Since 2011, Tunisia has worked to build a democracy out of the autocratic regime. In July of 2021, President Kais Saied stopped that democratic process by suspending parliament and forcing out members of the cabinet without any immediate replacements. President Saied’s decision, which has been called an authoritarian grab by many, was in response to mass protests calling for new elections in the country over the worsening economic conditions in the country. The power grab has sent the country into a state of confusion and disorder, with many citizens uncertain about their own futures and that of their country.
The Tunisian Revolution and the Political Process
Tunisia’s contemporary pursuit of democracy began with economic stagnation and unrest in 2011 when the country was ruled by long-time dictator Ben Ali. The political trajectory of the nation was uppended when Mohamed Bouazizi, a food seller, lost his cart to the police and did not have any form of recourse. With few forms of protest allowed by the government, he set himself aflame as a display of discontent. This sparked nationwide protests against Ben Ali and his regime, who fled in January of 2011 after losing confidence in his regime’s stability to withstand the ongoing protests. Prominent officials linked to the Ben Ali regime were dismissed and an interim government was installed with the purpose of setting up elections to determine a new constituent assembly and a new constitution.
Most of the political parties in Tunisia were created after 2011. However, Ennahda, the party in power at the time of Saied’s decision to suspend the government, was created much earlier. This party has shifted from focusing on Islamic political ideology and has ventured towards secularization. Since 2011, the party has succeeded in many elections, but like other parties, has suffered from weak support and a splintered base. This has hurt its efforts to make any lasting socioeconomic progress even when in control of parliament. Most parties have experienced similar issues like sustaining electability and addressing intra-party issues.
Following a unique and inspirational dialogue between different groups involved in creating a lasting democratic electoral system, a constitution was written in consensus and voted for in 2014. Drafting a constitution that incorporated the different views of all parties involved and that would adequately recognize “freedom of conscience and belief, and equality between the sexes” took a long time. Nevertheless, the constitution was passed with 200 votes out of 216, showing how the long deliberation period paid off.
Missing Alternative Authority
With a new constitution and government in place, the next step was to address the economic issues afflicting the country, such as the high unemployment rate and corruption. However, since 2011, approaches to solving economic issues have not resulted in any significant success, and the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic has made it more difficult. In response to worsening economic and health conditions, protestors took to the streets across the country in July 2021, arguing that the parties in power had done little to assist everyday Tunisians during this crisis. In turn, the decision by current President Kais Saeid, to suspend parliament and remove the prime minister without immediate replacements or plans to jumpstart the economy has left the country in a delicate position.
The suspension of parliament by Saied would not be as striking if there was a court in place to determine the legality of this order. Unfortunately, the creation of a constitutional court was one of the few things not accomplished in 2014 when the constitution was being put together. So far, Saied has worked to address price fluctuations in common goods. However, other than that, there have been little to no steps taken to address high unemployment rates and the spread of COVID-19.
Tunisian Woes and Demands
For many Tunisian citizens, a root cause of economic hardship is the lack of adequate employment that fits their education level or their field of study. This issue is most prevalent amongst younger generations; often the same young people who protested back in 2011 still have yet to achieve financial security through employment despite that being one of their primary demands back then. With weak demand from employers so prevalent already, COVID-19 made it much worse by increasing the number of people who lost jobs. What’s more, the health ministry had announced the pandemic collapsed the health care system, thus putting another strain on a fragile government.
The lack of decisive government action in Tunisia has created many deficiencies in the provision of public services. In addition, much of the international aid that the country receives has been halted during this political crisis, only continuing to worsen the conditions of Tunisians already suffering from the economic downturn resulting from the pandemic. A study by the World Bank found that many families have had to alter their consumption of food due to limited resources and low-income levels. Further, Tunisia has yet to restart negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to avoid bankruptcy on loans that are due soon.
The President and Parties of Tunisia
Throughout his presidential campaign in 2019, President Saied repeatedly vowed to address these issues affecting Tunisians even before the 2011 revolution. Previously a lawyer and a professor, Saied set himself apart by criticizing the 2014 constitution and by framing himself as independent from established political organizations. However, instead of listening to citizens’ appeals as he promised, Saied has essentially exploited the discontent for his own gain. He framed the recent protests as a national emergency and then enacted an article of the constitution that allows for rule by executive decrees in times of emergency. Really, by assuming executive power, Saied wished to prevent early elections from being held. It is assumed that the worsening crisis of health and security in the country that has unfolded under Saied’s administration would hurt Saied’s popularity and result in him losing office if elections were indeed held.
By not allowing for elections to occur, President Saied has taken away the right to democratic accountability in the Tunisian government from its citizens and has instead invested more power in the role of the president. In addition, he has told the press that the 2014 constitution is open to reform. Like other countries in which the constitution has been amended by leaders to extend their hold on power, this revision could mean more permanent power placed in the political parties that have been unable to address the needs of their constituents. This means there is no good form of pressure directed towards the president to return power to the parliament and elect new members of government. Thus, if protesters call for President Saied to leave office, there will be no government institution to carry out said process.
Tunisia at a Turning Point
As of October 2021, President Saied has introduced a new cabinet to replace the one he suspended. The cabinet has the largest number of women ever for the Tunisian government and is led by Najla Bouden Romdhane, an engineer with experience working with World Bank projects in Tunisia. She will be the first woman PM of Tunisia at a time when critics of Saied have voiced concerns about his views regarding equal inheritance among men and women, amongst other issues.
Despite these fresh faces, it will remain to be seen if President Saied yields his extreme executive power back to the PM. In the current constitution, the Prime Minister holds most of the power and responsibility outside of security and military affairs. However, since the president holds the power to suspend parliament and dismiss the PM through the use of Article 80 that allows for suspension in times of peril to the country. It remains to be seen if President Saied will place trust back into a parliamentary system or move towards a different type of governance.
Ultimately, this crisis has exposed the need for the creation of a constitutional court to administer accountability and to ensure that no future leaders can take such dramatic actions without legal approval from another branch of the government. In the meantime, Tunisians are still waiting to see if President Saied’s promises will ever be kept.