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The fight over Tunisia’s identity is at the heart of the current crisis

August 5, 2021 at 9:16 am

President of Tunisia Kais Saied in Brussels, Belgium on June 04, 2021 [Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency]

When Tunisia’s President Kais Saied took over executive powers on 25 July, the former constitutional law professor justified his action by pointing out the failure of successive governments due to political bickering that has paralysed the country. A parliament divided since it was elected in 2019 made it impossible for the government to carry out its duties.

Saied’s dismissal of the prime minister and government, suspension of parliament and takeover of the public prosecution service was instantly popular among Tunisians paying the price of the political crisis. The political turmoil, corruption and mismanagement of the economy, compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic surge, made the situation even worse for ordinary Tunisians.

Thousands of people took to the streets in support of the president. As the euphoria recedes, though, questions have started to emerge about what kind of plan, if any, he has for the country to get through its difficult transition and return to democratic life, wherein the ballot box is the referee for different political views.

Basically, Tunisia’s stagnant economy is at the epicentre of what has been going on for the past decade. The country is almost bankrupt.

Tourism is an important economic sector, but it has fallen during the global pandemic, depriving tens of thousands of people of their only source of income and adding them to the long unemployment queues across the country. The unemployment rate is estimated to be around 17 per cent of the total workforce, a figure which rises to about 43 per cent among young Tunisians in a country where the average age is 32.

READ: Tunisia’s largest trade union urges president to expedite appointment of new PM

While Saied has reassured the public that his measures are only temporary and that normal democratic life will be restored, he is yet to reveal any workable roadmap and set up a government to manage the transition back to democracy as promised. Many Tunisians believe that the president had every right to take such severe measures given the country’s political chaos.

Since 2011, Tunisia has had nine governments and five presidents. On average, each government served for a year as the once stable North African country suffered from the repercussions of the upheaval that brought down the long-time President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. In fact, the 2011 uprising fundamentally changed the political landscape, transforming it from a presidential system to a parliamentary democracy where the prime minister, not the president, has more executive powers that touch people’s lives directly. The president became more of a ceremonial figure without any control over government policies, something alien for many Tunisians.

This is not a minor detail in a country that has been run by strong presidents since its independence in 1956. Before 2011, independent Tunisia was governed by presidents with near absolute powers which caused the first, Habib Bourguiba, to become a father figure for the whole nation. Bourguiba moulded Tunisia on a Francophone model of secularism. At the same time, he was the referee between different political and social actors, and his word was final. He did not tolerate any kind of social dissent or political opposition.

President Bourguiba is credited with building strong government institutions and successful education and healthcare systems, as well as empowering women, making Tunisia well respected on the world stage. However, his heavy handed security and social policies drove all forms of opposition underground with many politicians living in exile plotting not only to end his era, but also to abolish the very ideas he cherished which they blamed for turning Tunisia into a French protectorate despite its decades of independence. They also blamed him for marginalising the country’s Arab-Islamic heritage. Underneath all of this, social and religious conflicts simmered, waiting for the right moment to emerge onto the public stage.

That moment came in 2011, with a popular revolution toppling Bourguiba’s successor Ben Ali. But that political earthquake and its regional repercussions did not end the soul-searching in Tunisia and the fight for its national identity.

READ: Ex-Tunisia president says Kais Saied’s mistakes may amount to high treason

The economic stagnation at the heart of the current crisis is a symptom of deeper social issues, including the long overdue battle over Tunisia’s soul, identity and future. Two distinct camps have emerged. One supports the ideas that Bourguiba cherished, such as secularism with a Francophone identity attached to the former colonial power. The other sees Tunisia as an Arab-Muslim state defined by its heritage and long history before the French occupation. Its supporters point out that Tunisia was for centuries a centre of the Arab-Islamic enlightenment that saw Tunis’s Al-Zaytuna Mosque playing as important a role as any other education institution such as Al-Azhar in Egypt, for example. They also believe that Islam and Arab identity were the driving forces behind the opposition to the French occupation. Nevertheless, the political actors may have changed in many ways since independence, but until Ben Ali’s departure over a decade ago it was the Francophone bloc which dominated Tunisia’s civil service, government bureaucracy and political leadership and imposed its vision on the country.

When the repressive era of Ben Ali ended and the political landscape opened up, these two camps emerged and the battle lines were redrawn. While President Saied is seen by many as a nationalist with a strong Arab identity, others see him as simply another extension of the Francophone bloc masquerading as a nationalist. The Islamist Ennahda movement, meanwhile, is seen as the driving force countering the Francophone tendency.

The current reversal will end and new elections might take place within a year or two, but this will not end Tunisia’s decades-long identity crisis exacerbated by economic difficulties. Democratically elected governments might be great in terms of managing state affairs, but they are not as successful when it comes to reconciling two competing visions for the future of Tunisia.

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