By Henry Srebrnik, [Saint John, N.B.] Telegraph-Journal
Why does it seem that attempts at democratic transition and consolidation are so difficult to achieve in the Arab world? This has been the case in, among others, Algeria, Egypt, and Libya in North Africa.
And now Tunisia, the country where the Arab Spring originated, has joined that list. The small Maghreb country has often been held up as the only true success story to emerge from the turmoil of post-2011 regional revolutions.
Protests against the autocratic regime of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali were crowned on January 14, 2011, as he fled the country. The protests sparked a wave of similar movements in the Arab World. For years, Tunisia seemed to be the only country that enjoyed a democratic system since the Arab Spring. No more.
The dismantling of democracy began in July 2021, when law professor-turned-President Kais Saied, who had won the position with a massive majority in October 2019, suspended the constitution and parliament, casting aside the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) party, the country’s largest, and paving the way for a new constitution that expanded the powers of the president at the expense of parliament.
Among other things, it also gave the president the ultimate authority to appoint judges. Dozens were dismissed as part of an amorphous “anti-corruption” campaign.
Saied insisted that Tunisia’s 2014 constitution was a flawed text whose distribution of powers led to political deadlock. He also blamed the country’s worsening economic and public health challenges due to COVID-19 on the corruption and recklessness of Ennahda. He argued that he acted to remove an ineffectual government that had lost popular support amid escalating crises.
Saied then asked Najla Bouden Romdhane, a little-known professor of geophysics, to form a government. In effect Saied had engineered an autogolpe, or self-coup, in which a president, having entered office democratically, suspends the legal mechanisms that brought him to power.
The move towards autocracy gained speed this past January, when many of President Saied’s political opponents were labelled as traitors or criminals. At least a dozen politicians, activists, and critics were detained in February.
Among those arrested by the Tunisian police were Issam Chebbi, head of the opposition Republican Party, prominent Saied critic Ezzedine Hazgui, and Chaima Issa and Jaouhar Ben M’barek, both leading members of the National Salvation Front, Tunisia’s coalition of opposition parties that includes Ennahda.
Thousands of people protested Jan. 14 across several cities in Tunisia against Saied’s policies, also accusing him of trying to stifle union rights. Not surprisingly, on Jan. 29 only 11.4 per cent of the country’s nearly eight million eligible voters turned out for parliamentary elections. This was likely the world’s lowest turnout for a parliamentary vote, according to the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
The low turnout was a nadir in Tunisia’s democratic transition and reflected a deeper sense of despair and disenchantment in a society that has been ravaged by economic crises worsened by the pandemic, which hurt the tourism industry. Some described it as a “ghost election.”
Ennahda, the biggest party in Tunisia’s outgoing parliament, boycotted the elections, as did other opposition parties and civil society groups. They did so, they stated, because parliament's powers had already been diminished as a result of the changes undertaken by Saied.
Large protests organized by the National Salvation Front coalition, which combines Ennahda, the Stop the Coup protest movement, and some other political parties, demonstrated on March 5, demanding that President Saied step down.
Some of those who had initially supported Saied’s moves in 2021 have turned against him. The democratic reforms the country witnessed during the decade following the uprising were coupled with a hit to its economy.
The economy continued to deteriorate after 2021, with inflation passing the 10 per cent mark in December 2022, and poverty affecting some 20 per cent of the country's 12 million people. Tunisian residents have also been suffering from shortages of staple items such as sugar, milk and oil.
Unemployment has also exceeded 15 per cent, in a country where most job opportunities are still offered by the state. The government has been scrambling to secure a $1.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
However, IMF demands to lift food and energy subsidies and restructure public firms have stood in the way of securing the funds.
Another wrinkle in this dispiriting story: Saied has targeted the country’s minority migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, alleging on Feb. 21 that undocumented immigration from African countries was changing Tunisia’s demographic composition.
“The undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations,” he contended.
Also, some unemployed Tunisians alleged that sub-Saharan Africans are taking their jobs away. Dozens of migrants were detained, in a move harshly criticized by human rights organizations and activists.
They condemned what they call hate speech directed at African migrants. Saied “aims to create an imaginary enemy for Tunisians to distract them from their basic problems,” remarked Ramadan Ben Amor, of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.
Tunisia has become yet another cautionary tale in a region full of false dawns and dashed hopes. It’s come full circle. They may as well have moved straight from Ben Ali to Saied.