A ‘chicken-egg’ dilemma: Tunisia’s political divisions and its economic crisis

Bassem Aly , Wednesday 30 Jun 2021

Kais Saied (L),Hichem Mechichi (M) and Rached Al-Ghannouchi (R)

Tunisian political forces are facing hard times with regards to solving their divisions and addressing the economic challenges facing the country. The situation, according to experts, has reached a stage where it has become difficult to know which of the two issues comes before the other.

As put by Mahmoud El May, a member of the constituent assembly that wrote the new constitution for Tunisia after the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, the “relationship between the political and economic crises and reforms is like the relationship between the chicken and the egg. Nobody knows who came first.”

An endless debate on the structure of the government, whether to have a constitutional court, and the shape of the political systems remains ongoing between President Kais Saied, leader of the Islamist Ennahda Party, and parliament speaker Rached Al-Ghannouchi and the latter’s ally premier Hichem Mechichi.

Saied believes that Tunisia has moved to a parliamentary, multi-party system that “bruises the Tunisian people in terms of food, transportation and health, especially amid a catastrophic health situation.” He wants a political conversation that ends up with a new political system in place and amendments for the 2014 constitution. He seems to be leaning towards a presidential system.

He also opposes the establishment of a 12-judge constitutional court, for which the parliament, president and judiciary each have to provide four members. “They have missed the deadlines ... Anyone wanting me to violate the constitution is looking for a mirage,” said Saied in April, adding that “after more than five years, after a deep sleep, they’ve remembered about the Constitutional Court... I will not accept a court formed to settle accounts.”

El May explained that the new constitution, in accordance to which Saied was elected, replaces the constitutional council with a constitutional court that exercises broad review powers. In the old one, he added, the constitutional council was – if the president wished – allowed to check if legislations are consistent with the constitution.

The severity of the crisis is reflected in Saied’s words. For instance, he shockingly described some of Tunisia’s politicians “as coming from the same strain of the new COVID-19,” adding that they keep changing their position as much as they want. This came during his meeting with Mobarka Ewaineya, the wife of an anti-Islamist politician whose family accused the then-ruling Ennahda of assassinating him.

It is hard to ignore the symbolism of the meeting. Ironically, Saied reached Carthage Palace in the 2019 presidential run-off partially because of Ennahda’s support. He then ran against Nabil Karoui, a businessman, the Qalb Tounes Party leader and a current ally of Ennahda who previously faced tax evasion and corruption charges.

This is in total opposition of what Ennahda and Mechichi want, said Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow at Carnegie’s Middle East program. Yerkes pointed out that Ennahda and Mechichi are looking for a separation of power between the president and the head of government.

She added that, on the contrary, Saied seeks a “more centralised government structure in which executive power is concentrated in the presidency.” Yerkes noted that the president also advocates “a more diffuse government structure in which local authorities such as governors and municipal councils are empowered to manage their own local affairs.”

This political dilemma has extended to Mechichi’s government itself. In March, Mechichi changed 11 ministers out of the 28-minister cabinet. This step was widely seen as a move to replace the pro-Saied figures with those who are close to Ennahda and Qalb Tounes. Saied then responded by refusing to swear in four of them, including the new interior, justice and health ministers.

The three parties to this story are seemingly interested to see its end in the near future. Mechichi and key Ennahda figures have publicly stated that they are ready for dialogue over this issue. Al-Ghannouchi met the president last week, a step that is widely seen as the first in the road to settling the current clash.

At this stage, the economic situation plays a major role, but dealing with it seemingly requires fixing Tunisia’s politics first. As an example, Tunisia’s General Union of Labour proposed last December that Saied lead a dialogue over ending the country’s socioeconomic and political crises. He refused, however, saying he rejects the participation of the “corrupt people,” arguably referring to Qalb Tounes.

In April, Tunisia announced a 5 percent increase in fuel prices for the third time in 2021. A litre of gasoline now costs 2.095 dinars instead of 1.995, leading to an increase in the prices of many goods and services. This came in response to the demands of the International Monetary Fund for Tunisia to cut wages and restrict energy subsidies in order to deal with its fiscal crisis.

The Tunisian government wants to reach a deal with the IMF over a loan. The latter’s figures suggest that Tunisia’s fiscal deficit is estimated to have reached 11.5 percent of the GDP. Hiring more people in the health sector to deal with COVID-19 has pushed the civil service salary bill to 17.6 percent of the GDP, the IMF warned in February.

However, Yerkes underlined that “it is not the economy alone that is driving the crisis.” She still does not rule out that “disagreement over how to tackle the necessary economic reforms definitely adds fuel to the political crisis.”

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