The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the most significant developments in the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today, we focus on Tunisia, where recent protests have prompted President Saied to an unprecedented decision which may challenge the country’s entire democratic transition.
On Sunday evening, Tunisian President Kais Saied announced his decision to freeze Parliament, dismiss the government, and suspend the immunity of members of Parliament following the protests that have swept across the country against the current political and health crises. Tunisians took to the streets on the anniversary of the Republic Day, denouncing their discontent towards the government and demanding its resignation. According to the Presidential announcement, Saied will assume all executive authority with the assistance of a new Prime Minister. Saied’s opponents, Ennahda’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi above all, have accused the President of launching a coup. On his part, Saied said he based his decision on Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution, which states that the President can “take any measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances”, albeit only “after consultation with the Head of Government and the Speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People and informing the President of the Constitutional Court”. Overall, Sunday’s episode may be the biggest challenge to Tunisia’s democratic transition since the establishment of the 2014 Constitution. Meanwhile, there appears to be no end in sight for the country’s health crisis: the health system is about to collapse, Covid-19 cases are still high, and the vaccination campaign is proceeding very slowly. Overall, despite the high number of vaccines and medical supplies that have arrived from international donors, the situation on the ground is critical, with Tunisian citizens ultimately bearing the brunt of a political system that has lost their trust.
Experts from the ISPI MED network react to the political, social and health crisis unfolding in Tunisia.
The democratic transition at stake
“Kais Saied’s initiative risks giving one last push to Tunisia’s democratic experiment, already damaged by a multilevel crisis. Saied, a fine jurist, is using the ambiguities of the 2014 Constitution to knock out that set of Islamic-inspired forces that still enjoy a majority in Parliament, though they no longer do on the ground, where the nostalgic sirens of an authoritarian regime — led by the free Desturian party — sing loudly. Meanwhile, liberals, socialists, and republicans have failed to come together, while the populists don’t provide credible alternative. In conclusion, a single man backed by the Army will control all political power without the supervision of the Constitutional Court for some thirty days.”
Federica Zoja, Scientific Coordinator, Reset DOC
Tunisian politics is trapped in a vicious cycle
“The current deadlock is partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, as the latter exacerbated Tunisia’s economic foes and impacted society at large. The quasi-collapse of the health system this summer marks, therefore, both a continuation of pre-existing crises and an additional source of instability. But for the last few months, rather than uniting to counter the pandemic, the country’s political players resorted to a vicious cycle of blame game, refusing to take any responsibility in the outcome of their deeds. The emergency situation pushed them to compete for international aid, leaving the idea of a national dialogue behind. The President’s latest move is shaking the ground beneath everyone’s throne. It may also signal the end of Tunisia’s democratic experience.”
Youssef Cherif, Director, Columbia Global Center Tunis
Ennahda’s never-ending fear of repression
“With military units stationed to block access to Parliament and on ‘parade’ in the streets amidst cheering crowds celebrating Saied’s power grab, it is nearly impossible not to recall Egypt’s military coup in 2013. Ennahda’s never-ending fear of returning to past exclusion and repression is more well-founded now as it draws much of the popular anger. Although the President does not seem to be deliberately paving the way towards a violent crackdown against Islamists, Ennahda denounced multiple attacks by anarchist groups against its party headquarters and activists across the country. With duelling protests dangerously raising tensions, the party is at a crossroads: much of Tunisia’s foreseeable future will largely depend on how it decides to react.”
Giulia Cimini, Research fellow, University of Bologna
Tunisia's Covid-19 crisis is a political failure
“Although the first wave of the pandemic was successfully contained thanks to the strict observance of a total lockdown, the subsequent waves were devastating and uncovered a healthcare system on the edge of collapse and in no position to cope with emergencies.
Undeniably, there is an air of Covid fatigue in the country: Tunisians have let their guard too soon and have become weary of repetitive lockdowns, especially after they were not followed by measures of financial support, but the responsibility for the current situation lies primarily with an incompetent political élite that failed to anticipate the country’s needs for vaccines and to secure them for its people. Vaccine rollout has been undermined by the lack of transparency at all levels, it has become a matter of surreal political competition and the subject of yet another episode in the saga between the Head of government and the President, which has ultimately compromised the government’s effectiveness in handling the pandemic.”
Emna Ben Arab, Assistant Professor, University of Sfax
How the pandemic exacerbated territorial marginalization
“People’s anger over the failure of the government to address the pandemic precipitated President Saied’s power grab, which will likely have a long-term negative impact on the country. The anger is in part because the Covid-19 crisis hit the traditionally marginalized regions in the interior and the south much harder than the more advantaged areas along the coast. Furthermore, around half of Tunisia’s GDP comes from the informal economy, meaning that a large portion of the population was unable to access even the little social protections available. As the pandemic has progressed, those Tunisians who were worst off to begin with have continued to suffer more than their more privileged fellow citizens, while the number of Tunisians unable to feed themselves and their families has increased dramatically.”
Sarah Yerkes, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Tunisia’s vaccine diplomacy: short-term benefits, long-term vulnerabilities
“Having a look at major donors is a useful tool to understand which role the country plays in foreign policy, commercial interests and, the “vaccine diplomacy” of neighbouring countries or traditional allies, especially those who started to manufacture vaccines autonomously. Saudi Arabia and France are the first countries in terms of donations, having shipped or announced the intention to send over 1 million doses to the country. China and the United Stated as well as regional powers such as the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Turkey, Morocco, and Qatar have already sent hundreds of thousands of vaccines or other medical supplies. An additional factor to consider is the assistance provided by the Tunisian diaspora abroad, which is organizing the shipping of medical supplies directly to local associations in order to circumvent dysfunctional institutions. Dysfunctions and issues within the health system are bound to increase after President Saied’s decision to dismiss the government. This will probably lead to a further need for international assistance, resulting in growing dependency and vulnerability.”
Aldo Liga, Research Fellow, ISPI
After the crisis: changed migration flows
“Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, Tunisia faced multiple crises: first, political turmoil animated by a diverse government coalition voted into power in 2019 which has been unable to act decisively on key controversial issues. Second, an economic crisis which saw the country in worse shape in 2019 than in 2010, the year preceding the Revolution. Third, renewed societal disillusionment with the system and potential for change, fuelled by economic stagnation and political indecisiveness. COVID-19 has further accentuated these dynamics: political action against the virus has been slow, the losses of the tourism industry – a key employment sector – have been severe. In the short term, regular migration is likely to continue as is, as people who engage in legal travel are better able to cope and navigate the status quo. Instead, irregular migration is likely to rise, mostly among poorer youths, who see no future in the country but lack the resources to travel legally and safely.”
Diana Ihring, Migration Research Specialist, IMPACT Initiatives