Feverish Political Debate Accompanies Tunis Turnover

Kais Saied, the president of Tunisia, at the end of March dissolved the parliament. The move did little to pacify an increasingly hostile political conflict between two bitterly opposed groups. Ten years after the revolution, this Mediterranean country seems uncertain about its future, writes our correspondent in Tunis./IN

Speaking to the various political groups in Tunis about the president’s decisions it becomes abundantly clear that there is no consensus left in a country that was hailed for its relatively peaceful transition from One-Man-Rule to democracy a little over ten years ago. Add to this the concern over the economic wobbles of the country and the close contact with countries such as Egypt, and it is obvious that the situation should be watched closely.

The two sides of the coin are pretty easily explained. And, not surprisingly, it has a lot to do with the former ruling party of Ennahda, the Islamic grouping led by Rached Al-Ghannouchi. When Kais Saied was elected in 2019, it was on a bill to clean up politics and combat corruption. This pitched him against the party of Al-Ghannouchi, the strongest grouping since the fall of Ben Ali in 2011. They feared that Saied would move against them – probably rightly so.

Suspending Parliament Followed by Protests

Last summer, the president made his hitherto most important move in suspending parliament and in going after some of his foes. This led to street protests organized by a coalition of parties – the Ennahda, the Heart of Tunisia and the Workers’ Party. They said that the move was akin a coup d’état which they would never accept. The protests however never reached a substantial enough following because a large swathe of the political elite and also voters in fact supported the president in his move against what he says is a corrupt system.

Hence, and given the threats from the Islamic former elites, the new president seems to enjoy a lot of support, something that helped him through the ensuing impasse. When the trumped opposition parties in parliament opted to meet within a digital framework, i.e. in contraction to the president’s order, he saw fit to step in and dissolve the parliament. It was now the president’s turn to accuse his opponents of an attempted coup d’état that he needed to prevent.

The International Dimension

What this leaves the country with is an extremely divided political sphere, with one side removed from the political arena, due in large part their performance in government, and the other adamant that the old political elite will not return. Where this conflict will lead in the long run is yet to be seen, but so far it seems that the president is firm in his seat and that the opposition has not been able to gather enough support to overturn the decisions made by President Saied.

What worries people is the international dimension of this infight. While the old Islamist government clearly had its sympathies with Turkey and Qatar – the sponsors of the Muslim Brotherhood – the current president is seen to be closer to Egypt, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. This dimension is not unique to Tunisia in this region, and its close neighbor Libya could say a word or two about being ripped apart between conflicting interests. So Tunisia knows what’s at stake.

Egyptian Loan Gives President Some Breathing Space

Add to this the economic woes of this nation. A situation that has worsened sharply since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, with observers worrying about social unrest should the situation not improve. Economist Ezzedine Saidan told the Blog that Tunisia essentially was unable to pay its debt and that the International Monetary Fund would pressure Tunisia to restructure the debt before agreeing to a new deal. Saidan added that the IMF was firm in its belief that Tunisia needed to execute reforms to boost the economy and its public finances. If however the government fails to reach a deal with the IMF, it will probably face a liquidity crisis.

To alleviate the pressure, Egypt’s African Export and Import Bank, the Afrixim Bank, agreed to a $700 million loan, running over 7 years to finance the budget. This deal gave the president some valuable room for maneuver.

What his supporters are saying is that the road map designed by the president should be followed. The plan is to organize a popular referendum on July 25 followed by legislative elections in December. They urge the president to follow this path to safeguard the Tunisian choice of a non-sectarian democratic path, not guarded by either a king or the military.

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