Tunisia’s Political Crisis Threatens To Deepen Economic Troubles

Amidst many political changes in the past year, Tunisia continues to face economic turmoil in the seemingly never-ending wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Reuters, the country needs approximately 4 billion Tunisian dinars per month to pay off debts and salaries. However, the treasury only has 544 million. Overall, approximately one-fifth of the country’s population is considered poverty-stricken or economically vulnerable.

Elected to the presidency in 2019, President Kais Saied inherited a government bogged down by corruption and economic stagnation. Moreover, in 2020, the Tunisian economy shrank by approximately 8.8 percent due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to France 24. Tunisia’s ongoing economic crisis continues to discourage interest from foreign direct investors. Furthermore, tourism has also severely decreased. In an effort to rid his administration of corruption, Saied dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspended parliament for 30 days in late July of this year. By doing so, President Saied invoked Article 80 of the country’s constitution, which allows sweeping powers when there is “imminent danger threatening the nation.” Tunisian public opinion seems to be somewhat divided regarding their reactions to Saied’s recent strokes of political authority. In a poll from the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, nearly 60 percent of the Tunisian public claim to be hopeful for the future because of Saied’s promises to root out economic corruption within the administration. The remaining 40 percent believe that his actions against former Prime Minister Mechichi and the Tunisian Parliament qualify as an unconstitutional coup. However, as a former constitutional law professor, President Saied assured the public of the legality of his actions. According to the Washington Institute, he was willing to face public scrutiny for his actions in order to elevate the country from its economically stagnant state.

President Saied recently appointed Najla Bouden Romdhane as Mechichi’s replacement, making her Tunisia’s first female Prime Minister. Romdhane’s appointment comes as a somewhat surprising choice given that she is a “political unknown,” according to The Guardian. She is currently a geology professor at the National Engineering School of Tunis, and worked for the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research by implementing programs for the World Bank. Romdhane will be the tenth Prime Minister that Tunisia has had since the 2011 Arab Spring, in which Tunisia was widely regarded as the only case that witnessed a successful democratic transition. Therefore, many analysts worry that Saied’s recent sweeping decisions through the power of the emergency government will result in a step back for the democratic values of the country.

In order to overcome the current economic stagnation in Tunisia, the government must continue to heed the public’s concerns. As Prime Minister, Romdhane will be heading the assembly of a new government, and one of the foremost concerns for this new government will be to attract foreign investment. As The Guardian reported, Tunisian foreign debt is nearly equal to the country’s total GDP. This has forced the reliance on some international organizations, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The State Statistics Institute reports that Tunisia’s unemployment rate is nearly one-fifth of the total population. With such a high rate of unemployment, this breeds an environment of social unrest. Moreover, as with many of the protests across the Maghreb, the youth are at the forefront of these mass mobilizations. This is because the youth make up the largest demographic of the unemployed population of Tunisia. Without any economic prospects, they are more likely to continue demands for institutional reform. In this regard, the centralized actions by Saied are more palatable to the youth demographic. However, they should be limited to their original emergency status as they were intended.

Despite the somewhat optimistic outlook of the Tunisian youth, President Saied’s actions and continued use of the power of the emergency government have many wondering about the future of political pluralism in Tunisia. The economic stagnation of the country is usually coupled with a political stalemate seen prominently in parliament. This is most evident between Saied and the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, who held the largest constituency within parliament before they were suspended. In order to mend the severed bonds between the president and the elite government establishment, PM Romdhane must work to recognize the influence of parties like Ennahda when organizing the new government. This new government must also continue to heed the concerns of the public, especially amidst the perpetually evolving pandemic conditions.