Tunisia: Political polarisation

Bassem Aly , Sunday 7 Mar 2021

As rival protests are held in Tunisia, it is clear how sharply polarised the political landscape in the country nhas become

Political polarisation

Tunisia’s political crisis has affected how its leaders are dealing with Covid-19 and the economic troubles besetting the country. Major political leaders — President Kais Saied, Prime Minsiter Hichem Mechichi and Islamist Ennahda’s leader and parliament speaker Rached Al-Ghannouchi — have been fighting over ministerial changes, which led to two different sets of protests with opposite demands.

Mechichi, who unlike Saied is not a member of any political party, changed 11 out of the 28 ministers making up the cabinet in January. This reshuffle process has been widely described as a bid to remove Saied’s allies in government, replacing them with figures who are seen as pro-Ennahda and Qalb Tounes parties, the largest forces in parliament with 54 and 27 seats respectively.

Qalb Tounes is led by businessman and former presidential candidate Nabil Karoui, who was recently released on bail as he faces charges of money laundering and tax evasion. In Tunisia, which saw a successful democratic transition after its 2011 revolution, the prime minister has the majority of executive authorities, with the president handling issues of national security and foreign relations.

Yet Saied could still impact the outcome of the reshuffle. He refused to swear in four ministers, including those for the interior, justice and health, claiming each had a conflict of interest and that the reshuffle itself is unconstitutional. This led to a political deadlock that was followed by demonstrations by supporters of each political camp.

This is partially related to the absence of the judicial force: the constitutional court is yet to be established with no political agreement on which judges are sufficiently impartial to join it. Moreover, the Tunisian constitution does not require parliament’s approval for cabinet reshuffles, although it gives parliament the right to reject a newly appointed government.

According to Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow at Carnegie’s Middle East programme, the fact that the party in power felt the need to take to the streets makes it clear that Tunisians on all sides see protest as “the most effective mechanism for making their point and getting what they want”. Yerkes added that the protests reflect “how polarised Tunisia has become and how ineffective the parliament and government are at handling disputes and moving the country forward”.

Tens of thousands of Ennahda supporters took the streets of the capital Tunis on Saturday as the Islamist party backs Mechichi in this game. They raised slogans such as “Defending legitimacy and parliament”, “The people want to protect institutions”, “The people want national unity”, “The people want to protect the constitution” and “No return to dictatorship”. Speaking to protesters, Ghannouchi called for a national dialogue to end the government paralysis. The Leftist Labour Party and the Tunisian Union of Youth Organisations, meanwhile, arranged rival counter protests.

Clashes over power distribution and political representation regularly occur in Tunisia. Last July, although failing to gather the required 109 votes to do so, opposition MPs sought to have a vote of no-confidence against Al-Ghannouchi. They accused him of “attempting to implement the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda” in Tunisia and seeking to expand his authority by disregarding the president.

This coincided with a clash between Ennahda and then prime minister Elyes Al-Fakhfakh, Mechichi’s predecessor, who removed all Islamist ministers from the ruling coalition. This followed a vote of no-confidence by Ennahda against Al-Fakhfakh, who undertook a cabinet reshuffle without consulting with Ennahda.

Eight years ago, Ennahda handed over power to a transitional government till new elections could be held following talks with political parties that were brokered by the Tunisian General Labour Union. The aim of the talks was to end a severe crisis that emerged after the assassination of two opposition figures, Choukri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.

Mahmoud Al-May, a member of the constituent assembly that drafted the country’s new constitution after the 2011 revolution, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Ennahda’s recent protests represent a reaction to protests by Abir Moussi’s Free Destourian Party, which the polls today indicate is the party with the highest chances in elections.

“Ennahda also wants to put pressure on the president to accept a national dialogue to put an end to the deadlock between him, the prime minister and Ennahda. Today, the situation is completely blocked and this is impacting the ability of the government to handle economic and health problems. For instance, the vaccination programme is still unknown while other countries have already vaccinated more than a quarter of their populations. Based on the government’s Covid-19 restrictions, both protests are illegal,” Al-May said.

The International Monetary Fund said in January that, due to Covid-19, Tunisia’s GDP has contracted 8.2 per cent in 2020, unemployment reached 16.2 per cent and the current account deficits declined to 6.8 per cent of GDP. These figures, which the IMF considers the lowest since Tunisia gained independence, are related to “a strong hit” on exports and collapsing tourism receipts, “disproportionally affecting low-skilled workers, women and youth, and fuelling social discontent.”

“Given the precarious circumstances in which Tunisians are finding themselves due to the pandemic and a continuous economic crisis, calls for collective action to protest the current stalemate risk exacerbating social tensions instead of making room for dialogue and peaceful and non-violent solutions to the crisis”, Arnaud Kurze, an associate professor of justice studies at Montclair State University in the US and a Woodrow Wilson Centre global fellow, said.

“In fact, the persisting socio-economic challenges of the pandemic and unrest by marginalised youth has been unsettling in many cities across the country. The current political crisis also translates into shifting government priorities. In other words, more pressing issues, such as implementing economic stimulus packages and addressing the current pandemic become secondary on the government’s to-do list, which is concerning,” Kurze stressed.

For almost a week, in January, Tunisia saw violent protests in several cities, including poor areas such as Ettadamen and Sijoumi. Angry young protesters burned tyres and blocked roads, demanding better economic conditions. It is hoped the current deadlock will not involve a replay of that.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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