Tunisia’s Multiple Crises Threaten Its Brittle Democracy

On January 26, Tunisia witnessed a scene that echoed the dramatic events of January 6 in Washington, DC. Outside the Tunisian parliament in Tunis, hundreds of protesters tossed verbal barbs at the country’s elected leaders just as members of parliament were voting on a major cabinet reshuffle that President Kais Saied asserted was unconstitutional. One decade after the Jasmine Revolution, protesters called for the “downfall of the regime.” This came after a week of demonstrations that saw one death and at least 1,000 arrests, with protesters demanding jobs, housing, and decent health care.

These two disjointed stories—one of economic emergency and the other of political crisis—sum up the gathering storm threatening to submerge Tunisia’s democracy a decade after its Arab Spring protests. That the country has reached this high-water mark is partly the result of a populist president whose disdain for political parties, and for the prime minister himself, has widened the breach between parliament and the executive. But Tunisia’s malaise runs far deeper than any one leader. Although the country’s political system was designed to give a divided political elite a way to share power, it has in fact fostered conflict and paralysis in a parliament that has failed to tackle the country’s ongoing economic crisis.

Tunisia’s Power Sharing System Hinges on the President

This situation is surely paradoxical. After all, the system that emerged in 2014 was supposed to attenuate the fears of both Islamists and secularists that their rivals might take exclusive control of the parliament. This was to be accomplished by using a proportional electoral system that denied any one group a majority, thus requiring the often fractious dance of power sharing. Moreover, the new constitution divided authority between a president responsible for foreign affairs and national security, and a parliament and prime minister responsible for domestic issues. Such a division of labor encouraged all sides to look to the president, who is supposed to act as a kind of national arbiter whose primary mission is to represent the entire nation. On that basis, the president is expected to foster consensus across the social, identity, and ideological divides of Tunisian society.

This mediating role was and remains important because the constitution does not clearly delineate the procedures for sharing power between the president and parliament, and between the president and prime minister. According to Article 89, the party with the largest plurality of seats in parliament selects a government. But it is the president who “shall appoint the Head of Government and the members of government,” none of whom can come from parliament itself. By leaving the appointment of the prime minister and government to the president, while nevertheless requiring that ministers gain a vote of confidence from the parliament before being sworn in by the president, Article 89 failed to clarify whether the ultimate authority of the government derived from the parliament or the president.

Still, if these conflicting procedures invited a potential struggle between the legislature and executive, they were also politically useful: so long as the president retained the trust of all the parties, those who feared that their rivals might join with the prime minister to impose their agenda on the rest of parliament could look to the president to keep the peace. In short, while Tunisia has a “mixed system,” the president is the crucial player and arbiter.

Kais Saied Is No Mediator

The election of Kais Saied in October 2019 disrupted this system. As he had no ties to any political party and had never held office, it was widely expected that Saied would remain above the political fray. But as a newcomer who openly displayed his scorn for the existing political system, he lacked the experience—and perhaps the temperament—to manage the country’s rival forces and leaders. Brandishing his independence as a representative of the people, he proceeded to ignore the will of many MPs, not least of whom was his prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, and Rachid Ghannouchi, who as speaker of the parliament and leader of the Islamist Ennahda, feared that Mechichi would serve as “the president’s man” and not the voice of the parliament.

But as a newcomer who openly displayed his scorn for the existing political system, Saied lacked the experience—and perhaps the temperament—to manage the country’s rival forces and leaders.

Yet it turned out that Ghannouchi’s fears were unfounded. After all, while beholden to the president who had appointed him, Mechichi still needed a viable coalition and a vote of confidence from the parliament. To secure the latter’s blessing, he formed an alliance with Ennahda and Qalb Tunis. A secular party led by the millionaire media mogul Nabil Karoui (who is currently being held in detention on charges of financial corruption), Qalb Tunis’s partnership with the Islamist-oriented Ennahda infuriated all the other secular parties. Seeking to corner Ennahda, they started to flirt with Saied, whose growing anger with Ghannouchi and with Mechichi put him at odds with many MPs, especially in the Islamist camp.

These multiple conflicts ensured that by late 2020, the president was a major source of tension between Islamist and secular leaders. Infighting between Islamists and secularists intensified in concert with the country’s escalating economic and health crises, thus setting the stage for a week of street protests and the January 26 demonstration before parliament.

The President Says No

If the disdain for Tunisia’s political elite that the protesters displayed was deeply felt, the rising tensions between the president and legislature represented a genuine political crisis. At its core, this crisis pivoted around one key question: has the time finally arrived to cast aside a mixed governing system in favor of either a parliamentary or presidential system?

The immediate—if somewhat arcane—controversy that precipitated an acrimonious debate over this crucial question began in early January, when Mechichi proposed replacing 11 ministers in the cabinet. He and his allies argued that Article 89 gives the prime minister the right to make these changes, while Saied and his allies contended that a correct reading of the constitution supports the conclusion that the president can decide whether to accept the prime minister’s nominations. Seeking to make his position crystal clear, Saied summoned the prime minister and other leaders to a televised meeting during which he claimed that Mechichi and his allies had undermined the constitution and that the new ministers have conflicts of interest.

Seeking to make his position crystal clear, Saied reportedly said1 “Enough, enough, enough! I have sworn to defend this country, this people and this revolution, but I do not see you taking the same direction. In this case, there is the law between us!” He also declared that he “would like to inform the Tunisian people that all my reform initiatives were in vain, sapped of energy by the existing system. But until my last breath I will protect the revolution!” Thus, if any Tunisians still clung to the hope that Saied could be an arbiter of the system, his caustic language surely disabused them of such expectations.

Saied’s criticism of Mechichi was not directed merely at the latter only but at all MPs who had dared to defy the president. Such defiance had in fact mounted in the weeks preceding the ill-fated January 25 meeting. The main purveyor of what Saied surely sees as pure insolence is Ghannouchi, who has finally come out in favor of a full parliamentary system after the president delayed the swearing in of the new ministers approved by parliament.

Ghannouchi’s remarks provoked a firestorm of criticism from secular, leftist, and liberal leaders. Speaking for the pan-Arabist Tunisian Popular Current, Mohsen al-Nabti held that Ghannouchi’s statement “poured fuel on the fire, revealing his overt coup-type intentions.” Project of Tunisia Movement leader Mohsen Marzouk echoed this thought when claimed that Ghannouchi’s words were a “sincere expression of his putsch-inclined thought.” These hyperbolic assertions provided every incentive to up the ante and little incentive for the parties to negotiate their differences. Indeed, after Mechichi secured a vote of confidence from parliament for his cabinet reshuffle, Saied threatened to dissolve the parliament—while some of his opponents began floating the idea of impeaching the president himself. Seeking to block any such effort, Abir Moussi—the leader of the Free Destourian Party and a fierce advocate for a secularly oriented presidential system that would exclude all Islamist parties—intensified her campaign to impeach Ghannouchi, thus extending an arm of support to the president.

It is quite possible that Saied will make good on his threat to push for new elections.  

It is quite possible that Saied will make good on his threat to push for new elections. But if this happens without a change in the electoral system, one that creates a threshold for gaining seats that could encourage wider alliances, the very identity and social divisions that have paralyzed the parliament for six years will reemerge. That situation would thus detract MPs from focusing on Tunisia’s economic crisis and the related problem of rampant corruption, not to mention the country’s battle with COVID-19, which as of February 11 had infected some 220,000 Tunisians and killed about 7,400.

A Second National Dialogue?

The failure to advance a coherent economic reform program is not surprising. As the recent protests demonstrate, any strategy that is not bolstered by something akin to a Marshall Plan to cushion the costs of reform would provoke more resistance from those social sectors already suffering the brunt of the economic crisis. Moreover, the ability of any government to address this challenge has been stymied by the competing efforts of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA) to protect their rival constituencies and competing interests. Thus while the UGTT has called on the president to preside over a new national dialogue on economic issues, Saied is unlikely to spend his already depleted political capital overseeing negotiations between rival economic interest groups that have thus far not agreed on how to foster market change while protecting Tunisia’s most vulnerable groups.

One possible exit from the current quagmire would be to forge a new national dialogue focused not on the economy, but rather on some of the key political and constitutional obstacles to creating a more effective parliament. 

One possible exit from the current quagmire would be to forge a new national dialogue focused not on the economy, but rather on some of the key political and constitutional obstacles to creating a more effective parliament. While avoiding the hot button topic of choosing a presidential or parliamentary system, the dialogue might tackle issues such as amending the electoral law, or even more so, the contentious question of  amending the law that sets out the procedures for choosing the Constitutional Court. That body has not yet been created because MPs—who are supposed to select four members of the 12-member court—have failed to agree. Their inaction is hardly surprising, as Islamists and secularists have a huge stake in a court that will play a major role in defining civil and human rights. Still, given the constitutional stalemate, it might be worth pushing for such a dialogue, particularly if it puts in place a court that, by virtue of its power of judicial review, could help delineate the powers of the legislature and executive.

The Gulf Arab Countries, the European Union, and the United States

In the wider regional arena, Gulf Arab countries could help by offering a significant economic package to support the modernization of the country’s infrastructure and to cushion any reform program. These efforts need to be directed at the country’s poorest communities living on the outskirts of Tunis and other cities, and in the rural hinterlands. Qatar, which has already invested heavily in Tunisia’s luxury and hotel markets, and which has backed a fund to assist young entrepreneurs, could expand its efforts by creating a social investment endowment specifically designed to foster employment and infrastructure development in disadvantaged communities. This approach would not only offer economic and social benefits, but it would show that Qatar’s leaders are serious about promoting democracy in the Arab world.

Such efforts could be backed by the European Union, which has proposed a free trade agreement that has thus far been resisted by many Tunisian groups. To move forward, the terms of this agreement must protect vulnerable industries. Such an arrangement would require assembling the key stakeholders, including the UGTT and UTICA, for talks that would define an agreement to foster trade in ways that would benefit both countries.

As for the United States, the new administration could give Tunisia pride of place in the global democracy conference that President Joe Biden has proposed. 

As for the United States, the new administration could give Tunisia pride of place in the global democracy conference that President Joe Biden has proposed. It could also expand the terms of economic support for Tunisia while sustaining programs that advance security sector reforms. The actions of Tunisia’s police during the recent protests further widened the already yawning gap between the government and the youthful, dispirited population. US efforts to enhance the capacity of the security sector to address internal and external security threats, while ensuring that it respects human rights, could make a small but important contribution to restoring a measure of trust in a population that is losing faith in democracy.

1 Source is in French.