On 2 May, Tunisian President Kais Saied announced the formation of a committee to steer the country’s national dialogue that excludes members of political parties he believes are responsible for the political and economic turmoil that has been rocking the country.
Another committee for reconciliation and settling financial corruption allegations has also been formed. In a speech marking the Eid Al-Fitr holiday, Saied said the two committees would work under the umbrella of a higher committee “that will be formed to prepare for a new republic and will complete its mission within a short period of time.”
The committees are the latest in a series of steps approved on 25 July 2021 and are intended to accelerate the political reform process in Tunisia that has been underway since Saied suspended parliament and dismissed the country’s prime minister.
He wants to lay down new ground rules for the political process in an attempt to end the bickering in elite circles thought to have hindered the work of the government. This has been especially true of conflict between the country’s Islamists led by the Ennahda Movement that controlled parliament and secularist forces that tried to offset this control.
Saied plans to hold a referendum on a new constitution in July this year, with legislative elections to be held at the end of the year. This will crown the online referendum that began in Tunisia in mid-January and aims to decide the public’s position on key issues of political and economic reform.
However, Saied’s actions still face opposition from Ennahda, which views the president’s measures on 25 July 2021 as a “coup against the constitution” after it lost control of parliament. The legislature was in political turmoil at the time, and this was affecting the governance of a country trying to recover from a turbulent decade of protests that had led to the ouster of former president Zine Al-Abidine ben Ali in 2011.
In addition to Ennahda, the worst impacted by the suspension of parliament, other parties have reservations about Saied’s moves. They fear that the actions will strengthen the presidency’s grip on the state, despite the reassuring messages Saied has sent out about his reform plans.
The announcements on 2 May were one such message and a demonstration that Saied is responsive to the demands of the country’s political forces. They came one day after the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) called on the president to “immediately initiate” a national dialogue, considering this to be “the last lifeboat” to survive the current economic and political crisis.
UGTT Secretary-General Noureddine Taboubi urged Saied to launch a national dialogue with a view to finding a “consensus on its objectives, framework, parties, and agenda.” He warned that this should come soon and stressed the importance of translating the decisions of 25 July 2021 into “a successful roadmap and not falling back into the mistakes of the past decade.”
His statements were understood as signalling the support of the largest union in Tunisia for Saied’s actions.
Saied responded by announcing the creation of the new republic committee that will oversee the work of the national dialogue and corruption committees. He said the dialogue would not include “those who have sold themselves and are unpatriotic or those who have starved and abused the people.”
Those invited to the table are the “four national organisations” of the UGTT, the Tunisian Federation of Industry, the Tunisian League for Human Rights, and the National Authority of Lawyers.
The four organisations were jointly awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for their contributions to the democratic transition in Tunisia, the cradle of the 2011 Arab uprisings.
Saied’s decisions last summer to suspend parliament and sack the prime minister were greeted with relative calm despite the turmoil of the past decade owing to disputes between religious and political groups and parties. Despite domestic and European pressure, he has been able to maintain relative stability compared to the conditions before 25 July 2021.
Tunisia’s unions want to see more political reforms through the national dialogue, and they have been calling on Saied to expand participation and include more political, social, and economic forces.
The UGTT urged Saied to set up a “real, direct, and broad dialogue without predetermined decisions.” It rejected the creation of “parallel entities” that could deepen the crisis and lead to further divisions or the holding of a “superficial and preconditioned
dialogue” that could marginalise influential political and social forces.
Taboubi said the UGTT supported a national dialogue that “puts the nation’s interests above all else to preserve the country’s stability and promote justice and progress.” He said there was a need for “consensus on key options.”
This consensus could not be “imposed by force or fait accompli,” he said, explaining that preserving Tunisia’s stability and moving towards progress and justice “is rooted in an honest and impartial dialogue without diktats from home or overseas.”
He stressed the importance of a social dialogue to resolve differences and find common ground for policies and procedures for the country’s progress.
Meanwhile, Ennahda has mobilised its supporters to pressure Saied to abandon his decisions, even though he has often said “there is no going back” on the decisions taken in 2021. Most Tunisians are thought to have accepted the measures and want the government to address the country’s economic and financial crisis.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.