Tunisia’s state of reform

Al-Ahram Weekly Editorial
Tuesday 4 Jan 2022

Tunisian President Kais Saied announced a roadmap to reposition the country towards reform on 13 December. Saied’s proposed path out of the crisis sets December 2022 as the date for legislative elections, to be preceded by a review of the electoral law.

Following public online consultation, starting in January, Tunisia is slated to hold a referendum on 25 July 2022 to amend the constitution. If approved, it is expected the amendments will grant more powers to the president than the parliament, which plunged the country into political and economic crises due to political conflicts.

An unorthodox mechanism, the online consultation, held between 1 January and 20 March, will provide the Tunisian people with the opportunity to propose ideas to form the basis of the constitutional amendments. The public referendum is one way to gauge the people’s vision concerning the political regime and the electoral law which have been faced with fiery criticism for their failure to meet the people’s aspirations.

Meanwhile, parliament will remain suspended, as per Saied’s latest announcement.

The popular Tunisian president is waging a fierce battle to put the country politically back on course. This battle comprises a milestone in the struggle of civil movements in the Arab region against Islamist groups that seek to rise to power to control their countries’ resources and use democracy as a means to monopolise power indefinitely.

The media affiliated to Ennahda Movement and its loyalists has been an obstacle, creating sharp divisions following the radical measures Saied declared five months ago. On 25 July, Saied activated Chapter 80 of the Constitution, suspending parliament, dissolving the government and declaring that people involved in financial and political corruption would be tried. The Tunisian domestic debacle deepened after the government had failed to manage the coronavirus crisis amid its disastrous economic performance. The situation gave Saied no other choice but to intervene with the 25 July decrees.

The Tunisian street is divided between Saied’s opponents and supporters, although the latter group seems to be dominant, repeatedly expressing their support for the president’s decisions to take the corrupt to court and improve public life. The latest polls reveal that Saied is still earning the confidence of the people, especially if he is to run for another term.

The president’s personality has dramatically changed in 2021, observers noted. Saied gave several speeches and made many decisions to stop the deterioration of the Tunisian economy and set a path to reform.

In the past year Tunisia focused on holding Ennahda and its allies accountable. Nabil Karoui, the head of the second largest bloc in parliament and an ally of Ennahda, fled the country following his implication in financial corruption cases. Simultaneously, the judiciary ordered the arrest and detention of a number of politicians and suspended parliamentarians, including Seifeddin Makhlouf, the head of the Dignity Coalition, the violent wing of Ennahda.

On 31 December, a house arrest order was issued against Noureddin Al-Beheiri, the vice president of Ennahda, on charges of aiding people involved in terrorist crimes. Al-Beheiri, the former minister of justice, is also accused of tampering with judicial files and interfering in the impartiality of the judiciary.

Despite Saied’s measures, attempts to obstruct the roadmap for political reform and increasing fears of a worsening economic situation and social frustration due to hiking prices are crucial challenges in the new year. Since the protests against ousted president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali erupted in 2010, Tunisia’s public debt has reached 100 per cent of GDP and the Tunisian dinar has lost 50 per cent of its value. 

President Saied, a constitutional expert, is adamant on moving forward with reforms, believing that Tunisia’s crises, economic and otherwise, are the result of flaws in the constitution and the parliamentary system. Despite the criticisms promoted against him in Western capitals, Saied believes that his national vision reflects awareness of the severity of political and economic deterioration in the country, which has sunk into a quagmire of division as a result of the intransigence of one political faction and its attempt to monopolise managing the affairs of the country to the exclusion of other forces. This is what led Saied to intervene despite the risk of acting on his own. 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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