Kais Saied’s Fantasies Are Drowning Tunisia

The April 18 arrest of Rached Ghannouchi represents a dramatic escalation of Tunisian President Kais Saied’s assault on the political opposition. The leader of the Islamist oriented Ennahda Party and speaker of the former parliament, he is the most prominent of some 20 leaders arrested by the regime. One American analyst tweeted that some of 100 officers who searched Ghannouchi’s home repeatedly asked where the gold and jewelry were hidden. However strange, this effort to literally uncover a presumably hidden fortune suggests that the security forces subscribe to the conspiracy theories that Saied—and his allies in the online media—have spread with considerable success.

A key ingredient in Saied’s conspiratorial worldview is his conviction that western powers are trying to impose market reforms designed to prop the very corrupt elite who, he claims, brought Tunisia to its present economic crisis. Invoking this theme, on April 6 Saied rejected a $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout package for Tunisia. Insisting that Tunisia “is not for sale,” Saied claimed that unnamed “internal” forces are selling “Tunisia to foreign interests,” and warned that Tunisians “must rely on” themselves. Saied made this statement at the tomb of President Habib Bourguiba—and on the very day marking the anniversary of his passing—thus signaling his resolve to sustain the legacy of defiant nationalism bequeathed by the founder of the modern Tunisian state. But as fate would have it, nearly two weeks later the United States Embassy announced the delivery of 25,000 metric tons of wheat. The timing of this embassy statement prompted a wave of criticism from Tunisian bloggers who pointed out that Tunisia was increasingly dependent on the US for its food supplies, even as the  president was courting non-western powers—especially China—in his bid to defend Tunisia’s sovereignty and self-reliance.

Saied’s believes that western powers are trying to prop the corrupt elite who, he claims, brought Tunisia to its present economic crisis.

As these and other critics have noted, there is no obvious alternative to working with the European Union and the United States, not to mention the IMF and the World Bank. China, and Gulf Arab states lack the means and even political will to rescue Tunisia. Neither can the Shanghai-based New Development Bank that is funded by BRICS (Brazil, China, Russia, India, and South Africa) be a substitute for the IMF. Apparently aware of these hard realities, Tunisia’s Prime Minister Najla Bouden and her Minister of the Economy and Planning Samir Saied have been trying to save the IMF deal. Their tricky endeavors underscore the deep contradictions that animate Saied’s authoritarian project, not to mention the potentially fractious coalition of forces he has assembled to advance it. But his ministers are unlikely to defy a president who still commands wide support. Thus, it may take a total economic collapse to discredit Tunisia’s ambitious autocrat and the toxic mix of fantasies and resentments that Saied has championed in the name of the “people.”

Saied’s Economic and Political Balancing Act

Saied’s challenge has been to sustain a loose coalition of groups whose tacit or explicit support is rooted in their shared fears and resentments, rather than in a common economic or political vision. Estranged youth, beleaguered middle class businesspeople and professionals, the liberal intelligentsia, and vulnerable blue- and white-collar public sector workers all resent a political class that for seven years seemed paralyzed by petty personal, family, and ideological struggles.  Ennahda leaders (especially Ghannouchi) who had been in government since the revolution in 2010-2011 became the lightning rod for these sentiments—a state of affairs that helps to explain the absence of mass protests against Ghannouchi’s arrest. At the same time, however, criticism of, or unhappiness with, the president’s economic policies seem to be growing.

Some of this dissatisfaction comes from the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), which has declared that the IMF deal posed a threat to workers. But criticism has also come from mainstream media commentators, economic experts and even some business leaders. Some of these individuals had wagered that despite his anti-colonialist rhetoric, Saied’s targeted assault on the political elite would clear the path for economic reforms that the previous parliament had failed to produce. As one prominent businessman put it to this author, he supported “fifty percent” of what Saied was doing.

Many of those who expected economic reforms focused their guarded hopes on the efforts of Saied’s appointed ministers to pass, by decree, a series of laws designed to increase tax revenues and attract foreign investment. The most important of these measures was a reworked finance law, whose terms were partly designed to fulfill Tunisia’s obligations under the terms of the nearly $2 billion IMF bailout. But the 2022 version of this law satisfied none of the contending groups that had effectively backed or at least tolerated Saied. Criticism from the left and the UGTT was especially strong and echoed by Saied himself. He asserted that while the law was written with insufficient time “to achieve the people’s objectives relating to a just tax system,” he was signing despite “its shortcomings and unconvincing choices.”

The revised 2023 finance law has generated even more debate, in large measure because it relies on a complex tax system that is seen as unfair and/or is widely expected not to raise revenues commensurate with the government’s projected budget. The IMF apparently shares these concerns. Thus, while it reached a preliminary agreement with Tunisia in October 2022, over the last six months it has hesitated to give its final approval, thus further delaying reforms and depriving the country of much needed hard currency. Top US and European officials warned that Tunisia is heading toward an economic meltdown. But this dangerous situation has only prompted Saied to try to shore up his flagging legitimacy by reiterating his opposition to any IMF deal that might come at the expense of his followers. His rejection of foreign dictates and defense of Tunisian sovereignty seem to signal that the president has chosen to risk a decisive break with the IMF, even as his own ministers are still trying to reach a deal.

Dissonance in the Government Invites Polite Mockery

The government’s obvious dissonance regarding the IMF deal was displayed by Minister of Economy Samir Saied, who days before the president’s April 6 statement declared that Tunisia needed an agreement. President Saied’s subsequent criticism of the IMF did not dissuade Minister Saied from pursuing this goal. Attending the annual meeting of the World Bank and IMF in Washington during the week of April 10,  the minister affirmed Tunisia’s desire to advance reforms while ensuring social stability. Both before and after the Washington meetings, western officials applauded these sentiments. Thus on March 25 France’s ambassador to Tunisia, Andre Parant, seemed to anticipate Saied’s words when he argued that reforms were in Tunisia’s interest. From Washington, IMF Middle East Director Jihad Azour held that “the Tunisian authorities did not ask us to reconsider the program so far,” and insisted that “this program has been designed, proudly by the Tunisian authorities,” including “a team of more than 100 high civil servants.”

The Arab Gulf States and the BRICS Offer No Exit Ramp

Of course, what Saied objects to is not foreign power per se, but rather the paramount power exercised by western financial institutions. Self-reliance may begin at home, but like other populist autocrats seeking to deflect western pressures, Saied is seeking to link his country to the growing number of countries and new multi-lateral organizations that have tried to create effective alternatives to the IMF and World Bank.

Many Arab states are pursuing a similar agenda in a bid to increase their diplomatic room for maneuver. Thus Algeria is poised to participate in a coalition of Arab donors to help its Tunisian neighbor. But while Saied has reached out to Arab Gulf leaders, beyond a $74 million loan provided by the Arab Monetary Fund in November 2022 (which was reportedly offered in the expectation that Tunisia would reach a final agreement with the IMF), Algeria’s wish remains only a wish. Most Arab leaders may share Saied’s hostility to Islamist parties—not to mention his lack of enthusiasm for democratic politics. Yet they will not, and probably cannot, foot the bill for the escalating costs of Saied’s incoherent economic policies.

What Saied objects to is the paramount power exercised by western financial institutions.

Given this hard reality, Saied—or at least some of his most fervent domestic allies—have proposed turning to the BRICS countries and their Shanghai-based New Development Bank. The idea was originally raised by the avowedly pro-Saied July 25 Movement that among other things, has lobbied for the dissolution of Ennahda. On April 9, its leader, Mahmoud bin Mabrouk—in an announcement that seemed to parrot the President’s own line—announced that Tunisia would accept “no interference in Tunisia’s internal affairs. We are negotiating the terms, but we refuse to receive instructions and the EU’s agenda.” Instead, he asserted, his country would look to the BRICs countries for “a political, economic and financial alternative that will enable Tunisia to open up to the new world.” In doing so, he added, Tunisia would follow Algeria, which “announced that it will join the group.”

What Mabrouk fails to appreciate is that “joining” the BRICS is no simple matter. In fact, the BRICS’ New Development Bank conditions funds it can provide to any one applicant on securing an IMF backed reform program. This stipulation, as one study notes, makes it impossible for the Bank to replace the IMF. Thus it is hardly surprising that Saied’s critics have dismissed this idea out of hand. This kind of “gesticulation,” one writer argues, has the appearance of naïveté and infantile bravado and risks “adding a geo-strategic and security dimension to what has been a growing if purely economic crisis.”

China Will Not Save Tunisia (or Saied)

If the BRICs will not provide Saied with an exit ramp, will Tunisia’s relations with Beijing offer a better prospect? Representing Tunisia at the December 2022 “First China-Arab States Summit” in Saudi Arabia, Saied was surely encouraged as President Xi Jinping opened up the proceedings with a call for a partnership, highlighted China’s growing direct investments in the Arab world, and proclaimed Beijing’s support for “equity, justice, democracy and freedom,” based on the principles of “non-interference” and “development paths suited” to the “national conditions” of Arab states. More recently, China’s new ambassador to Tunisia Wan Li stressed that China would “explore cooperation potential within the framework of Belt and Road cooperation.” Welcoming Beijing’s new envoy, Saied emphasized his “desire to raise bilateral relations to a new level.”

But rhetoric is one thing, and action another. Beijing has provided funds for the construction of a new hospital, and the building of Tunisia’s new Diplomatic Academy. But however helpful and appreciated, these are largely symbolic, soft power investments that do not remotely compare to galloping economic ties between China and Gulf Arab states.

China’s new ambassador to Tunisia has effectively, if unintentionally, exposed this gap between rhetoric and reality. While paying homage to the principle of non-interference, in nearly the same breath he suggested that hopes for expanding economic relations between Tunisia and China would depend in part on Tunisia’s talks with the IMF and the fate of its economic reforms. For China, the bottom line does matter. This is not exactly the message that Saied has hoped to hear.

An Intransigent President with Limited Options  

While he despises Tunisia’s effective dependence on western institutions and on the United States in particular, Saied has few other options. US military support for Tunisia continues, but the State Department’s proposed 2024 budget reduces economic aid by a whopping 70 percent.  But if the threat of reduced economic aid is likely to only reinforce Saied’s intransigence, it might still induce some members of his government to push the president to drink what he sees as the poison chalice of IMF support.

The sad reality is that it may take an ever greater crisis to firmly shake the wobbly coalition Saied has assembled to sustain his autocratic project. Signs of such a crisis are everywhere: the recent self-immolation of a famous Tunisian football player, a dire water shortage, the plunging value of Tunisian bonds and dinar—not to mention a surging foreign debt that is raising concerns about a possible default—all could presage a moment of dire truth for the battered economy and a population struggling to make it through another day. But as more Tunisians suffer the vagaries of a socioeconomic near collapse, President Saied continues to speak of imagined enemies and a war of liberation against the West. But far from liberating his country, his fantasies are drowning Tunisia.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Présidence Tunisie