Tunisia’s president steps in due to Ennahda’s failings
The last time protesters amassed along Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, Tunisia was in the throes of a revolution that unseated strongman Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and dismantled his fearsome police state. Last weekend, as people gathered in front of parliament, dissatisfaction with the ruling Ennahda party and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi grew so great that President Kais Saied invoked an emergency article of Tunisia’s constitution. He dismissed parliament and several key ministers and deployed the hitherto apolitical army onto the streets. In what was the region’s only successful democracy in the wake of the tumult of the so-called Arab Spring, recent events paint a stark picture.
Returning to his family home for lunch and refusing to stay in the presidential palace, the law professor-turned-president does not fit the profile of the archetypal Arab strongman. However, after having campaigned on a populist ticket, he has quickly become known as “Robocop,” with his staccato addresses in formal Arabic in regards to law and order issues suggesting that the events of this week were perhaps inevitable.
Recent developments cannot, however, be viewed in isolation. In April, Saied raised eyebrows when he declared that his powers as commander of the armed forces also covered the internal security forces, threatening to draw the sensitive Interior Ministry into the political arena and potentially dividing the security establishment. This should have served to warn the country’s warring factions that sustained political squabbling, coupled with a worsening public health crisis, might steer the country toward executive rule.
The government proved to be completely incapable of dealing with the stagnant economy and an alarming coronavirus disease outbreak. To Saied, the author of several books on Tunisia’s government, including “General Provisions of the Constitution,” the constitutional mechanisms with which to take power would have been incredibly clear. Though recent clashes between supporters of Saied and those of Mechichi and Ennahda have typified the political chasm that divides Tunisia today, they only explain one of the many issues with the post-revolution political setup.
According to Yasmina Abouzzohour of the Brookings Doha Center: “The year-long power struggle at the top can also be taken as a failure on the government’s part. Infighting between the legislative and executive branches, as well as major divides within parliament, have all but paralyzed the political process and made it difficult to implement much-needed systematic reforms.”
To Saied, the constitutional mechanisms with which to take power would have been incredibly clear.
Zaid M. Belbagi
North Africa expert and chairman of Cross-border Information Jon Marks said: “Tunisia has a peculiar and complicated political culture that has been ill-suited to developing an economy, which is continually getting worse and meeting the problems that caused the Arab Spring. Their constant bickering has resulted in successive governments who have been unable to resolve the constant political crises that have exacerbated social division.” This summary of the root of the political stagnation in the country highlights the serious impact of the divisions between the middle class, academics, a socially conservative working class and politically mobilized unions on the country’s urgent problems.
Culture wars have typified Tunisian politics over the last decade, with laws concerning the private lives of citizens taking center stage ahead of urgently needed economic reforms and job creation. While Saied has been criticized for his forceful deployment of constitutional privilege, Ennahda’s decade as Tunisia’s foremost political force has become synonymous with a continued failure to translate the great hope of the country’s revolutionary generation into economic well-being.
Despite being well placed across government and key institutions and organizations, the party’s record is one of misappropriation of the generous aid Tunisia has received, while also politicizing its position within Tunisia internationally to such an extent that the country has become host to several foreign powers and their respective battles for regional dominance. The once fiercely independent Tunisian political class, which led African efforts at decolonization, has now become a pawn for the ambitions of foreign powers at the expense of the lives of ordinary Tunisians, which still have not improved.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid