Tunisia sheltering from the big bang

A yawning chasm of distrust separates not only the public from the political class but also separates members of the political class from each other.
Wednesday 16/06/2021
People walk in the center of Tunis, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, Tunisia. (AFP),
People walk in the center of Tunis, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, Tunisia. (AFP)

As he finished his recent meeting with the World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi never reflected so clearly his sense of desperation as when he told his interlocutors in Geneva that Tunisia’s health system could not “withstand anymore” the impact of the pandemic.

The problem is that the whole country today finds itself facing intertwined crises which it cannot “withstand anymore”, even though the country’s resilience can still surprise many.

The health crisis, as serious as it is, is just a drop in the bucket, in terms of Tunisia’s wider problems.

The current unfortunate state of unpreparedness to face the pandemic was the result of a stark lack of vision as well as distraction by political instability and infighting. When other governments were ordering vaccines, Tunisia was busy reshuffling its cabinets, endlessly. It has had four ministers of health since last year. Even the current health minister is bravely working despite being in political-legal limbo having been technically removed from office a few months ago. Half the cabinet has not been sworn in since the last reshuffle, which the president did not approve.

The three main actors that constitute the political triangle at the helm of power, the president, the prime minister and the speaker of parliament, have each been flying solo, when not working at cross purposes.

In this climate, senior officials are predictably driven by a sense of expediency. Surrounded by uncertainties, their mind is set on passing the buck to the next government, if it comes.  Blurred political vision has been the new normal during most of the last decade.

With the high turnover rate of cabinet members, dismissed government officials are not tempted to stay around and help. Many of the former members of the post-2011 governments quickly became suspects and suffered their share of demonisation.  Most of them, except those with a thick skin, are scared off of politics as the ambient political culture is nowhere near civil nor appreciative of past public service rendered.

There have been calls for a national dialogue. But efforts aimed at making sure the main actors sit around the same table have been mired in the daily soap opera of fractious politics.  With President Kais Saied’s announcement of his willingness to launch this dialogue, it remains to be seen if his initiative can overcome the many lingering impediments.

The process has from the start revealed something unsuspected about the collective political psyche: an aversion to arbitration and concessions. The new preference is for dancing on the edge. Mutual suspicion has become an enduring trait that takes precedence over the common good.

Focus has been quite egocentric. Even the risk of looming state failure has not been enough to trigger an interest in the bigger picture. Seemingly to prepare for the dialogue, the debate has been focused on the parties to be excluded not about the best guarantees for the dialogue’s success.

Despite the reputation for pragmatism earned by Tunisia throughout its history, reform does not come easy anymore. The pre-2011 period should have taught current decision makers that unwillingness or inability to introduce meaningful reforms eventually pave the way for radical change. Now that the stakes are even higher, procrastination comes more naturally than ever. Genuine reform is seen as too prohibitive.

Politicians, even the most reformist-minded among them, do not see reform as an actionable option today. Reforms, in the conventional economic lexicon, mean cutting state subsidies and curtailing social entitlements. With social precariousness, as demonstrated by the worsening poverty and unemployment indicators, it is very difficult for those in power to consider enforcing such measures, even when in dire need of the International Monetary Fund’s help. Recent events in Sudan must have offered ample warning about the type of street reactions they might have to expect.

Just trying to enhance efficiency is an uphill battle, considering the state of public service made worse by politics. The state-affiliated bureaucracy probably merits kudos for ensuring continued services despite the years of turbulence. But its key personnel are more driven by self-survival than by the overhaul of the outdated system.

Even in the dire circumstances of the pandemic, which have compounded the country’s political, economic and social crises, the bureaucracy finds more to lose by innovating than by playing strictly by the rule book. When in doubt, its propensity is to create even more rules and avoid taking any decision at all.

“The most harmful corruption is delays in decision-making, or no decision-making at all,” said recently Iraqi Oil Minister Ihsan Abdul-Jabbar Ismail. He could have been very well speaking about Tunisia. The small North African nation could be worlds apart from Mesopotamia in terms of political history but bureaucratic lethargy is a clearly recognisable bridge.

For the sake of political stability, reforms might be also needed. But that is easier said than done. There is no consensus on what constitutional and legal amendments should be introduced. A yawning chasm of distrust separates not only the public from the political class but also separates members of the political class from each other. Divisiveness, which marks all stances by heads of all branches of government, has blocked progress on the establishment of the constitutional court, the swearing-in of the government and various other items. More inhibitive is the underlying divide over strategic expectations in the exercise of power. The current ruling impasse shows the flaws and limits of the constitutionally and legally-ordained system. But moving ahead with any fundamental changes in the constitutional distribution of power or even with smaller electoral reforms will not come easy.

There has been growing consensus, however, that the system is failing although no one is willing to take the blame for it. The political class, with some exceptions, has been thriving on a self-fulfilling prophecy of collapse. Besides the vicious circle of lack of public trust, there is the hindrance of atrophied self-confidence. Nobody has been willing to take a bet that something good might come out of the whole fractious process.

Politicians and spin doctors see any setbacks big or small as vindication of their deeply engrained clairvoyance which has been fueling expectations of a Tunisian version of the Big Bang. Even the governor of the Central Bank is now predicting a ‘Latkha’, a colloquial Tunisian expression describing the crash landing of a massive object, such as that of a meteor falling to earth. Nobody knows what the ‘latkha’ would look like but most political actors believe they will know one when they see it.  To shelter from the blow and the blame, Kais Saied is finally showing tangible signs of interest in convening a dialogue between political actors.  But his concomitant revelation that an unnamed Tunisian political actor undertook contacts abroad to try to remove the president from office, even if it meant assassinating him, was not a reassuring thought. The struggle for hope continues with the ‘latkha’ lurking not far behind.