Travel Bans, COVID-19 Surge, And Governmental Crisis In Tunisia

Amnesty International has recently criticized the Tunisian President, Kais Saïed, for imposing arbitrary travel bans on opposition politicians and businessmen. Amnesty International has reviewed 50 cases and found that those targeted by travel bans and house arrests had no current court case or judicial investigation against them and were not given any written order or reason for why they are banned from traveling. This indicates that the president’s travel ban is extrajudicial–bypassing the judicial system. Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, Heba Morayef, says this is a “blatant violation of their right to freedom of movement.” The travel bans and house arrests are worrisome in the context of the recent political development in Tunisia has made many afraid that the victories won by the Tunisian people are dissolving.

Large protests took place in 2010-2011 after the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in objection over harassment and the municipal confiscating his goods. The street protests started in Sidi Bouzid but quickly became nationwide. The demonstrations lasted for 28 days and ended with the ousting of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The protests were fueled by high unemployment, increase authoritarian rule, corruption, and poor living conditions. These protests are generally considered the spark for the Arab spring. The protesters demanded decent jobs, livable wages, protection of fundamental freedoms and human rights. The Government deployed troops to which led to violent clashes between troops and protesters. It is estimated that over 300 people died and over 2000 were wounded. However, the protests continued, and on the 14th of January Ben Ali dissolved his government, announced a state of emergency, and fled the country.

The hopes for the country were high after a democratic reform was promised. The process of the reform was complicated and in the end, a constitution that was based on a compromise between Islamists and secularists parties was put forth in 2014. The constitution described Tunisia as a republic and democratic and stipulates a division of power: executive, legislative, and judiciary. It also covers freedom of opinion, thought, expression, as well as the right to work, to form a union, to assembly, and to peaceful demonstration. Several of the issues and demands made in the 2011 protests were met. Moreover, based on the constitution five judicial authorities were to be formed, including the constitutional court which has been described as the ‘crown jewel.’

After the 2011 revolution, the country made many strides yet the economic situation worsened with declining growth, declining currency, and national debt. The Covid pandemic has further exacerbated this, resulting in failing social services and higher unemployment. According to the World Health Organization, there have been 651,035 confirmed cases and 22,9932 Covid related deaths in Tunisia since January 2020. In a population of almost 12 million, a little over 5.5 million vaccine doses have been administered. Tunisia has this summer seen a rise in Covid cases due to the spread of the delta variant. The Tunisian Ministry of Health, Nisaf Ben Alaya, has recently said: “We are in a catastrophic situation … The health system collapsed.” The discontent of the government’s mismanagement of Covid culminated in large anti-government protests in July. Reuters reported that witnesses saw protesters storm the office of the majority party in the parament, Ennahda. The mishandling is ascribed to incompetence and corruption but also ‘political paralysis.’

After the anti-government protest in July this year, the president dismissed the Tunisian prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, and suspended the parliament. Mechichi was appointed by Saïed in July 2020 but the two quickly clashed over both the economic situation and the Covid response. Many supported the president’s actions and took to the streets in celebration. One woman told Reuters that “This is the happiest moment since the revolution.”  However, parliament speaker Rached Ghannouchi has called this “a coup against the revolution and constitution.” In the aftermath, the Tunisian police also stormed and shut down the al-Jazeera office in Tunis, and some worry that there will be further crackdowns on freedom of speech.

On the 24th of August this year, the president extended the suspension of the parliament until further notice. It is in this context that opposition politicians and businessmen have been put under house arrest and given travel bans. Through freezing the parliament, the president has removed one of the “checks and balances” of the presidential power. Saïed claims that this is in line with the constitution and article 80. Article 80 covers the presidential power during a state of emergency. It states that 30 days after the president initiates measures under article 80 the ministers of the parliament are entitled to request a verdict by the constitutional court on whether the circumstances are exceptional. However, there is still no constitutional court in Tunisia due to fighting over appointing judges. In other words, there is no independent judicial institution that could try his claim and interpretation of whether his actions are in line with article 80.

Regardless of the parliament mismanagement and potential corruption, there is no denying that Saïed has maneuvered himself into a position of authoritarianism, with very few checks and balances of his power. Eya Jrad, a professor in security studies and criminal justice has argued that Saïed’s actions do not constitute a coup, “What happened would better fit what doctrine has termed to be a ‘constitutional dictatorship,’ legitimized by exceptional circumstances and limited in time.” However, Saïed’s latest move to extend the suspension “until further notice” with no plan on when or how to return to parliamentary democracy might indicate that this constitutional dictatorship is no longer limited in time.

The international community needs to put diplomatic pressure on President Saïed to give a plan for when and how a new parliament will be created. Yet any economic sanctioning or withdrawal of aid run the risk of severely destabilizing an already fragile Tunisian state and worsen poverty and Covid numbers. The international community should also focus on supporting the crumbling health system in Tunisia and help increase the vaccination. Saïed has claimed a state of emergency based on the Covid situation, if Covid is under control the legal support for claiming a state of emergency and extraordinary powers is void, positioning the opposition and the civil society in a better position to demand a return to democratic governing.

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