Bread crisis threatens Saied’s constitutional ambitions
It was not meant to be this way for Tunisian President Kais Saied. Last July, he sacked the government and suspended parliament. He hoped his high-handedness would unclog a mixed parliamentary-presidential system often dogged by deadlock and nepotism.
Tunisians, weary of the post-revolutionary dysfunctionality, tolerated his methods with a view that he would deliver the country from its impending economic doom and yet another international bailout. What had seemed to be emergency procedures are now quite clearly Saied’s governing methods, as seen with his firing this month of 57 judges, which precipitated protests as many Tunisians saw it as an affront to their fragile democracy.
Declaring the Supreme Judicial Council as “biased, broken and outdated,” clashes then erupted as hundreds of judges refused to go to work in a political standoff that has come to typify Saied’s short rule. Having sacked parliament, he announced last September that he would rule by decree, appointing his own ministers and avoiding elements of the constitution that he deemed unnecessary.
As protests, which were once in support of him, began to oppose him, he announced a national dialogue earlier this month, characterized by a nationwide consultation (widely criticized by Tunisians) to change the constitution outright. With next month’s date for a referendum to replace the 2014 constitution looming, the judicial sackings have focused efforts to derail Saied’s plans.
Accused of “corruption and protecting terrorists,” Tunisia’s judges have suspended their work in an effort to subvert the president’s efforts to neuter them and fashion them as a tool to be used against his political opponents. Though there are criticisms to be made of the judiciary — last year a judge was found with 1.5 million dinars ($486,000) in his car — the block has by and large acted as a check on an executive that is increasingly doing away with any semblance of Tunisia’s hard-won democracy.
The “imminent threat” that Saied’s power grab seemingly sought to avoid has become a far too common rallying cry from his loyalists, who seek to justify his actions while ignoring the ever-shrinking space for activists, civil society and political parties.
Though a firmly entrenched elite is greatly responsible for Tunisia’s corruption and hollow institutions, the president’s methods risk supplanting them with another elite or shifting the focus away from the country’s urgent economic priorities. While Saied has focused on restructuring Tunisian political life, a looming economic crisis haunts the country, as the government struggles to finance its 2022 deficit and repay debts.
As the judges came out to protest last week, Tunisia’s largest trade union brought the country to a halt. The country’s ports, airports, government offices and other facilities shut down as the Tunisian General Labour Union, known as the UGTT, called for the country’s 3 million public sector workers to strike. The workers gathered at picket lines to protest Saied’s decision to freeze wages and cut subsidies as part of the government’s deal to secure a $4 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. While these are urgent economic reforms that the country needs to make, the political climate created by Saied’s consolidation of power has made the already challenging circumstances even worse.
These two strikes, from completely different sections of Tunisian society, illustrate the growing opposition to what have been perceived as attempts by Saied to take power since he suspended the country’s parliament. However, they also illustrate the undeniable stresses of the fact that Tunisia’s government employs more workers than any other company or enterprise nationally, with half of state spending going on paying public sector salaries — one of the highest rates in the world.
The jobs that were created to buy some sort of social and political peace after a revolution that started because of youth unemployment has created an unsustainable state of affairs. Fitch Ratings was correct when warning recently that tensions between the government and the UGTT would hinder negotiations with the IMF. Given that passing political and economic reforms without the union’s backing would be impossible, Saied’s strongman tactics are not helping the situation. The much-awaited relief package from the IMF planned for last summer stalled after Saied dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi.
While the president has focused on restructuring Tunisian political life, a looming economic crisis haunts the country.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Despite only having a population of 11.5 million, Tunisia is the world’s 30th-largest importer of wheat. Amid bread queues during Ramadan, the president issued harsh fines to hoarders and price speculators, but the crisis in Ukraine is placing macro pressures on the economy that cannot be shielded by his soundbites. Ships carrying grain were already stuck in port before the crisis because of the government’s inability to pay for the cargo. However, owing to the Ukraine war, the country will further struggle to finance its wheat supply amid the increase in fuel and cereal prices.
Though, as a constitutional law professor, Saied may hope to form Tunisia’s new system in his own image, his efforts cannot avoid the cost-of-living crisis. When the government announced an increase in the price of bread and cereal products in December 1983, Tunisian citizens took to the streets. And “bread, freedom and dignity” is what brought them out again in 2011.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid