Long heralded as the sole success story of the Arab uprisings, Tunisia was thrown into political tumult on July 25 when President Kais Saied dismissed the prime minister, suspended parliament and removed politicians’ immunity from criminal prosecution. The decision followed days of protest and long-term malaise, with Tunisians angered over the government’s COVID response, endemic corruption, a lagging economy and, more broadly, the inability of the post-Ben Ali political system — particularly political parties — to deliver for citizens. While many Tunisians supported Saied’s move, they and the international community await what comes next and how it will impact the North African country’s long-term political and economic trajectory.
USIP’s Elie Abouaoun and Leo Siebert look at what led Saied to take this dramatic move, why many Tunisians support it, what comes next and how the international community can help.
Why did President Saied decide to take such an extraordinary move?
Siebert: There are multiple reasons, with both immediate and longer-term objectives behind Saied’s invocation of article 80 of the constitution, which gives the president exceptional powers “in the event of imminent danger.” The spark for the decision was a political conflict and crisis of governance that was spiraling out of control amid the country’s most catastrophic COVID-19 wave. In July, the public hospital system was failing, with preventable deaths on the rise as hospitals ran out of oxygen, and in some cases, even lost electricity. This comes against a backdrop of already steadily declining public services and a stagnant and fragmented government perceived by the public as unable or unwilling to manage the myriad crises at its door. Public demonstrations demanding accountable and responsive governance have been met by numerous instances of excessive police violence against demonstrators, harassment of civil society and journalists, as well as prosecutions of government criticism on social media.
With the state and society increasingly at odds, the state itself was also experiencing an alarming level of dysfunction at a critical period. A primary cause of the dysfunction was a political conflict between Saied and Speaker of Parliament Rachid Ghannouchi in which neither was willing or able to negotiate a path forward, resulting in a stalemate with both sides spending their energy on political maneuvering. Meanwhile economic, social and health conditions continued to deteriorate.
Dismissing the government and freezing parliament, while deeply controversial, effectively ended the stalemate, at least for the time being. It also strengthens Saied’s bargaining position ahead of what will be contentious debates around how to correct the country’s trajectory. The president has been clear that by invoking article 80, he also intends to reform the political system, citing the endemic corruption, continued impunity and the inability of the current system to deliver the reforms, accountability and justice Tunisians need and deserve. Critics of the president’s decision argue that change via one-man rule, even temporarily, is not the solution and only exacerbates the problem’s the president has cited as justification for his decision.
It’s also important to remember that Saied was elected without a political party and has made his distaste for Tunisia’s political parties clear. Given this fact and the popular belief that leading parties have to-date failed to act in the interest of the public good, we should not be surprised to see forthcoming proposals from the president that diminish the primacy of parties in addressing the many challenges facing the country. On numerous occasions the president has advocated for a presidential system with stronger, democratically elected local and regional councils. Many believe he will pursue this model. But even this remains unclear. Another possibility in the short term that may be easier to negotiate is amendments to the electoral law that could limit the chances of deeply fragmented parliaments incapable of forming stable ruling coalitions.
Many Tunisians have expressed support for Saied’s decision. What does this reveal about citizens’ views on the country’s political system?
Siebert: It is important to understand that public support for the suspension of the current political system is not a referendum on democracy. It is a referendum on the performance of those elected since 2011, the system created by the 2014 constitution and the resulting transactional consensus between the main political parties. Citizens who fought hard and sacrificed greatly to dislodge the oppressive one-party system of the old regime expected their democratically elected leaders to improve living conditions and enable transitional justice, responsive governance and accountability. However, the current system has not led to prosperity nor consolidated democracy, which Tunisians so badly desire.
The ills of the old regime remain and the underlying conditions that led to the 2011 uprising have not been addressed. While access to the spoils of power can now be won through credible electoral processes, citizens continue to suffer skyrocketing inflation, declining public services and systemic marginalization as politicians, business elites and security forces continue to act with impunity.
Some in civil society point to the current predicament as evidence that their attempts to hold leaders to account via the ballot box have not worked, citing this as further evidence of the need for reforms.
While those who helped build the current system are rightly sounding the alarm that Tunisia risks authoritarian drift, it appears that a majority are willing to give the president some leeway and continue to watch carefully and cautiously, ready to stand in unity against him should he prove to be a threat to the country’s hard-won freedoms.
What comes next? How can this crisis be resolved?
Abouaoun: The president has yet to appoint a new prime minister as he promised when invoking article 80. And there are no updates on his plan for a roadmap toward restoring inclusive politics. The longer he waits, the more impatient the public, civil society and political parties will become, further testing the legitimacy of his actions and threatening the country’s tenuous stability.
The outcome of the recent shake-up will only yield positive results if it is complemented by a political roadmap that can bring the country back to the realm of inclusive politics. The grievances against mainstream political parties are irrefutable, but their role is still essential to a sound democracy. Therefore, the key question is what systemic reforms are needed to enable and incentivize responsive governance and prevent the recurrence of previous failures.
Despite the significant gains made by Tunisians since 2011, political and social exclusion continued to fuel public grievances. Polling regularly confirms a majority of Tunisians believe their living conditions have deteriorated since 2011 and that political parties have not managed well the economic and social aspects of the transition. While this is not inaccurate, it is worth highlighting that the structural economic and social reforms needed in Tunisia require more than just a functioning government. Tunisia’s crisis is primarily driven by a lack of popular legitimacy of the current governing structures. Without a renewed social contract and a large constituency for these painful reforms, no government will be able to make the right decisions.
Is there a role for the United States and the international community?
Abouaoun: There is certainly a role for the international community, including the United States. As the security landscape in the Middle East and North Africa is changing with a multitude of regional actors playing a larger role than before, and not necessarily to the benefit of local citizens, Tunisia needs to be shielded from regional conflicts and power struggles. The United States, the Europe Union and other countries should caution regional players against using Tunisia to settle their own differences.
Beyond providing bilateral financial and technical assistance — which are important and necessary —Tunisia’s political transition continues to require constant international support and encouragement to all political forces to remain vigilant about the importance of inclusive politics and the disastrous consequences of resorting to violence. Tunisian political forces should realize that, after all, establishing legitimate governance structures is the cornerstone of stability and prosperity. Such a process requires a constructive role for politicians, corporations, unions, civil society and other stakeholders and will certainly benefit from international support, be it technical, financial or political.