The president of Tunisia (Source: Wikipedia.org)
Executive Summary: At the end of July 2021, the Tunisian president shut down all the activity of the Parliament, removing the PM and key ministers, and assuming the lead of the executive. The scarcity of results achieved by the Tunisian political establishment in the last 10 years concur to explain this recent crisis.
When the Tunisian president Kais Saied decided to suspend the activity of the Parliament for a 30-day period on the 25th of July 2021, the news came with a general sense of apprehension.
With this decision, Saied de facto suspended from their role the Prime Minister and acting Minister of Interior – Hichem Mechichi – the Minister of Defense – Ibrahim El-Bartaji – and the Minister of Justice – Hasna Bin Slimane. As the Parliament was shut down, all the members of Parliament as well as the speaker of Parliament – Rachid al-Ghannuchi, who is also the leader of the main party in the Parliament, Ennahda – lost their immunity and privileges. In the following days and weeks, Saied has going on in his activity by suspending from their roles numerous regional governors as well as key political and military figures of the country.
These measures have been taken, in the words of the President, in order to “preserve the integrity of the country, the security and independence of the country”. With this statement, the President evoked the article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution which permits the President to take “any measure necessary” whenever the abovementioned integrity, security and independence of the country should be menaced.
Many opposers said that the criteria to activate Article 80 were not met and that the President was instead staging a coup. It must be also noted, however, that it seems that most of Tunisian people supports the President’s actions by gathering in the squares and the streets to manifest their happiness.
Always represented as the exception of the Middle East, the only country which was able to improved its condition with the protests commonly known as the “Arab Springs” of 2010-2011, Tunisia has constantly been cited as a positive example when talking about democracy in the region.
Nonetheless, mainstream media did not put the same effort in explaining the problems the country has been facing since the revolution. As a matter of fact, the Tunisian politics has not been able to find a solution for the very same structural problems that led to the revolution a decade ago. Among these, the stagnant economy, the high level of unemployment and the low trust toward the political establishment.
According to the World Bank data, the Gross domestic product (GDP) growth for the year 2020 scored a -8,6%, also on the background of the breakout of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, even in the years before, the GDP growth rate remained stable between 1 and 2%.
On the other side, the percentage of the total number of unemployed has been stable since 2013 at around 15% of the entire national workforce. In 2020, however, it rose for the first time since 2011 to almost 17% according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) figures.
This situation has led numerous times the Tunisian people to the streets to protest against the institutions and the weaknesses of their solutions to tackle the stagnation of the economy. Major gatherings of masses happened in 2016 to protest against the austerity measures and in 2018 again to dissent the tax rises. Protests continued also in 2020 and 2021 and the decision of the President Saied to shut down the Parliament came at the end of another round of protests in July of this year.
In the last few years, these economic and social critical situations have also been severed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The imposed measures of curfew and closure of the borders have caused a loss in the main economic sector of the country, which is tourism. On the other hand, the virus has still continued to circulate in the country, causing the fragile healthcare system in the country to collapse and resulting in a high number of cases and deaths.
At the end of July, the deaths confirmed caused by COVID-19 were reaching almost 20,000 and the total cases amount to slightly less than 600,000.
This perpetual discontent against the political establishment can be also observed during the electoral steps in these last decade. In 2011, the first free elections after Ben Ali’s ouster have seen a turnout of 52% eligible voters. In 2014, the turnout for the Parliamentary elections rose to the 65%, albeit only 20% of the eligible voters among the 18-25 age range went to the polls. However, in the municipal elections of 2018 the registered turnout was only 33.7%, and in the next general election of 2019 it slightly rose to 41%.
From these figures and the numerous protests that struck the country, it is clearly evident how the political establishment suffered from a continuous delegitimization by the Tunisian citizens.
Apparently going against the trend is, instead, the Presidential elections of 2019. The turnout for the second turn touches 55% and Kais Saied has been elected with almost 75% of the votes. Speaking of votes, he received more total votes (2,777,931) than the totality of the parties that sits in the Parliament (1,649,137). It must also be remembered that he run as an independent, without affiliation to any party.
This data, on the one hand, concours to answer why Tunisian people mostly support the argued decision of President Saied of these last weeks. On the other hand, the high legitimacy given to the Presidential figure by the recent poll votes can result in a centralization of the powers to the President to the detriment of the Parliament.
To understand the real intentions behind the actions of President Saied we have to wait until the 25th of August, when the 30-day period of this special situation will come to an end. That date will represent a turning point for Tunisia, which can either go back to a one-man State or on the democratic track that it hardly managed to ride 10 years ago.
Amara, T. (2021, July 8). Tunisia says health care system collapsing due to COVID-19. Retrieved from Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/tunisia-says-health-care-system-collapsing-due-covid-19-2021-07-08/
GNRD & IIPJHR. (2014). Joint Observation Mission to Tunisian Parliamentary Election 2014: Report.
National Democratic Institute. (2011). Final Report on the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly Elections.
National Democratic Institute. (2019). Tunisia Internatonal Election Observation Mission: Final Report. International Election Observation Mission (IEOM).
Ricci, A. (2021, January 18). Tunisia: 10 years Since the Jasmine Revolution. Retrieved from Atlas Institute for International Affairs: https://www.internationalaffairshouse.org/tunisia-10-years-since-the-jasmine-revolution/
Sargent, A. (2018, May 18). Turnout low as Tunisia holds first free muncipal elections. Retrieved from France24: https://www.france24.com/en/20180507-turnout-low-tunisia-holds-first-free-muncipal-elections
The World Bank. (2021, June 15). Unemployment, total (% of total labor force) – Tunisia. Retrieved from The World Bank: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.UEM.TOTL.ZS?locations=TN
World Health Organization. (2021). Retrieved from World Health Organization: https://covid19.who.int/region/emro/country/tn
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About the author:
Alessandro RICCI is Associated Junior Researcher at MEPEI. He holds a MA in Sciences of Languages, History and Cultures of Mediterranean and Islamic Countries at the University of Naples “l’Orientale”. His primary academic interests are the Middle East and Mediterranean politics, political Islam, and international relations. Currently, he is enrolled in a Second Level Master’s Degree in Geopolitics and Global Security at the “Sapienza” University of Rome.