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Tunisia's frozen politics could lead to chaos

Demonstrators chant slogans during a protest in Tunisia's capital Tunis on 26 September 2021, against President Kais Saied's recent steps to tighten his grip on power. [FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images]
Demonstrators chant slogans during a protest in Tunisia's capital Tunis on 26 September 2021, against President Kais Saied's recent steps to tighten his grip on power. [FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images]

Tunisia's President Kais Saied has appointed Najla Bouden Romdhane as the country's first female prime minister. Bouden is supposed to form a new government as soon as possible. Saied has emphasised the priority: "Eliminate the corruption and chaos that has pervaded the country."

Bouden is a little-known geophysics engineer; an independent with no known links to any political party or any ideological affiliations, both of which are blamed by the president for the frozen political process in Tunisia. She is said to have worked for the World Bank as a quality control manager in the education department implementing the Bank's recommendations. Little is known about what she achieved in that role.

What is known is that she is an outsider without any government experience, just like the president when he made his political debut two years ago. Furthermore, she has no economic background, something that is needed desperately in Tunisia today.

In preparing the ground for the appointment, Saied issued decree number 117 making himself the ultimate decision maker in the country and giving him, as president, the power to rule by decree. He has already suspended the elected parliament, dismissed the government, and taken on executive power in a move that is still as controversial as when it was first announced on 25 July. It has, however, proven to be popular among the masses.

Appointing the prime minister in such a way means, in effect, that the government will be accountable to the president alone. It will be neither independent nor acceptable to Tunisia's political actors and will not be approved by the suspended parliament nor be accountable to it. In normal circumstances, such a government is unlikely to have a parliamentary majority and be able to govern. But nothing is normal in Tunisia nowadays.

READ: Is Tunisia's president putting the cart before the horse? 

President Saied took two months to name a prime minister and is yet to produce a plan to save the country. It is likely to take longer to have the new government actually in place, a luxury that Tunisia cannot afford. He has made history by appointing the first female prime minister in the Arab world, but fixing the problems that face Tunisia would be really history-making in a country seen until recently as the only Arab Spring success story.

Political parties have not, as yet, criticised Bouden's appointment, although they are questioning its legal basis as it infringes the Tunisian constitution.

Four political parties — the Democratic Current, Ettakatol (FDTL), the Republican Party and Afek Tounes — announced the formation of the coalition on 28 September intended to counter Saied's seizure of power. Despite lacking a majority in parliament, they are united by their opposition to what they call a "constitutional coup".

Is Tunisia's president Kais Saied like Louis XIV, King of France? - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Is Tunisia's president Kais Saied like Louis XIV, King of France? – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

They will not approve any steps, including the formation of a government, if they are taken outside the parliamentary process. The dilemma here is that the constitutionality of what the president is doing cannot be settled once and for all, because the Constitutional Court which would be expected to settle such disputes has not been established. Furthermore, presidential decree 117 means that the legal avenues for a challenge to the president are all but blocked.

Whatever the president has in mind, his actions — including the appointment of Najla Bouden — reflect the mentality of a man who has little or no trust in the Tunisian political system. As a political outsider, Saied believes that the multiparty system is the evil behind the hardships that ordinary Tunisians have endured for a decade. Indeed, this has been the sentiment of the majority of the people upon which he has been building his strategy, if he has one, to dismantle the entire political class.

In a video of his meeting with Bouden distributed via the presidential twitter account, it is interesting to listen to Saied describing the political elite as "monsters" and "birds of prey" feeding on the misery of the people. Without naming any politician or political party, he is clearly angry and contemptuous of the corrupt and self-serving political elite that he believes has failed the country. While his actions remain popular among ordinary Tunisians, though, he is yet to put forward any real action plan to alleviate their misery. Moreover, appointing a prime minister who has no government or bureaucratic experience at a time of deep economic crisis is unlikely to help the people in whose name the president claims to speak and act.

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Yet the president sounded certain of Bouden's success, not only in forming a government quickly, but also in tackling the country's severe economic crisis. "After getting rid of this nightmare," he said, Tunisia will be run in new ways in which the people will not be disappointed. "Tunisia is proud of you," he told the new prime minister.

None of that rhetoric, however, will cure Tunisia's basic economic crisis. Talks with the World Bank have been suspended and financial assistance from foreign donors is not forthcoming. No potential investor is likely to venture into Tunisia unless some kind of normality returns to the country. That would require new elections based on an amended constitution unless Saied cancels his emergency measures, which is unlikely.

There is now a very real potential for more chaos with different political actors taking their fight onto the streets. Pro- and anti-Saied demonstrations could become a regular occurrence in the highly polarised political atmosphere.

Tunisia's political scene is frozen, in a way similar to 2011 when former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled. All of the ingredients that fuelled the revolution are in place now and at some point the mix is likely to explode unless Saied and his prime minister deliver tangible results, and quickly.

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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