Tunisia; the geographically small, historically ancient, and demographically young and vibrant North African country, which is located at one of the most beautiful spots at the southern Mediterranean, is always full of wonders when it comes to exploring its internal political dynamics and the extreme transitions defining them. The severe deviances of the socio-political system in Tunisia usually drowns observers in a flood of hard-to-answer questions about the legitimacy of their motives, the feasibility of their outcomes, and the potential of the state to speedily and appropriately recover from their side effects.
In the past decade alone, Tunisia has gone through several extreme political transitions; three of which stands out as the most decisive turning points, in Tunisia’s modern history. They are:
- the popular revolution that brought down Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime and inspired the waves of Arab Spring revolutions all over the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, in 2010/2011;
- the step-down of the Islamist-led government, in response to massive popular protests, in 2013; and
- the sudden death of President Beji Caid Essebsi, amidst an escalating crisis of corruption and economic depression, in 2019.
Astonishingly, the Tunisian state managed to survive all of these major political transitions without affecting the comprehensiveness of the state or people’s insistence on pursuing the ambitious process of democratization. At the moment, one of the perplexing questions surrounding Tunisia is about the ability of the already-exhausted state to survive the current political turmoil, resulted by the sweeping storm of pivotal decisions taken, in late July, by the President of state, Kais Saied, against the two parallel authorities of his own regime – the Parliament and the government.
In a surprise move, on the night of July 25th, President Saied, launched a ruthless war against the government and the parliament of his own regime. Saied, who worked all his life as professor of constitutional law, used the powers given to him by Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution to grab all state civilian and military powers in his own hands. Saied justified the shocking procedure by the need to control the risks aroused by the massive angry protests that erupted all over Tunisia on that day against the failures of the regime in running state affairs and recovering the depressed economy. Since then, Saied fired the Prime Minister, and at least half of the ministerial cabinet, including the ministers of defense, interior, justice, and finance. He also announced and the suspension of all businesses and government activities, expect security, health, and educational facilities.
Whether and when Tunisia can overcome this political earthquake is a difficult question to try to answer while the proceedings of the turmoil are still unfolding, and the biased reporting is dominating the media. On one side, Islamist-biased propagandists are deceitfully labeling Saied as a putschist and are firing alarms about the failure of the so-called democracy in Tunisia that may eventually encourage terrorist intervention. On the other side, anti-Islamist commentators are wrongly insisting on highlighting the battle between Saied and the Parliament as an ideological fight between secularists and Islamists. Yet, the reality of the events on the grounds tells that neither side accurately managed to present the essence of the ongoing show in Tunisia.
To appropriately figure out the situation in Tunisia, three key issues need to be examined. The first has to do with the claim that Tunisia’s democracy is at risk. This implies another important question on whether Tunisia is, at all, a democracy. The second is about whether Saied’s decisions, taken in his capacity as an elected president of the state and in conformity with the constitution, are intended to harm the state which he is leading, and his existence in power, and personal safety, depend on its wellness and sustainability. The third point to consider is about the claim of this being a dogmatic or an ideology-motivated fight between secularists and Islamists over power, rather than being a political war against corruption and for political and economic reform.
Why is Saied Going Wild?
Understanding what motivated the Tunisian President, Kais Saied, to launch this ruthless war against the government and the parliament of his own regime, is key to envisioning whether Tunisia is going to survive this major shock. The massive angry protests that erupted, all over Tunisia, on the Republic Day Anniversary, July 25th, and pushed Saied to react, were not the first of such a big size and for the same cause. Tunisian citizens have been rallying in the streets, since March, calling for holding the political elite accountable for corruption that magnified their sufferings from poverty and disease, especially after the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to governmental statistics, unemployment rates jumped from 14% to 17.4%, at the last quarter of 2020, as a result of an economic contraction that hit a record rate of 8.2%, in September 2020. According to a survey conducted by the World Bank, in cooperation with the governmental National Institute of Statistics, in 2020, poverty rate in Tunisia reached 15.2%. At least, 30% of the surveyed families, stated that they fear running out of food, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic which added to their miseries of unemployment and deteriorating economy. Added to the existing misery is the rising rates of COVID-19 cases, exceeding two-thousand new cases per day in mid-July, that forced neighbor countries to close their borders with or suspend flights to Tunisia.
The current system of governance, the three presidencies, is one of the key reasons behind state failure in getting out of this economic rut. Out of fear of falling back into the authoritarianism of the deep state, the post-revolution constitution in Tunisia tailored a system of governance that is neither presidential nor parliamentarian. Rather, it is a new system based on balancing the decision-making process between three authorities – or “presidencies” as the Tunisians call them. They are: the President of the State, the Prime Minister (the president of the government), and the Speaker of Parliament (the president of the legislative authority).
In theory, the “three presidencies” regime may look like an innovative democratic system that includes all and excludes none. But, in practice, it has proven to be a sounding fail. For three years, since Kais Saied got elected, Tunisia could not achieve any tangible progress under the three presidents, whose agendas and visions are not only inconsistent, but also contradicting. The conflict between the three governing authorities in Tunisia reached a climax point in mid-March, in a way that paralyzed political decision-making, wobbled the faltering economy, and consequently stirred nation-wide protests calling for reform.
Kais Saied, the quiet president with an eloquent Arabic tongue, who comes from a non-political non-partisan background, decided to stand on the peoples’ side in their fight against the corrupt political elite. Motivated by his responsibility towards more than eleven million citizens, and his decades-long experience as a professor of constitutional law, Saied decided to put the three presidencies regime on hold, for a while, so he can deal with issues of top priority to the Tunisian people, including ending poverty and fighting against the widely-spreading pandemic. This, in a nutshell, is the reality of what is happening, nowadays, in Tunisia.
In a video statement, published by the Presidential Bureau, on Sunday, the 1st of August, President Kais Saied asserted that he is not trying to establish an authoritarianism. "There is no withdrawal from respecting rights and freedoms, and there is no room for infringement or assault on them," confirmed Saied. He clearly noted that he willingly chose to stand by the people to “preserve the unity of the state and protect it from the corruption that is decaying its joints.” Saied concluded his message by saying: "Insha’Allah, we will win! It is a war, but without bullets or blood. It is a war based on the law. A war for justice and freedom. We will keep our oath and our responsibility, all the way.”
It Is Not a Coup on Islamists!
As soon as the Tunisian President recited his historical decision to freeze the Parliament, on July 25th, the pro-Islamist propagandists, on social and traditional media platforms, came out immediately claiming that Saied’s decisions are “a coup d’état” against the Islamists’ rule. Famous international figures, like the Yemeni Noble Laureate, Tawakkol Karman, and the British Member of Parliament and former President of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, tweeted about the issue. “The events in Tunisia have all the hallmarks of a coup. That is an assault on the democratic gains acquired during the past decade. All solidarity with the defenders of democratic rights and freedoms, and full support for the restoration of the elected parliament and for an end to oppression;” Corbyn tweeted in Arabic, on August 1st.
Ironically, the promotors of such a flawed claim, tried to compare what is currently happening in Tunisia to what happened in Egypt in June 2013, when the military had to respond to popular protests to remove the Muslim Brotherhood regime from power. Let alone how ridiculous this comparison is, but even a primary school pupil can understand that you cannot accuse an elected state president of committing a coup because he made some decisions about his own regime, within the framework of the authorities given to him in the constitution. Downsizing the whole Tunisian tragedy to an ideological dispute between Kais Saied and the Islamists of Ennahda Party, is misleading and deceitful. They are intentionally disregarding the pleas of the Tunisian people to end their economic sufferings through a political reform. Saied’s fight is not against Islamists, but for political and economic reform. Saied’s decision to freeze the Islamist-dominated parliament must be seen within the bigger picture of the paralyzing system of governance in Tunisia, and through a political, not ideological, lens.
The fight between Islamists and secularists is not the core motivator of the current transition in Tunisia. This ideological dispute is a fight of the elite politicians, not the fight of the people who suffered hell on their hands. Those politicians failed to serve the interests of the people who elected them. Both Tunisian Islamist and secularist parties abused democracy to fulfill their own narrow political interests, on the expense of the distressed people. Now, the public masses decided to hold them accountable and the President of the State, who comes from a non-political non-partisan background, decided to stand on the people’s side in this fight.
Tunisia’s Democracy Cannot Get Worse!
In the early years following the Arab Spring revolutions that brought down Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia and Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, western scholars referred to Egypt and Tunisia as the only two successful survivors of the Arab Spring. Despite the many demographic and social difference between Egypt and Tunisia, they kept comparing the two countries to each other. Most of them were optimistic about the process of democratization in the two countries, judging by seeing Islamists, from the Muslim Brotherhood group in Egypt, and Ennahda Movement in Tunisia, rising to the top of power through elections.
Their superficial judgement blinded them from seeing that Islamists abused democracy, which they do not believe in, to win political power. After they took power, they exhibited the same corrupt practices that their predecessors in the authoritarian regimes committed. It took the Egyptians only one year to realize this fact and get rid of them through a popular revolution, supported by the military, in June 2013. However, the Tunisians are still struggling with the corrupt Islamist politicians up till this day.
After the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, in 2013, the same scholars tended to exaggerate in labeling Tunisia as the only “successful democracy in the Arab world,” allegedly because it is the only Arab Spring country that could accommodate Islamists in power. The same scholars, today, are firing alarms that Tunisia’s democracy is at great risk as Islamists are being pushed out of the political scene by Kais Saied and his supporters from the secular parties. Some pro-Islamist propagandists on social and traditional media went as far as calling Saied a putschist. In either case, those analysts are mistaken, or at least too emotional and too quick, for making judgements about the current gloomy situation in Tunisia.
The so-called democracy in Tunisia, represented by elections that is held on regular basis and an ideal constitution that is inapplicable in real life, failed to make citizens’ lives better. On the contrary, this democracy was brutally abused by the political elite – secularists and Islamists alike – in a way that maximized people’s economic and social sufferings rather than relieving them. Therefore, the world does not need to fret a much about the future of the Tunisian democracy, after Saied’s move, because democracy in Tunisia cannot get worse than what it is right now.
How to Keep the Tunisian Boat Afloat?
Coup or not a coup; that is not the question. The problem of Tunisia is much bigger and much deeper than having Islamists in power or the widening disagreement between the joints of the ruling three presidencies regime. Guaranteeing the Tunisian state fast survival and recovery is the most important, right now. That is not only limited to political recovery or putting the country on the right track of democratization. It must also include setting a solid program for ending corruption and starting an economic reform process. In a direct communication with the Tunisian President Kais Said, in the past weeks, several Arab leaders – that Saied declined to name – offered to help Tunisia recover from its economic depression.
However, this requires first helping Kais Saied navigate through the current turmoil and put the political wheels at work, once again. It is highly unlikely that he will be able to do that before the end of the thirty days of freezing the Parliament, i.e. by August 24th. Yet, this should happen as soon as possible to avoid the eruption of domestic violence or the intervention of terrorist organizations, similar to what has happened in other Arab Spring countries. Some of the terrorist organizations in Libya, located right at Tunisia’s eastern border, are recruiting extremist Tunisian youth among them.
In the newsletter of the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists, published on Thursday, the 30th of July, the terrorist organization wrote an entire page about Tunisia, wherein they claimed that the “cursed Islamists of Tunisia” are now paying the price for committing the sin of “leaving the path of Sharia and Jihad, while choosing the path of democracy and peace.” ISIS, also, promised to benefit from the current turmoil in Tunisia to extend their mission, in the region.
Therefore, it is a top priority now, for Tunisia, its neighbors in North Africa and the Middle East, as well as the international community, to clear their ears from the propaganda promoted by the two conflicting sides of the political elite in Tunisia, and help the state recover and stand on its political feet, on a tough economic ground, as fast as possible.
Dalia Ziada is an Egyptian author and Director of the Liberal Democracy Institute. Her work covers military affairs, political Islamism, and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa. Tweets at @daliaziada.