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The spectre of a 'soft state' beckons Tunisia

Tunisians hold placards and banners during the revolution that took place in January 2011 [Sherif9282/Wikipedia]
Tunisians hold placards and banners during the revolution that took place in January 2011 [Sherif9282/Wikipedia]

As the tenth anniversary of the Tunisian revolution of January 2011 approaches, efforts to disrupt vital state facilities and the interests of citizens are escalating. Self-styled "coordination groups" are behind such efforts. They push a discourse that goes as far as to call for the disruption of the sources of production and infrastructure, in open defiance of state institutions regionally and centrally.

The situation has deteriorated and there could be dangerous social and economic repercussions. In response, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi authorised immediate action to impose the rule of law, and intervene in coordination with the Public Prosecution Service to open roads and restore the operation of production sites, whose closure has led to difficulties in the supply of basic materials to all Tunisians, and to harming their vital interests and security, as well as national security. Concerned sections of civil society, intellectuals and others have turned to President Kais Saied to provide initiatives and put an end to what is happening, using his constitutional powers and his moral and legal authority to stop all illegal activities that destroy the state's authority and prestige.

In what is a dangerous phase, political parties around the country are largely absent, having basically abandoned their role in society and citizens' concerns, forgetting their empty electoral promises. The arguments, disputes and accusations continue in parliament, and the national organisations seem to be content with monitoring the situation instead of presenting initiatives that limit the repercussions of this difficult movement, and the chaos that led to it. This is unprecedented in Tunisia.

READ: Tunisia MPs injured in parliament brawl, prompting calls to dissolve assembly

In light of the president's silence, the parties' absence, the commitment of national organisations to remaining passive observers and civil society sitting on the fence, there was almost unanimous agreement on the need to launch a comprehensive national, political and social dialogue. The hope is that a solution can be found to take the country out of the dark tunnel of multiple unprecedented and escalating crises. The repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic have increased the severity and depth of these, in addition to signs of unspoken yet dangerous conflict between political groupings.

The call for national dialogue conjured up images of the dialogue that started in the summer of 2013 sponsored by the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, made up of the General Labour Union, the Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Human Rights League and the Order of Lawyers. This was in the wake of the Troika government crisis, and following the assassinations of national figures, the encroachment of terrorism and the blockage of any prospects of saving the country from the political crisis. It was a dialogue launched by credible parties, which saved the country and saw those involved being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

That may have been the case in the past, but the successful organisations of that time cannot repeat the process on their own today. The 2014 constitution gave rise to constitutional powers the purpose of which cannot be overridden and bypassed.

Today, Tunisia is looking for a party to bring Tunisians together and get the politicians to sit down and talk. When presenting the 2021 draft budget to the House of Representatives, the Prime Minister called for an economic and social dialogue sponsored by the government. Prior to that, the Speaker of the Parliament, Rached Ghannouchi, believes that parliament is the appropriate and most suitable framework for any national dialogue. The General Labour Union, launched an initiative for dialogue and presented it to the president, given his constitutional and electoral legitimacy, and the perception of him as a figure who brings Tunisians together.

SFAX, TUNISIA - AUGUST 23: Tunisian Parliament Speaker and leader of the En-Nahda Movement, Rachid al-Ghannouchi (L) makes a speech as he holds a press conference in Sfax, Tunisia on August 23, 2020. ( Houssem Zouari - Anadolu Agency )

Tunisian Parliament Speaker and leader of the Ennahda Movement, Rachid Ghannouchi in Sfax, Tunisia on 23 August 2020 [Houssem Zouari/Anadolu Agency]

However, Saied said explicitly that he does not negotiate with the "corrupt" but did not mention any names of individuals, organisations or parties. However, some confirmed leaks indicate that the president meant the Heart of Tunisia Party and the Karama (Dignity) Coalition, both of which are allies of Ennahda in parliament. That's an exclusion that the movement would not accept. The Free Constitutional Party wants Ennahda to be excluded from the dialogue, and so the entire parliament could be excluded. No national parties and organisations will accept this, as any dialogue, if it takes place at all, will not have parliamentary legitimacy.

READ: Tunisia's Ghannouchi: 'Forces of chaos seek to dissolve parliament'

It is thus almost impossible for any national dialogue to take place. Divisions are already evident. It is worth mentioning here what Swedish economist, lawyer and political sociologist Professor Gunnar Myrdal said about his "soft state" theory in 1970. He referred to a state that issues laws but does not enforce or apply them, not only because of the loopholes therein, but also because no one respects them. The seniors do not care about them because they have enough money and power to protect themselves; the juniors receive bribes to turn a blind eye; and the poor have neither money nor bribes and are disciplined in new ways.

Will awareness return to the political class in Tunisia, allowing everyone to be rescued from the conflicts, calculations and selfishness, so that they may sit down for some serious dialogue that leads the country away from the abyss? Or is Tunisia still threatened by the spectre of a soft state?

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 6 December 2020

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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