Frustration To Hope: Tunisian Crisis Continues Amidst Reveal Of New Administration

On 25 July, Tunisian President Kais Saied seized executive authority and suspended elected parliamentary officials. More than two months later, he announced a new administration and swore in selected ministers on 29 September and 11 October, including Najla Bouden as Tunisia’s first female prime minister. Agence France-Presse in Tunis reported that, in a speech post-ceremony on October 11, Saied vowed to “cleanse the judiciary” and “save the Tunisian state from the clutches of those who lurk at home and abroad, and from those who see their office as booty or as a means to loot public funds.” Reuters reported that Saied also declared, “I am confident that we will move from frustration to hope.” 

Saied, formerly a legal academic, was initially elected in 2019, as was the still-suspended parliament. In recent weeks, in an effort to bolster support, he has released photographs of altercations inside the parliamentary chamber, referring to the parliament as one of “violence, blood and insults,” according to Reuters. Additionally, IWatch, a Tunisian anti-corruption watchdog, recently exposed a number of MPs who have avoided legal action and prison sentences because of their parliamentary immunity. Citing this as evidence, Saied maintains he acted under article 80 of the 2014 constitution, which empowers the president to take exceptional measures in light of “imminent peril” facing Tunisia. Yet, critics have pointed out that his failure to consult parliament and its speaker, Ennahda party leader Rachid Ghannouchi, paints the move as a coup. Among opponents, there is fear that Saied’s intervention signals a return to the authoritarian system present in Tunisia prior to its 2011 revolution, the first of the so-called Arab spring. Among supporters, there is righteous celebration in Saied’s reclamation of the revolution from the corrupt political elite, who are largely viewed as having perpetuated “years of stagnation and political paralysis.” 

An opinion poll released by La Presse in late July showed support for Saied’s intervention hovering around 87%. Amidst the stagnancy of the ensuing months, however, support has gradually dwindled, with an increasing number of Tunisians anxious for promised transformation. On 10 October, 6,000 people gathered in central Tunis to demonstrate against Saied. While Saied plans to amend the 2014 constitution via popular referendum, he has given few details regarding the date of “a real dialogue” with the Tunisian people. In response, foreign donors, powerful internal players such as the UGTT labor union and other political adversaries continue to mount pressure on Saied to announce a timeline and increase political transparency.

Utilizing parliamentary impunity as grounds for governmental overhaul certainly grants Saied some degree of legitimacy. But delays in establishing new administrative protocols and questions surrounding the underlying constitutionality of his actions shroud the future in uncertainty. Saied has so far failed to substantially address the economic crisis, marked by soaring debt, substantial inflation and crippling unemployment and worsened by the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. As senior UGTT official Sami Tahri told Reuters, “public finances must be an urgent priority. As major reforms must be the subject of broad agreement and need time…it cannot be the task of a transitional government.” 

Regarding ideology, Saied is a social conservative who supports the death penalty and opposes gay rights and women’s inheritance equality. These beliefs could influence upcoming constitutional amendments and pose substantial risk to the rights of women and other minorities across the country. While the appointment of Bouden as prime minister – the first woman in the role not only in Tunisia but in any Arab country – has piqued global interest, many wonder how she will support the interests of Tunisian women going forward. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Sara Medini, a political analyst at the Tunisian feminist organization Aswat Nissa, commented: “The fact that a woman has been appointed is excellent; it’s a step forward [and] it breaks with stereotype. But it’s not sufficient…She has a lot of work to do.” That need is made all the more evident by the World Economic Forum’s 2020 gender inequality index. From 2006 to 2020, even amidst the changes brought by the 2011 revolution, Tunisia dropped from 90th to 124th. Although, as of yet, Bouden has not extensively revealed her aims, feminist-leaning or otherwise. Rather vaguely, she has identified tackling corruption and “restoring hope” as primary concerns. 

As long as the exceptional measures remain invoked, Saied holds ultimate authority. With this in mind, it is possible that each newly-appointed minister – including Bouden – will be little more than a pawn in, as Medini put it, Saied’s “organic conception of power.” That is why the promised popular referendum, which would allow registered voters to force a public vote on proposed amendments to the constitution, must occur immediately. And, perhaps most vitally, Saied must allow sufficient time for citizens to vote – taking into consideration any potential barriers to access – before proposed changes are permanently implemented, especially those that will impact women, minority groups and young people.

Of course, there are challenges tied to this form of direct democracy, as votes often become dominated by those with strong feelings and special interests. But, as evidenced by demonstrations in-person and online, the voices of the Tunisian people are rising, recalling the robust civil society legacy that has shaped Tunisia through multiple iterations of political systems and leaders. Ideally, Saied and his administration will support public forums in the lead-up to the popular referendum. If they do not, the activists and citizens protesting against political corruption, police brutality, unemployment, and continuing economic decline will nonetheless maintain their in-person and online platforms as well as the hope for a more substantial realization of democracy. 

Democracy also depends on a separation of political powers. While idealized in the post-revolution reconstruction, true separation has never been fully established. With this in mind, Saied cannot hold off the ratification of a constitutional court for much longer if he aims to avoid the very impunity used to justify his power grab in the first place. This will grant the space necessary to adjudicate disagreements between the president and parliament and check and balance the actions of both. Additionally, parliament must be reinstated, with new MPs to replace those identified in the IWatch report.

Lastly, with an eye to the economy, Saied and his financial ministers must resume talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue package. Not only will this aid in tackling subsidies, the high public sector wage bill and the impacts of substantial unemployment but it could also lead to other bilateral assistance agreements that will further aid post-pandemic recovery. Given the context of French colonial rule and its lasting violence, Saied is understandably wary of foreign intervention. However, at this precarious juncture, the wellbeing of both the economy and the Tunisian people must outweigh resistance to debt bailouts from international donors. If hope is to be restored, as Saied and Bouden have both claimed, these changes must be pursued immediately. 

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