By Oussama Kebir
Once the cradle of the Arab Spring movements across the Middle East, Tunisia has recently been witnessing a political upheaval. On 25 July 2021, President Kais Saied suspended Tunisia’s parliament, banned opposition parties amid widespread public protests against the government, and announced to draft a new constitution. Though President Saied’s promises to oust corruption from the political system, the profound economic challenges which drove the 2011 revolution remain unresolved and tensions have increased as a consequence of the democratic erosion.
Since the 2011 revolution that sparked a wave of democratic movements across the Middle East, Tunisia’s politics have remained in flux. Tunisia has experienced twelve changes in government dominated by wealthy businessmen, and as a result, public confidence in political institutions has collapsed. In the 2019 presidential election, Kais Saied, an independent constitutional lawyer who campaigned against corruption won the second round of the presidential election with 72.7% of the vote.
Tunisian society was put under severe pressure as the government attempted to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. Tunisia’s shrinking economy worsened economic hardship, overwhelmed doctors, and accompanied low vaccination rates. Protests began demanding the resignation of the government for its handling of the pandemic response. In the midst of the turmoil, on 25 July 2021 President Saied suspended Tunisia’s parliament, lifted legal immunity for its members, and dismissed the prime minister Hichem Mechichi. Without a Supreme Constitutional Court to challenge the legality of this ruling, Kais Saied seized wide-ranging powers based on his interpretation of the constitution. Opposition groups, such as the Ennahda Movement, labeled the suspension of the constitution a coup.
Tunisia’s 2014 constitution contained strict separations of powers between the executive, the judiciary, and the legislature. Until 25 July 2021, the President’s powers lay mainly in diplomatic affairs and international relations. Yet Saied has managed to concentrate power at the expense of other branches of government through several moves.
On assuming the role of the prime minister without a parliament until the referendum, Saeid has allowed the executive to act without legislative oversight. This paved the way for measures that effectively changed the relationship between the executive and the judiciary powers and ended by reducing the powers of the latter and its impact on the Tunisian administration.
According to the roadmap that the President has set out, the country will hold a referendum on a revised constitution on 25 July 2022. To include ‘the people's’ opinions, President Saied announced a national consultation to draft a new constitution that took place on 20 March 2022, Tunisia’s independence day. The consultation, carried out online, received 500,000 responses out of the 3 million expected. However, the consultation raised various concerns, from digital security and possible leading questions. Additionally, even after the consultation, the content of this referendum remains ambiguous.
Although there are less than two months before the date of the referendum, Tunisian people still do not know the contents of the potential new constitution. This problem is highlighted in the Report of the Venice Commission, on 27 May 2022, “[...]such short delays for public discussion of a new constitution (less than one month between the publication of the draft of the new constitution and the referendum) can confer democratic legitimacy to the process.”
President Saied continues to overwrite the constitutional authority of the judicial system, as the recent sacking of 57 judges shows, leading to an overall erosion of democracy in Tunisia. The last three months have been marked by persistent political instability and strikes due to divisions between supporters and opponents of Saied’s seizure of power.
After the 2011 revolution, Tunisia’s economy has struggled to create a prosperous and fair economy despite a change in the political system. The unemployment rate has remained high at 15% and GDP per capita has declined. Social indicators demonstrate the extent of the crisis facing Tunisian society; the poverty rate trebled from 14% to 21% in one year since the start of the pandemic. The direct dependence on international trade for food and oil products prevents, to a certain extent, the adaptation and the search for sustainable solutions to these upheavals.
In 2020, the already precarious situation was worsened by the economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. GDP contracted by an astonishing -8.6% in 2020. According to IMF estimates, growth has rebounded to 3% in 2021 and is expected to increase further to 3.3% in 2022 before slowing to 2.5% in 2023. However, with the rise in interest rates in the US, and staggering fuel and food prices around the world, Tunisia’s economy is in considerable flux, and the country’s heavy dependence on energy imports jeopardizes its energy security. The Government is counting on the loan from the International Monetary Fund to finance the budget for the year, but currently, the state of the negotiations is unclear.
On the other side, the main industry sectors, like agriculture counts for 10.1% of the GDP and employs 14% of the workforce, Industry represents 21.7% of the GDP, and employs 33% of the active population are living an improvement in production.
The referendum on the revised constitution is unlikely to produce the political changes needed to address the social and economic problems facing Tunisia. Especially since President Saied and his Cabinet, including the government, will be involved by providing their advice and technical knowledge, there is little hope for change. Overall, the strengthening hold on power and democratic erosion of President Saied, the war in Ukraine, and the subsequent price increase and food shortages are likely to worsen the social divisions in Tunisia. For these reasons, tensions in the country remain high and various strikes will continue to occur, but large-scale uprisings are unlikely.
About the author: Oussama Kebir
Oussama is a weapons systems engineer, PhD in computer science applied to counter-terrorism, and a Master student in human rights and international humanitarian law. He has proven experience in analytical skills, crisis intervention, geopolitical analysis, strategic planning, research, and management. He has also several publications related to counter-terrorism in international conferences and journals.