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Is Tunisia's democracy in danger?

General view of parliament in Tunis, Tunisia on 9 June 2020 [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]
General view of parliament in Tunis, Tunisia on 9 June 2020 [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]

Tunisia is currently witnessing a prolonged political stalemate amid increasing tension and fear for the country's future and democratic ideals in the Arab world.

The core of the political impasse faced by the country lies in a conflict between the three presidencies in Carthage, Kasbah and Bardo (the presidency institution, the government and the parliament). This comes as rumours circulate about President Kais Saied's coup against sovereign institutions, his attempt to rule alone and taking Tunisia backwards through consolidating a dictatorial regime.

Saied's recent speech about his absolute power over the security forces, stripping the prime minister of the jurisdictions granted to him by the constitution and the recent visit he made to Egypt to meet with Abdel Fattah El-Sisi have further deepened fears creating a state of confusion.

Democracy under threat

Professor of history and political analyst Monther Bin Youssef, in an exclusive interview with Arabi21, explained his assessment of the situation: "The 2014 constitution approved the principle of separation and distribution of authorities in order to avoid a return to dictatorship and individual rule."

Bin Youssef added: "However, this option has been hampered by many factors, which have caused instability in the Tunisian transitional experience for a decade."

He continued: "The conflict over power between the three presidencies is one of the factors behind the failure of the current system and the state of instability. The chapters of this conflict have varied over the past decade."

The political analyst expressed his belief that: "The conflict has peaked under the presidency of Kais Saied, amid the disagreements he is having with both Rached Ghannouchi (parliament speaker) and Hichem Mechichi (prime minister), until the conflict took a dangerous turn, threatening the experience of the democratic transition and the entire Tunisian experience."

READ: Tunisia's president accused of leading soft coup against state 

"The conflict became public and exposed, as Kais Saied accused his opponents of representing a corrupt lobby sheltered by people in power, who are seeking to isolate by fabricating a health file and through the Constitutional Court. Therefore, he sought to obstruct and undermine the existing system by delaying his acceptance of the national dialogue initiative presented by the Tunisian General Labour Union months ago, and hindering the cabinet reshuffle and the election of the Constitutional Court members. These are all episodes of an integrated plan, through which Saied is pushing towards achieving a temporary alliance with the Free Destourian Party with the aim of aggravating the parliamentary and political scene to the farthest extent possible, pushing it to collapse on its own."

Likewise, journalist Ziad El-Hani confirmed in an interview with Arabi 21: "The democratic experience in Tunisia has come under threat."

Regarding the reasons behind this crisis, El-Hani asserted: "In my opinion, it (the crisis) is not caused by political conflict, which is typical in every democracy, but because of the impact of this conflict on state institutions and the ability of the government, any government, to focus on solving the economic and social issues that threaten to deepen the state of popular disdain, and save the country from the impasse."

He added: "According to this demarche, the shadow of a potential re-instalment of dictatorship is lingering and can become a reality considering the popular anger over the deterioration of livelihood conditions and the weakness of the political elites who have assumed the country's leadership without being qualified for the task."

"The situation is becoming more perilous as the president continues to attack the weak and worn-out government institutions that emanated from the 2014 constitution to supposedly embody the ideals of the revolution. However, he does not know that if the revolutionary system falls, it will collapse with all its political and institutional components, including the presidency," predicts El-Hani.

A steady experience

On the other hand, Ennahda Movement MP Yamina Zoghlami communicated in an exclusive statement to Arabi21: "The democratic experience in Tunisia is stable. The young people who took to the streets in the revolution to defy an oppressive and dictatorial regime and firmly believe in a free homeland and a democratic rule will not allow the destruction of their revolution."

Zoghlami did not hide her concerns, stating: "It is true that the democratic experience is going through turmoil, fragility, unwise selection of officials, political conflicts and people in decision-making positions who do not care about the people's interests. They only go on touristic tours and visit cemeteries while working to make the situation even worse."

The Tunisian MP called on voters to "make the right choice" to avoid falling into what she described as an odious populism, which exists in the right and left-wing and poses the greatest danger.

READ: Tunisia authorities recover 21 bodies of immigrants south of country

On the return to dictatorship, Zoghlami expressed: "Never – the 2014 constitution stands for a strong defining moment that resulted from the revolution and the resilience of our democracy. We will not go back to dictatorship."

She added: "But, unfortunately, there is a big gap for which we all take responsibility because we did not proceed with establishing the Constitutional Court, which is a task that has become more needed than ever."

The impact of Saied's visit to Egypt

Saied's visit to Egypt was described as suspicious and a treacherous stab in the back of democratic Tunisia, while observers linked it to the Tunisian president's subsequent statements.

Bin Youssef believes that this decision: "Represented a dangerous and decisive shift in the relations between the parties to the conflict. Kais Saied, who returned from Egypt with a load of fiery ideas, made his first attack on political Islam during his Al-Zaytuna Mosque speech to congratulate the people on the start of Ramadan. Then, again, he repeated the move on the occasion of the National Day of the Internal Security Forces when he declared his exclusive control over the leadership of the army and the security forces."

The political analyst added that the president's recent moves declared that the conflict had reached a point of no return and that the dialogue had become futile. He concluded by stressing that it was: "The last nail in the coffin of the national dialogue initiative and a confirmation that the conflict had entered the stage of a backbreaking battle rupture, as the dispute has become centred on the military and security establishment."

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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