Tunisia- Ghost of Bouazizi Walks Again
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Tunisia, from where the Arab Spring started in 2010, has remained in churn ever since. But it has held out the hope that democracy and constitution can be relied upon by the people. It was a partial yet a success story as several governments have had a comparatively smoother transition. Fact that an Islamist party, whose leaders some observers even call as moderate and modern has been in power or coalitions in its own Ennahda Way. But for Tunisians the fundamental issues remain and governmental responses wanting. There was another Tunisian few months who immolated himself like Bouazizi in 2010, focussing on the plight of the people. Pandemic has further cost the government its credibility as a caregiver or as a welfare democracy.

Tunisia has been trying hard to not only maintain its newly established democratic institutions but has been going through a terrible economic and fiscal crisis. At least nine governments have served in less than a decade which is also a reason for lack of a strategy even though Ennahda part has been mostly in power. Unemployment soared decimating people’s hopes for a decent and dignified life after the revolution in 2010. Again large demonstrations in several major cities have been going on. Situation has been compounded with the poor management of the Covid and related deaths as well as lack of vaccine supplies. Economy like anywhere else has been badly impacted by pandemic but feels harsher when it is already stressed due to structural and institutional chaos throughput the past decade.

People have been disenchanted with the Ennahda Government that has been struggling for its survival as well as in dealing with the issues of bad economy, poor vaccine supply and higher incidence of Covid waves compounded by the unemployed youth’s disenchantment with the regime and perhaps with the democracy itself. Some video of Covid dead bodies lying with trash and the 18000 deaths due to pandemic have sent tremors across the country. According to reports Tunisians tried to storm Ennahda offices in Monastir, Sfax, El Kef and Sousse, while in Touzeur they set fire to the party's local headquarters.

As is common, the Government of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi fired the Health Minister trying to pass the buck and buy the time. President Kais Saied has described the crowds resulting from the Health Ministry's Vaccination Open Days as a "crime against Tunisia". He accused some "influential people" who were seeking to "spread the virus throughout the country" one day after the dismissal of the Health Minister. But patience seems to be running dry and the people and demonstrators mostly driven by social media and a new July 25 Movement started demanding the removal of Mechichi government. They wanted Prime Minister to leave and Parliament to be dissolved. As such there is no love lost between the PM, Speaker and the President Kais Saied.

On Sunday (July 25), President Saied took matters in his hands by sacking the Prime Minister and suspending the Parliament for 30 days as provided in the constitution. Not a proven administrator himself, Saied may have acted in haste just to assuage the rising tide of public discontent. There are questions about the manner in which Parliament was suspended and the Ennahda leader and Speaker Rached Ghannouchi (who just recovered from Covid 19) was not allowed to enter the building. No wonder the ruling and other political parties are condemning this political ingress by the President as “Coup d’état”.

There was immediate jubilation among the protesters as removal of the government was announced but the counter demonstrations in support of the government, parliament and constitution are also on the rise. It won’t be easy to calm the situation or for the President to come up to the expectations of the people. There is no magic potion unless immediate huge supplies of vaccines and injection of significant economic assistance are undertaken by the international community especially France. Well, there have been doubts about the legality of presidential decisions and his implicit designs hereafter. As such, Saied has been at odds both with the government and the parliament, since his own election in 2019. He has claimed “I have taken the necessary decisions to save Tunisia, the state and the Tunisian people”. Ennahda in a statement vowed to defend the revolution and the constitution. A falsetto indeed- as people expect governments to deliver the basics at least.

President Saied (himself an academic and associated with constitutional law) even joined the protesters to seek their confidence. He said that he will take over executive powers and will run the country with the help of a new interim government. As there have been perennial complaints of corruption and wrongdoings, Saied decided to lift the immunity of the parliamentarians so that they could be prosecuted. One of the key factors for his success or failure will be the way the army and the police will react. So far, they have avoided taking sides and tried to maintain law and order, but all political sides have their share of benefactors in the army. Meanwhile, while some are celebrating the presidential move others are fearful of a return to dictatorial tendencies and a democracy deficit.

It remains to be seen the intermediate and supportive role the neighbours like Algeria, Egypt and a long-standing friend in France or the Blinken Administration play to help steer the situation before it acquires the 2010 moment. Although far better than other governments in North Africa, political instability has been a common recurrence although democratic transition has not been insurmountable. Even after seven years of the 2014 constitution no Constitution Court has been set up discounting that channel to iron out the differences on distribution of powers and interpretation of the provisions. It is likely that backchannel talks might help assuage the disastrous fall out, but immediate Covid assistance and economic relief measures may help the Tunisians tide over the current challenges at least in short term. But until the basic needs of the people are not addressed situation will keep on recurring as in the past.

For the time being only thing Tunisians can celebrate is the astounding gold medal by their 18 year old swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui at the Tokyo Olympics in the 400 m freestyle.
(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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