Tunisia: Coming Full Circle?

Introduction: 

Ten years after the uprising that set off the Arab Spring and overthrew former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has almost averaged a new governmental power each year. The constant turnover and recent turmoil has placed the country in a political, economic and social turmoil that threatens the fragile peace they have attained. 

The current crisis could be traced back to the 2019 elections, when the country was experiencing divisions due to the weakened parliament and political divide. The government that emerged in 2020 was due to allegations of corruption and conflicts of interest that the former prime minister was accused of. President Kaïs Saïed selected Hichem Mechichi to be the new Prime Minister, as they were on good terms at the time. Mechichi is well liked as has been involved in Tunisian politics for years and appealed to the public. He was elected with the aim of eliminating polarization and improving the economic situation. However, the COVID-19 pandemic placed the nation in a precarious situation that further weakened the public’s trust in the government. 

What happened? 

On 25 July, President Saïed fired Mechichi, froze parliament, and got rid of its members immunity from prosecution in an act that many are claiming to be a coup. These measures are still in place at time of writing, and have given Saïed almost dictatorial power over the country. He claims that his acts were not a coup under article 80 of the constitution. During this time he has been appointing a committee to help make amendments to the current institution in the hopes of establishing a true, sound democracy. 

During the same time, the leader of the Ennahda party, which is a moderately Islamist party, publicly came out against Saïed. However, the Ennahda party is having a complete overhaul. Over 100 senior officials resigned, claiming that the party’s leadership was failing. 

In the wake of this whole situation on 27 September, thousands of Tunisians took to the streets to protest Saïed’s actions and are calling for an overhaul of the political system. The constant turnover and accusations have led to widespread mistrust of the government’s ability to lead a democratic society. Citizens are fed up with the lack of employment opportunities, failing economy, and complete mismanagement of the pandemic. 

What’s next?

Although the situation is unfolding, it is clear that swift action will need to be taken to avoid chaos. Public dissent is reaching levels that mirror those of the 2011 uprising, and Saïed will need to act quickly if he does not want to risk being overthrown. Regardless, the political turmoil begs to paint a different narrative for the country than the “success story” that came out of the Arab Spring. Disgruntled youth and lack of social services persist, and current leadership cannot seem to navigate itself out of this slump. Widespread corruption and mismanagement of funds could be attributed to some of the failings. Unfortunately, a nation that was once full of hope for the future is crashing down on itself, and seemingly on its way to complete a full circle of where it was in 2011.

It is very possible that violence will break out in the ensuing days. With the continuation of protests, mass resignation of the Ennahda party, and repeated accusations that Saïed is going for a dictatorship, Tunisia is seeing a bleak future for the rest of 2021. Significant attention should be given to the protests, as there are also supporters of Saïed’s decision that have been protesting in favour of him. The two sides could clash if tensions remain high. If the protests become dangerous, a snowball effect could occur as the governing forces are fragile. 

Saïed has declared that foreign intervention will not have a say in his new government. He is vehemently denying any mention of Tunisian politics when speaking with international powers. Ambassadors from the Group of Seven major economies are urging him to elect a new head of parliament and return to democratic order before the situation escalates further. The position Tunisia is in is a sour reminder of the events of the Arab Spring. Arab countries are observing their neighbour, and perhaps learning from its mistakes. It is still unclear the impact that recent events will have on the rest of the Arab world.

Overall it will be imperative to monitor the events over the next few weeks as Tunisia hangs onto its democracy by a thread. In order for peace to be maintained, it seems necessary that President Saïed unfreeze the parliament at once and allow a democratic government to operate. As corruption is a major problem among the rich in the country, perhaps a full fledged investigation into it should be conducted so that the country’s poor are receiving the aid they require. Efforts also need to be made to improve employment opportunities, education, and the overall economy. As social grievances are some of the main causes for a country falling into conflict, these must be dealt with immediately so Tunisia is not put in a more fragile position.

 

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