Tunisia began 2022 just as troubled as it ended the previous year, in which the milestone was marked on 25 July by a President who believed, and still does, that he has the upper hand and the ultimate solution in a country which, until recently, was considered as the jewel of the so-called “Arab Spring”, where the North African nation was pushing forward so successfully. It was envied by its near and far “sisterly countries”, who were visited by the messy revolts of 2011, that not only failed to keep the peace but brought in war, destruction, foreign interference and displacement of the very people who were supposed to be rising up for every imaginable good! The so-called “Arab Spring” simply destroyed the known Satan to the unknown evil.
There is some analogy to what President Kais Saied has been doing in Tunisia since last summer.
President Saied, by suspending parliament and taking over almost absolute power, spoke to his countrymen in a rosy tone, promising them salvation from ills brought upon them by failed politicians and senseless parliamentary debates which became like a national circus. Good performance in the chamber was pushed aside and, in its place, parliamentarians were competing over who scored most points in abuse, berating, insulting one another and obstructing almost anything being debated! Against this background, the President spoke to Tunisians about what really bothered them, winning himself huge public support from a nation that was already suffering under bankrupt failing executives and corrupt officials. Many Tunisians believe that the parliamentarian bazaar gave Saied every reason to act, and do it in a “legal” way, however questionable that might be.
However, the problem with Saied is his failure to actually see what it takes to change, not only the country, but the way politicians act. And, in a moment of joy, Mr Saied, without proper consideration or inclusive consultations, decided that he knows what is good for Tunisia. Accordingly, he embarked on his attempts to solve the country’s ills without any actual clear roadmap as to what the outcome would be, and how it could be achieved.
Tunisia might have made history by having the first female Prime Minister, Najla Bouden, in the Arab world, but ordinary Tunisians are not interested, apart from their hardships and how to alleviate them. Basically, to the everyday Tunisian, the problem with the country is twofold: political quarrelling and in-fighting among the political elite, which not only destabilised the country but also paralysed the nation’s deeply-rooted state institutions. The second, most troubling issue for every Tunisian is the economy in which prices have skyrocketed, jobs are scarce, there is a lack of investment and, above all, a state that is almost bankrupt.
President Saied might have offered some consolation, politically, by taking on the political elite, former officials and corrupt businessmen. But this is beside the point: the point is Tunisians are jobless and hungry and too many politics neither employs nor feeds them. However, without clean and accountable politics, it is hard to achieve anything, really.
Kais Saied has also been very slow in implementing any reforms he might have developed, instead, he has chosen to waste too much time on issues such as discrediting the elite and prioritising national sovereignty in a country that is, literally, dependent on foreigners in different ways. His assumed good intentions are not enough as the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Clearly, Tunisians are fed up with the mixed presidential-parliamentary system that has been instituted by the country’s 2014 Constitution and they blame it for the entire failure of the successive governments, so far. And, just as clear, President Saied’s ultimate goal – which he never made clear from the start – is to change that hybrid system by bringing back a reformed version of the presidential system that has run Tunisia since independence. In such a system, the President would cease to be an arbitrator between different, sometimes conflicting, political actors, and becomes a party in the political game, even if he is not elected, based on ideology or political inclinations.
This, however, in a country like Tunisia, happened to be the first ingredient of “dictatorship” enabled by a “coup”—the two very words that irritate Kais Saied like no others, because they are true!
The President promised Tunisians two things this year: one, new elections on the 12 anniversary of the “Jasmine Revolution” on 17 December and, two, reformed new election law and amended Constitution to be voted on. In between, and starting this month running until March, the President wants wider public consultation of how election law should be and what amendments need to be made to the Constitution to make it as easily interpreted as possible. Nothing is said about the constitutional court, whose absence has contributed to the current impasse. Maybe that would come in a judiciary reform package Mr. Saied must be preparing now, as he has been targeting the judiciary lately.
This approach faces two serious problems: one, any Constitution written this way is likely to carry its seed of demise, even if approved in a public vote. The second problem here is the legitimacy of such measures since they are instituted by the President whose legitimacy is questionable, to say the least. Furthermore, any institutions built on such measures will always be viewed as “illegitimate”, unless they have been elected and this would include any parliament elected based on any laws passed by the President.
This is a catch-22 situation that, over the years, produced the very “Jasmine Revolution” Mr Saied cherishes, but believes it has been stolen by politicians and corrupt businessmen colluding with pressure groups.
There is every reason to believe that the President will deliver on his promised public consultations – the mechanics of which is already questioned – the referendum and elections, as well. But, there is also every reason to, simultaneously, believe that whatever the final product would be, it will not be immune when it comes to the issue of legitimacy and credibility.
So far, President Saied has not offered any credible economic plan to help his countrymen. That is likely to rally more disenchanted Tunisians against him and his agenda.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.