A pivotal month for Tunisia
Just over a decade ago, a seemingly chaotic revolution, sparked by a tragic case of self-immolation, ushered in a period of unbridled hope and optimism in Tunisia, a country wracked by more than two decades of autocratic rule.
Newly “liberated,” the Tunisian people moved swiftly to dismantle the regime of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. They set up several commissions to tackle the issues of corruption and transitional justice, in tandem with a constitution-drafting process.
By holding onto the transformational ideals guiding Tunisia’s apparent democratization processes, Tunisians were able to turn a messy break from Ben Ali-ism into what was — prematurely — hailed as the first “success story” of the Arab Spring. Fast forward to July 2021 and all that progress came to a screeching halt.
Nearly a year has passed since President Kais Saied seized power in a presidential “self-coup” with the aim of single-handedly addressing the convergent socioeconomic and political ills plaguing Tunisia’s turbulent post-2011 era. The initial promise teased by fairly rapid and smooth transition processes was quickly upended by terminal partisanship, dysfunction and complete disarray in the Tunisian parliament.
Beyond the endless squabbling and notorious fragmentation at the highest levels, even the highly touted democratization and transitional justice processes were under threat. As inclusive, ambitious and overarching as these crucial processes or mechanisms were, they met with few relative successes, hobbled by infighting and ill-timed proposals aimed at delivering the structural changes demanded by the youth-led 2011 uprising.
Given all the innovations in Tunisia’s transition processes, coupled with an unrestricted media and the unprecedented multiplicity of political representation, very few would have been courageous enough to decry the North African country’s obvious trajectory toward hyper-polarization and near permanent paralysis once the “old guard” returned to the fore — which they did, in 2014. Having become a dominant political force once again, this new government quickly turned against the wide-ranging transitional justice processes, proposing laws essentially designed to protect the corrupt actors and enablers of the Ben Ali-era cronyism.
By 2020, Tunisia’s parliament was clearly no longer interested in addressing the country’s widening socioeconomic deficits, which were exacerbated by the pandemic, or dealing with the stubborn structural inequities that had fueled the 2011 uprising and were threatening to unleash a fresh round of protests.
Unsurprisingly for despairing Tunisians with front-row seats to their country’s looming demise sponsored by systemic corruption, fist-fighting lawmakers and unaccountable security forces, President Saied’s ascendancy amounted to a desperate bet by a disillusioned many. In fact, the move to dismiss the parliament initially resonated well with disaffected Tunisians — until his failure to announce a credible road map that could steer the country out of a suffocating, self-inflicted quandary.
Since then, Saied has consolidated power, dismantled the judiciary and aimed his crosshairs at Tunisia’s 2014 constitution, a new draft of which hopefully will be unveiled this week. In it, the increasingly isolated president will seek to further weaken the parliament and political parties by granting more power to the president and local governments in what, ironically, he calls “democracy from below.”
President Kais Saied’s one-man rule has left Tunisia ripe for a resurgence of authoritarianism, decimating all the progress made since 2011.
However, the “democracy” he envisions for Tunisia is eerily similar to the pre-2011 Ben Ali-ism that vested enormous powers and authority in the presidency, with the parliament and judiciary reduced to mere rubber stamps for errant strongman populism.
Critics already warn that Saied’s one-man rule has left Tunisia ripe for a resurgence of authoritarianism, decimating all the progress made since 2011 and any future hopes that institutions and free elections will continue to grant ordinary Tunisians a say in who governs them.
Within Tunisia, the opposition remains weakened and disorganized, relegated to calling for a boycott of the referendum to deny it legitimacy. Other notable voices, including members of the Nobel Peace Prize winning “Quartet” (the Tunisian General Labor Union; the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers), rejected the appointments made to an advisory committee for the Saied constitution because they excluded representatives of civil society and the political opposition.
Even a “digital consultation” designed to survey the opinions of Tunisians about the country’s economic, social and political ills, to inform the process of drafting the constitution, attracted a dismal turnout, with less than 10 percent of eligible voters participating.
The foremost, and perhaps the last, pillar of opposition to Saied’s overarching political designs remains the Union Generale Tunisienne du Travail, the country’s million-strong general labor union. Its tacit backing, or notable “silence,” during Saied’s initial crusade has indirectly fueled his assault on Tunisia’s fledgling political institutions and will most likely underwrite his planned power grab next month.
However, this is only if Saied presents a credible plan to address Tunisia’s structural deficiencies, high inflation, declining purchasing power, diminishing foreign currency reserves, rising debt and public finances that are in shambles.
Unfortunately, the plan put forward by the Saied cabal, which would cut food and fuel subsidies, trim public sector wages and accelerate the privatization of state enterprises to secure a $4 billion International Monetary Fund loan, will run afoul of the general labor union.
The union has announced plans to hold another general strike, having successfully brought the country to a halt last month during a strike dominated by public sector workers seeking to derail planned negotiations between Tunisia and the IMF.
A second general strike barely a month after the first will only heighten Tunisia’s woes at an inopportune time when most families are barely capable of putting food on the table.
Prior to next month’s referendum, Saied faces a difficult dilemma. To appease the political opposition and inject new momentum into the Tunisian economy, the country will have to agree to the IMF-mandated austerity program, an eventuality the general labor union vehemently opposes.
Agreeing to austerity measures will likely change the tune of a general labor union leadership that so far has actively resisted describing its actions as opposition to the president, electing instead to frame the strikes as responses to a desperate economic situation.
It is a puzzling posture but, given the difficulty of gauging true public perceptions among Tunisians and their relative apathy, the general labor union’s narrowed focus on economic issues seems a rational choice.
On the other hand, it dooms any prospect of the labor union forming a civil front to confront Tunisia’s authoritarian drift. For now, the focus of the general labor union on resisting austerity remains the only notable bulwark in a backsliding democracy.
But frankly, acquiescing to the labor union will most likely leave the country remanded to the custody of its own woes, paving the way for a return to political fragmentation and dysfunction — dooming Tunisia for good.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also a senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington, and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell