Tunisia Is at Loggerheads About How to Reform the System

The decision by Tunisia’s President Kais Said to dissolve the Superior Council of the Judiciary has prompted widespread condemnation both in the country but also from international allies. However, the groups that protested the move in turn are strongly opposed to each other, which weakens their position vis-à-vis the government, says our correspondent in Tunis.

It was arguably his most significant decision since the freezing of parliament last July. Two weeks ago, President Kais Said told the nation that he had dissolved the Superior Council of the Judiciary, the body overseeing the judicial system of Tunisia.

The decision was condemned – not least by a concerned international community. The West has long-established and deep relations with Tunisia and sees the country as the torchbearer of democracy in Northern Africa. The country’s youth were widely credited with having booted out the former dictator Ben Ali in what proofed to be the first democratic revolution leading to the so-called Arab Spring.

International Condemnation

Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations, told Kais Said that the decision violated the country’s human rights obligations under international law and warned that the step would seriously undermine the rule of law.

“It is clear that more vigorous efforts must be made to bring the legislation, procedures and practices of the justice sector into line with established international standards, but the dissolution of the Supreme Council of the Judiciary has constituted a significant deterioration in the wrong direction,” Bachelet said.

The Need for Reform

The statement by the UN-expert shows the ambiguity that exists in dealing with the current situation in Tunisia. On the one hand, the allies of Tunisia are concerned that the country is going quickly in an authoritarian direction, while on the other acknowledging that all is not well. The anecdotal evidence about the difficulties businesses faced in Tunisia due to a slow and at times corrupt system underlined the importance of changing a system that seemed incapable of reforming itself. But, and that’s where the worries begin, the question is whether the actions are signaling a return to an undemocratic past.

Not all political actors protested the move and indeed some even welcomed the decision, echoing the concern about the absence of any progress under the former governments. The Alliance for Tunisia party for instance welcomed the dissolution of a body that it said was closely linked to the old regime of Ennahda and its allies and even called on the president to dissolve the Islamist Ennahda Party.

Independent or Not

Leila Haddad, leader of the People’s Movement, echoed this position when she spoke to the PoliticsBlog. The decision was right because it would help the government uncover the many cases of corruption that hampered the development of Tunisia in the recent past.

“We support the approach of President Kais Said to the purge of the judiciary and the dissolution of the Supreme Council, especially since the Ennahda Party had appointed a number of its followers to the head of the council, which led to the failure to open many cases in which it was itself involved.” The charge leveled at the council is clear: despite the protestations to the contrary, the supreme council was in the hands of the previous government.

The Culprits Identified

Most parties however seemed to object to the decision. The protests involved not only the Ennahda Party, but also elements of the political and economic elite in the country. Their objections however have nothing in common with those of Ennahda. While the Islamists have become openly hostile to the government after the freezing of parliament and see the latest decision as one step towards dictatorship, the elite is biding its time.

Many see Ennahda is prime culprit and want it removed from the political scene. And yet, they support a democratic system that they believe has come under pressure from the decrees of President Said.

The Elite Is Biding Its Time

Hanan Zbiss, a journalist and media professor, says that the president has set in motion a process of dissolving all structures of power, which will lead to a radically different society. While some claim that the new set-up would be similar to Egypt’s, Zbiss is certain that the situation of Tunisia is different. In Tunisia, historically, the army has kept away from politics and let the government do its business. She believes that there is a strong political elite that has not sided either with the president nor with Ennahda but is looking for a leader with a more balanced and moderate position.

In her opinion, the president doesn’t seem to have a clear vision and strategy for the country, and she emphasized that the economy was in a critical condition. She warned that in the absence of a solution, the government would be faced with a social explosion.

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