The battle for Tunisia’s democracy

Tunisia’s president seems unwilling to compromise with his political opponents. But the EU can help set limits on his behaviour through a combination of financial assistance and public statements.

Tunisian demonstrators march with Tunisian flags during a rally against Tunisian President Kais Saied on the anniversary of Tunisia’s independence in Tunis, Tunisia, Sunday, March 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)
Tunisian demonstrators march during a rally against Tunisian President Kais Saied on the anniversary of Tunisia’s independence in Tunis, Tunisia, Sunday, March 20, 2022
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The confrontation between Tunisian President Kais Saied and his political opponents is intensifying. Since suspending Tunisia’s parliament in July 2021, Saied has moved in an increasingly authoritarian direction – giving himself the power to rule by decree and attacking judicial independence. Tunisia’s major political parties reacted cautiously to Saied’s initial seizure of power, aware that he had broad public support. But, last week, they went on the offensive, convening a virtual session of parliament in which they voted to annul the “exceptional measures” Saied had taken. In response, Saied announced that he was dissolving the parliament and ordering investigations into the politicians who took part in the meeting.

The showdown comes at a critical moment in Tunisia’s political evolution. After months of uncertainty following Saied’s power grab, he put forward in December 2021 a road map that purported to plot a return to democratic order. The plan involved an online public consultation on amendments to the constitution, a referendum on the amendments in July, and a parliamentary election in late 2022. After the consultation ended on 20 March, Saied announced that he would hold a dialogue to discuss its findings while a panel of experts – who have yet to be named – drew up the amendments.

There is no reason to think that Saied envisages a genuine national dialogue: since last July, he has refused to engage with political parties or civil society groups, and has regularly described MPs as corrupt. Nevertheless, some opposition parties believe that they now have an opportunity to push for substantive political discussions. The period before Saied’s planned referendum seems to create a window for inclusive political negotiations before the government finalises a new constitution. The recent online parliamentary session appears to be an attempt to challenge the president and thereby force him to engage with MPs.

The move comes at a time when Tunisia faces an increasingly urgent economic crisis. After years of low growth and high unemployment, many Tunisians are struggling to afford basic necessities. These difficulties only grew after Russia’s war on Ukraine raised grain and oil prices; as Ramadan begins, Tunisia is experiencing shortages of bread and other essential foods. Tunisia’s debt to GDP ratio is projected to reach 84 per cent this year. The government is often late in paying public sector salaries. And Fitch’s recently downgraded Tunisia’s credit rating to CCC. Many economists believe the country will be forced to default on its debts if it does not quickly agree on a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These economic problems leave Saied with an unpalatable choice between an unpopular agreement with the IMF and a financial meltdown.

The current negotiations between Tunisia and the IMF began before Saied dismissed the government last summer and continued under the prime minister he appointed in October. But a deal would likely require measures such as subsidy cuts and a public sector wage freeze. The powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) has already come out against these proposed reforms and is threatening to hold a general strike. The UGTT is also calling for a national dialogue on Tunisia’s political direction, which it would supervise. (The union, along with other civil society groups, led a national dialogue to avert a political crisis in 2013.)

There is no reason to think that Saied envisages a genuine national dialogue

Saied appears to be more politically isolated than at any time since his initial power grab. His increasing centralisation of power and refusal to hold talks with political parties or civil society organisations have driven some groups that had once reserved judgement on his moves, such as the UGTT, into opposition. He may be obsessed with constitutional reform but the public seem indifferent, judging by the low participation in his online consultation. After dissolving in February 2022 the High Judicial Council that safeguards judicial independence, Saied called for a public demonstration against judicial corruption, but few people turned out. The online parliamentary resolution to annul Saied’s exceptional measures was carried with the votes of MPs representing a wide range of political views – far beyond members of the Muslim democrat Ennahda party, which has been his primary opponent.

Nevertheless, Saied shows no sign of willingness to compromise with his political opponents. Instead, relying on the support of the Ministry of Interior and its security forces, he seems to be adopting a repressive response. Saied described the politicians who voted against him in the virtual assembly session as having planned a coup and conspired against state security. Several of them have already been questioned by a counter-terrorism unit.

According to Tunisia’s constitution, the dissolution of the parliament should be followed by a new parliamentary election within 90 days. And Tunisian political parties are united in calling for such a vote. However, Saied said that he would not hold a new election before the planned constitutional referendum.

The UGTT and other civil society organisations could win Saied’s consent for some kind of national dialogue, but it is unclear whether the process would include all political parties. In recent days, Saied has said he would only talk to parties that were not responsible for the crisis Tunisia is facing. It is also far from certain whether the parties opposed to Saied’s road map will maintain the unity they have begun to display.

The EU and its member states can encourage Tunisia to return to its democratic path by making clear that they will only endorse a dialogue as legitimate if all mainstream political forces participate in it, and that the country needs to hold an election before revising the constitution. (The constitution Tunisia adopted in 2014 requires a two-thirds parliamentary majority to endorse any proposed amendments.) Europeans should also make clear that they would see attempts to prosecute MPs for conspiring against state security as a serious violation of the rule of law.

If Saied continues to reject an inclusive political process, Europe and Tunisia’s other external partners will face a choice about whether to withhold assistance or oppose an IMF agreement. So far, EU officials have been reluctant to condition cooperation with Tunisia on a return to democratic standards. The European Commission recently announced that it would loan the Tunisian government €450 million to support its budget. A loss of European financial assistance would worsen Tunisians’ living conditions, which are already difficult.

However, Tunisia’s partners can argue that broader political support for the government’s policies and a legitimate framework in which to debate them would help the country fulfil the conditions of an IMF loan. In this way, they can use negotiations to nudge Saeid towards political accountability, even if they stop short of making this a prerequisite of a loan. They can also use public statements to push for a return to representative politics and to warn against any further crackdown. Domestic politics will remain the primary factor in Tunisia’s worrying evolution, but its international partners can help set boundaries on the government’s behaviour and encourage it to adhere to democratic principles.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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