It is a classic case of Tunisia heading & short-sighted perceptions of rule prevalent in the Muslim world that has kept it far behind in terms of enlightened governance accompanied by economic sustainability. This time it is Tunisia’s turn that had witnessed tremendous upheaval during the fabled Arab Spring that is now seen going headlong into political uncertainty and economic instability. Though the head of country, President Kais Saied looks on course to tighten his grip on Tunisia through a constitutional referendum in July but it could prove to be a poisoned chalice as the economy sinks deeper into crisis and opposition to his rule widens. Tunisian situation is reminiscent of the wish of the ruling class to amass maximum power in its head paying absolutely no heed to the misery suffered by the people.
President Saied began amassing power since about a year and has now planned holding a referendum that is widely expected to boost his authority in what is believed to be a march to one-man rule that has tendered to waste the democratic gains of Tunisia’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising. For Saied, overhauling the 2014 constitution is a corrective to political dysfunction which had afflicted Tunisia since autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled. Saied, elected in 2019, promises to protect freedoms and says he is no dictator despite dissolving parliament and ruling by decree. But fearing the worst, his opponents will boycott the vote, a protest that makes it more likely the referendum will pass. They expect steps to strengthen the presidency and further weaken parliament and the judiciary.
In a painful repetition what is witnessed is that while Saied has focused much of his efforts on remaking Tunisian politics but this former law professor has failed to address a more pressing problem: the economy. Anger at economic malaise and political squabbling led many Tunisians to welcome his power grab last year. But hardship has deepened since then, with a fifth of the workforce unemployed and poverty higher than before the Arab Spring. Delays in public sector salaries and difficulties in paying for wheat shipments have pointed to a squeeze on state finances. Inflation has hit a record 7.8% and the crisis is growing and if it continues, the explosion is imminent. Saied has said that he is trying to save the economy, blamed corruption for the decline and promised to recover funds he says were stolen by elites – statements dismissed by opponents as populist rhetoric.
The problematic aspect of the rule of Saied is that despite pressures on him he is insistent on holding the referendum and expects to win it. Even if he wins he faces a looming economic catastrophe. It is widely acknowledged that he does not have the capacity or support to build a new political system, and when the economy collapses, he may be bereft of a political system that can salvage the situation. With just a few weeks to go, there is little to indicate the major political moment ahead.
There are no billboards advertising the referendum. The economy has suffered several blows. The pandemic hammered vital tourism before the Ukraine war drove up fuel and food prices, worsening financial pressures and the current unemployment is around 18 percent.
The government hopes to secure a $4 billion loan in talks with the IMF due to start in weeks, in return for reforms including wage freezes. Without ref orms, the finance minister says Tunisia may be unable to repay its debts. But the bailout plan has hit opposition from the powerful UGTT union, which rejects the reforms, paralysed Tunisia with a strike on 16 June and vows further action. The UGTT has yet to take a stance on the referendum. Saied’s moves have prompted concern in the West, which looked to Tunisia as the only success of the Arab Spring that elsewhere ended in conflict and renewed repression. For his opponents, including the Islamist Ennahda party, the referendum looks set to mark another blow. They have been on the back foot since last year, decrying Saied’s actions as a coup but struggling to counter him.
Adding to speculation the new constitution will clip the wings of parliament and the judiciary, Saied has said it will define jobs rather than powers, suggesting a diminished standing for both. He has also signaled changes to language about Islam, with a phrase which Islamists have long argued defines Islam as the state religion to be replaced with one saying that Islam is the religion of the “ummah”, a reference to the Muslim world. Banned under Ben Ali, Islamist Ennahda moved to the heart of power after 2011 but it now sees early signs of a crackdown – something Saied’s opponents have long feared but which has not materialised in a major way. Judges have similarly denounced as political Saied’s sacking of dozens of judges accused of corruption and protecting alleged terrorists. Many Tunisians worry that they may face the kind of meltdown as Sri Lanka did but are unable to do anything about it. TW