National dialogue starts in Tunisia

Kamel Abdallah , Wednesday 8 Jun 2022

Tunisian President Kais Saied announced the beginning of the country’s national dialogue this week with a view to the promulgation of a new constitution.

National dialogue starts in Tunisia
The Ariana tribunal near the Tunisian capital Tunis after judges launched a week-long strike


Tunisian President Kais Saied pressed ahead with the country’s national dialogue this week, inviting political and civil society forces to pave the way to a constitutional drafting process and a referendum on the new constitution set for 25 July.

However, his plans, part of a roadmap he set in motion on 25 July last year, have met with considerable resistance among the political opposition. Last year at this time, Saied suspended parliament, dismissed the government, and took other measures that were enthusiastically welcomed by broad segments of the Tunisian public.

Many had grown impatient with government institutions and officials they felt were doing nothing to reverse the economic deterioration that had set in following the grassroots uprising that overthrew the regime of former president Zine Al-Abidine bin Ali in 2011.

The national dialogue kicked off this week with a meeting of its economic and social affairs committee. The participants included representatives of political parties and organisations, professors of constitutional law, members of the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, the Trade and Handicrafts Union (UTICA), the Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fisheries (UTAP), the National Union of Tunisian Women (UNFT), the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), and Tunisien Avant, the Forward Tunisia Movement.

Noticeable for its absence was the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), which has vowed to stage a general strike in the coming days “for union-related reasons,” according to its chairman.

The participants in the national dialogue economic committee agreed to draw up a list of proposals for addressing the country’s economic crisis over the next four years. They also proposed ideas for the new constitution. These will be compiled into a single document that will be discussed in the next session, according to Sadok Belaïd, a jurist whom Saied has appointed to head the National Advisory Commission in charge of drafting a new constitution.

Hatem Al-Ishi, a member of the Commission, said that a constitutional bill will be prepared by the Commission’s president, Sadok Belaïd, and constitutional law professor Amin Mahfouz after studying proposals submitted by the dialogue participants. In remarks to the Tunisian radio station Shems FM last Saturday, he added that the draft would be ready by 30 June.

Despite the boycott by the UGTT and some political parties, the first session of the national dialogue was well attended, contrary to claims by opposition forces that Saied had excluded them from the dialogue process on the grounds that they were responsible for Tunisia’s current plight.

The opposition political forces were further angered by the president’s recent dismissal of 57 judges, who now face charges such as “covering up terrorist-related cases,” “corruption,” “sexual harassment,” “collusion with political parties” and “the obstruction of justice.”

According to press reports, among those dismissed were Bassem Al-Qutb, who oversaw terrorist-related hearings, former head of the Supreme Judicial Council Youssef Bouzaker, and Bachir Akremi, who is perceived to be close to the Islamist Ennahda Party in Tunisia.

Some of the dismissed judges were connected with the investigations involving the assassinations of two left-wing politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, in 2013.

On Saturday, the Association of Tunisian Judges held an emergency meeting, after which the participants announced a week-long, renewable general strike in all courts and an open sit-in in front of judiciary buildings.

Describing the president’s dismissal of more than fifty judges as a “massacre,” they asked their colleagues to turn down any offer to fill the vacated posts and not to volunteer for the judicial committees that will be formed to supervise the legislative elections that Saied has scheduled for the end of the year.

In February, Saied dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council, an independent body formed in 2016 to ensure the independence of the judiciary. He also levelled charges of corruption and political favouritism against its members.

Apart from some sporadic demonstrations by opposition forces, Tunisia has seen a remarkable decline in the number of strikes and protest actions since Saied suspended parliament and formed a new government last year to put an end to the political disputes and infighting that had paralysed the government.

But on 31 May, as the first national dialogue session approached, the country’s opposition forces launched a National Salvation Front in protest. Headed by Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, a prominent left-wing politician who opposed the Zine Al-Abidine regime, this aims to unify political forces in order to re-establish constitutional and democratic processes in the country.

The affiliated political entities include the Islamist-oriented Ennahda Party, the Tunisian Hope Party (Amal Tounes), the Tunisia Will Movement (Al-Irada), the Dignity Coalition, the Heart of Tunisia (Qalb Tounes), the Citizens’ Movement against the Coup, the Democratic Initiative, Tunisians for Democracy, the For the Sake of Tunisia Movement, the Youth for Democracy and Social Justice, and the Parliamentary Deputies Co-ordination Committee.

Apart from Ennahda, all these parties and groups are relatively minor entities, which will likely limit the new front’s efficacy as an opposition movement. Its ability to gain traction will also be challenged by the fact that Tunisians in general have little enthusiasm for political parties whose performance over the last decade has done little to convince the public that they are able to improve conditions in a country in which economic production and standards of living have sharply declined while the national debt, unemployment rates, and inflation have soared.

Despite some significant resistance and opposition tactics, it appears that Saied’s plans for re-engineering the political process in Tunisia may succeed because of the tacit agreement among Tunisians to prioritise the country’s serious economic and material problems over political issues.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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