Ten years on, post-revolution forces fail to manage Tunisia’s crises

The “Tunisian spring” has turned the country into a kind of political game aimed at covering up for the total inability to understand how the state works and how its system is managed.
Thursday 26/11/2020
A Tunisian bites a piece of bread to protest his purchasing power during a demonstration on  Jan.14, 2020. (AP)
A Tunisian bites a piece of bread to protest his purchasing power during a demonstration on Jan.14, 2020. (AP)

TUNIS - Many resort to conspiracy theories to explain the fall of the “Arab spring” protests in Egypt, Syria and Libya, but conspiracy alone could not have defeated the uprisings and dispelled their spontaneous masses in the first spring of Tunisia, Egypt and then Syria. We have to admit that there are elements from within those uprisings that contributed to the loss of the popular embrace, something that we can clearly see in the Tunisian experience, which continues until now.

Initially, the various revolutions of the “Arab spring” brandished slogans demanding better living conditions, fighting poverty, employment, and freedom of expression. Later on, none of these slogans survived except for freedom of expression. The main beneficiaries of this newly found freedom were the radical parties that mushroomed after the uprisings, and whose platforms and records had nothing else but statements denouncing the failure of the post-independence states in managing the economic and social crisis.

And when these parties came to power, either directly or within strange and hybrid alliances that brought together Islamist, liberal and centre-left agendas, they were unable to manage the affairs of the state, given that their only connection with the state and its institutions was based on idealistic perceptions of the state’s social role, nationalisation and caring for the poor.

In order to cover up for this deficit, the parties purposely inflated the political aspect of the uprisings. Initially, their only goal was to organise elections and build institutions of political governance. Ironically, their goal at a later stage became to prevent this same political stability that they were constructing, for fear of discovering their severe limitations in managing public affairs.

Since 2011, Tunisia has seen eight successive governments, and none of these governments was given enough time to implement its economic and social programme, despite the fact that these programmes were set and approved by the political parties through discussions in the parliament and the existence of these parties in the alliances that formed those governments.

Immediately following the January 14, 2011 revolution, the Islamists in Tunisia ruled within a liberal/ left-wing alliance in what was called at the time the Troika governments 1 and 2. This stage was based on competing against the far-left opposition and keeping at bay the old guard that re-emerged with force after discovering the limitations of the new political class. The first goal of the rule of the Troika was to penetrate the administration affiliated with the previous regime and drown it with supporters of the new parties, especially the Islamists. This strategy led to a strong reaction that disrupted the work of the administration, which turned into something like a political party in resisting the mass infiltrations.

The spirit of vengeance and reaping the spoils of victory motivating these parties was particularly clear in how they dealt with the class of business owners and investors. They dealt with them as enemies and gave them the choice of either seeking the protection of the newly-arrived parties and submitting to their conditions or facing legal action, prison terms and confiscation of their wealth and property.

The Troika governments also opened the gate to the chaos created by the freedom to target private and public companies and businesses and disrupt them through sit-ins, strikes, and impose protection taxes on them by highway robbers and workers who wanted to share in their management. During that period, strikes became the unifying element of the various groups of workers and employees, leading to the closure of many private businesses and the flight of many foreign investments, as well as to a real inflation in hiring employees under street pressure in ghost jobs in the public sector.

The matter was no different with the subsequent governments. The main goal of these governments was always to buy the satisfaction and loyalty of the street and show a great deal of “revolutionary spirit”, motivated by partisan political and electoral calculations. Ironically, the avowed goal of these governments, most of which rode on the slogan of national unity and patriotism, was to stop the economic bleeding and implement urgent measures to save the economy.

Tunisian teachers protest for better work conditions and higher wages, near the prime minister’s office in Tunis, on February 6, 2019. (REUTERS)
Tunisian teachers protest for better work conditions and higher wages, near the prime minister’s office in Tunis, on February 6, 2019. (REUTERS)

Last year, a social centrist government was formed, headed by Elyes Fakhfakh. It had the support of the so-called “revolutionary belt”, that is, the post-revolution parties, and sought protection under the umbrella of President Kais Saied’s idealistic ideas of social justice, revolution, change that takes place through the people and combating corruption.

 Reinventing the state 

It didn’t survive long. This government of the “revolutionaries” was brought down by allegations of corruption and conflict of interest brought against the prime minister, who was accused of granting public contracts to companies in which he owned shares. The scandal coincided with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country, a situation that required the efforts of a unified solid front made up of the government and the parties. But what really brought this government down was the infighting and struggle among these revolutionary parties over the leadership of the government and over who can come closest to the president of the republic. The efforts of these self-declared revolutionary parties were confined to political wrangling, and details emerged about prior plans by Ennahda Movement, a partner in this government, to bring it down since its inception. Ennahda had already struck a deal for that purpose with other “revolutionary” radical parties.

Even though it is still in its infancy, the current government of Hichem Mechichi, a government of technocrats formed by necessity with the aim of saving an economy mired in debt and besieged by red warning lights from international financial institutions and various donors from Europe and the Middle East, is subjected to new attempts to bring it down, too.

Because of these endless political manoeuvres and calculations, the Mechichi government had no leeway for implementing reforms, and from the outset there were calls for a cabinet reshuffle aimed at facilitating the dominance of the parties supporting it in Parliament, the Ennahda Movement and Qalb Tounes Party. To resist this frontal attack, the Mechichi government resorted to populism and flirting with the street with controversial agreements. The government submitted to the logic of force adopted by the protesters in the south of the country when they shut down oil production. The government relented and the protesters got what they wanted and more. The problem is that this method of blackmailing the authorities quickly spread to other parts of the country where oil and gas facilities are located. As a result, the country’s southern cities are now experiencing a major crisis in the supply of gas cylinders and the distribution of fuel.

Parliament Speaker and head of Ennahda Movement Rached Ghannouchi had called on Parliament to enable areas where oil, gas or phosphate facilities are located to invest part of the revenues for these regions’ benefit, a suggestion that political opponents decried as a call to dismantle the country and incite conflict between regions.

Attempts are being made by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) to conduct a comprehensive national dialogue similar to the 2013 dialogue that led to the formation of a national unity government headed by Mehdi Jomaa. The trouble is that there is no guarantee that the real goal of the dialogue is to adopt a common vision to save the economy and alleviate the acute social crisis, because there are already signs of partisan manoeuvres to topple the Mechichi government and restore the “government of the revolution” under the cover of an alliance with President Kais Saied and the UGTT.

The “Tunisian spring” has turned the country into a kind of political game aimed at covering up for the total inability to understand how the state works and how its system is managed. This deficit is what explains the many mistakes made during nearly ten years of revolution under bright headlines, as if the “revolution” could and would reinvent the state.

Up to now, the “revolutionary parties” have not left the square of the opposition, and in order to cover up for their inability to move forward, they’re ready to build dubious alliances in every direction, internally and with external forces, by allowing, for example, the establishment of foreign military bases in the country, something that was unthinkable in the era of those whom they have accused of being lackeys of outside powers and of serving foreign agendas. So far, it seems that the only thing these “revolutionary” parties are good at is run to international donors and beg them for more loans, for the sake of appeasing the street and preserving the “popularity” of politicians and their chances in elections.

In the eyes of the incoming post-revolution parties, the state is nothing but a tool to achieve utopian slogans raised for decades but which had quickly fallen at the first test, not only as alternatives to pulling the country out of its crises, but also in the test of proving these parties’ national affiliation. This is because so far, these parties have remained closer to the transnational concept of “Umma” than to the concerns of the very people they are supposed to serve.