Formal democracy cannot save Tunisia or its failed political class

The different governments that have come so far have all stood by and watched the country slowly sink deeper and deeper into its economic and social crises.
Friday 09/10/2020
A file picture shows Tunisian MPs arguing during a plenary session in parliament.(AFP)
A file picture shows Tunisian MPs arguing during a plenary session in parliament.(AFP)

It seems that the voices of the defenders of the Arab Spring uprisings attacking those who criticise Tunisia’s democratic “model” have begun to fade as it becomes clearer that the country’s experiment has created a formal democracy void of any social value and has turned into what looks like an old toy being tossed around by children after losing its spark.

As it approaches its 10th anniversary, the democracy established by the Tunisian revolution has become something totally removed from people’s lives, their demands and the dreams they had for a radical change in their conditions. Its result has been the opposite of their dreams, with conditions worsening at all levels rather than improving.

Impartial statistics and assessments released by international financial institutions confirm that the Tunisian economy is in a complex crisis with no clear way out. The problem has been compounded by debt and borrowing that the country’s inexperienced “revolutionary” governments have resorted to.

Tunisian President Kais Saied (R) stands with Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, on February 27. Fakhfakh later resigned and was replaced by Hichem Mechichi as PM. (AFP)
Tunisian President Kais Saied (R) stands with Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, on February 27. Fakhfakh later resigned and was replaced by Hichem Mechichi as PM. (AFP)

For decades, Tunisia’s economy had been balanced by its image of stability and openness to foreign investors and tourists alike.

The post-revolution political class, however, failed to invest in the attractive image of a peaceful democratic transition in the country in order to build new solid international relations that would attract funds and investors.

From the beginning, this class worked to steal the spotlight through intense political struggles aimed at covering up its inability to lead the country and its lack of ideas and alternatives for a model of governance. Political confrontations and manoeuvring turned into a permanent reality, clearly contributing to the spread of pessimism and despair about the future, especially among youth, a reality that has been reflected in numerous opinion polls.

Right from the beginning, Tunisia’s parliament has served as the epicentre of this political struggle, characterised by a discourse based on verbal and physical violence. Ironically, state television in Tunisia has dedicated a special channel to parliamentary debates, raising the level of sharp rhetoric, especially as MPs began to compete with each other over who could instill the greatest spirit of the revolution, making shouting matches in parliamentary sessions look more like premature election campaigns than anything else.

A member of the security force stands guard as voters queue outside a polling station during a 2019 parliamentary election in La Marsa, outside Tunis. (AP)
A member of the security force stands guard as voters queue outside a polling station during a 2019 parliamentary election in La Marsa, outside Tunis. (AP)

But the most unfortunate thing here is that the legislative institution that is supposed to undertake the drafting of laws necessary to enable the radical discourse of the revolution has turned into a space for a new kind of struggle — a struggle between the various lobbies of corrupt money, which have succeeded in co-opting a significant number of MPs and politicians. They have taken over so much that when passing new laws, it is the interests of these influential groups, not those of the people who elected parliament in the first place, that are taken into consideration.

Parliament has veered off its mission so much that people are calling for its dissolution and for new elections to be held in the hope that they will usher in a new legislative body with a minimum balance in place, as the current one is in a constant state of contradictions, reflected in alliances that defy all logic, with MPs switching from one bloc to their rival, or in the nature of the draft laws submitted.

On Tuesday, a group of civil society and human rights organisations issued a statement urging President Kais Saied to intervene to prevent the adoption of a law aimed at granting security forces and members of the armed forces immunity from prosecution. Such a law, they argued, represents a threat to democracy and the climate of freedoms brought by the revolution, as well as gives a free reign to security services to monitor and harass their critics.

If members of the police and the army have the right to protect themselves and their families from violence targeting them, whether from terrorist elements or criminals, it is still parliament that is supposed to be the guardian and guarantor of the path of freedoms, especially those related to personal freedoms, chief among them freedom of expression and opinion that has reached new levels because of the availability of social media networks. Parliament is supposed to pass laws that preserve the rights and duties of everyone, but what we witnessed instead during the discussion of the draft law on “preventing and punishing attacks on the security forces” was a feverish race to win the favour of these institutions and to win the support of the security unions for personal gains.

Human rights organisations in Tunisia are also lobbying against the passage of a new draft law on “media reform” described by the journalists’ union and the Audio-visual Media Reform Commission (HAICA) as threatening to flood the sector with new media outlets that do not comply with strict standards and controls. They argue that the main goal of the draft law is to undermine the regulatory role of HAICA and the recently created Media Council. They said that it would open the country up to suspicious media, as the only constraints imposed would be over financial aspects and there would be no effort to decipher who stands behind each media project or who finances it and for what purpose.

This draft law, which is sponsored by the Islamist and populist Al-Karama Coalition, has revived fears of a repeat of the scenario in 2011 and 2012, when the door was left open for extremist Islamist group Ansar Sharia to carry out public activities under the pretext that it was better to have the group acting openly than in secret. The group used its new-found freedoms for displays of force and combat training before taking arms against the state.

So, if this draft law passes, what will prevent the emergence of media loyal to militant groups?

What would prevent the flow of foreign money to a particular political party, enabling it to flood the country with its own agenda-driven media?

It is noteworthy that the new draft law comes mainly as a reaction to HAICA’s oversight activity. HAICA is accused by Islamists of being biased against their media organs, especially since it refused to recognise partisan satellite channels and radio stations or those financed and run by people known for their ideological and political affiliations.

The constant tug of war and conflict has extended beyond parliament and spilled into various state institutions, adding to tension between Saied and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi.

Because of this, Tunisia risks disrupting government work and seeing a new political vacuum arise. Saied intended to place his hand on the government and supervise it in his capacity of president. For this purpose, he chose a figure who seemed calm and obedient as prime minister.

The fact of the matter, however, is that after winning a vote of confidence in parliament, the new premier began to change and demonstrate his independence from the president, seeking refuge behind certain parties and parliamentary blocs.

Tunisians have grave concerns about the serious conflict between the branches of the executive branch, especially as the new government faces multiple crises with minimal capabilities. The most urgent of these crises is the resurgence of the coronavirus epidemic and the absence of the necessary funds to deal with it. The previous government, headed by Elyes Fakhfakh, did not make true on its pledges to provide adequate vaccines, equip public healthcare institutions with the needed number of intensive care beds and respirators and purchase mobile health units, even while collecting significant funds from a national donation campaign.

Fakhfakh’s government, which was backed by a “revolutionary belt” in parliament, halted preparations for the second wave of COVID-19 infections during the summer period after the country succeeded in staving off the first wave.

Further, it took steps that complicated the current situation by opening the borders up to Tunisian expats wishing to return home for the summer break, as well as to foreign tourists due to pressure from the tourism industry.

In short, Tunisia’s democratic transition since 2011 has brought on internal and external crises and tensions. The different governments that have come so far, claiming to be connected in one way or another to the revolution, have all stood by and watched the country slowly sink deeper and deeper into its economic and social crises, without finding the political courage to initiate long-term reforms.

The result is that Tunisia is under threat of being classified as a failed state by the standards of international financial funds — that is to say, a state unable to fulfil its financial commitments or build a stable economy capable of attracting capital and investors.