Tunisia wraps up 2019 with no clear path forward

Tunisian people, increasingly disenchanted, need achievements, not promises.
Sunday 22/12/2019
Tunisians queue outside a polling station during the first round of the presidential election, last September.  (AP)
Waiting for change. Tunisians queue outside a polling station during the first round of the presidential election, last September. (AP)

Nine years after Tunisia’s 2011 uprising, the country is at a critical juncture. With parliament plagued by divisions, the Islamist Ennahda Movement controlling political affairs and a president seemingly in self-imposed isolation, the path forward is murky.

This comes after an eventful year that reshaped Tunisia’s political scene and created new challenges for the young democracy.

The first major setback was June 27 when Tunis was hit with two terror attacks at the time Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi was being rushed to hospital in critical condition.

Rumours circulated that Caid Essebsi had died but it was later revealed that he had been “sedated.”

The crisis renewed security concerns in the country and raised questions about the line of succession in the absence of an approved constitutional court.

Caid Essebsi, 92, recovered from the June health issues but died July 25. Parliament Speaker Mohamed Ennaceur took over as interim president and presidential elections were moved from November to September 15.

Before parliamentary elections October 6, the country was again rocked by news of death. This time it was exiled former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who died at age 83 in Saudi Arabia after a long illness.

Ben Ali, who led Tunisia for 23 years before being ousted in the revolution, announced he hoped to return to Tunisia just months before his death.

The question of his return sparked debate between those who wanted to forgive an old and frail man and those who insisted he be held to account. The latter camp prevailed and Ben Ali’s body was buried in the Muslim holy city of Medina in Saudi Arabia.

For critics of the two former presidents, their passing constituted an irreversible departure from the past and its old school of politics. For others, the death of Caid Essebsi, in particular, meant the loss of a veteran politician uniquely able to manage the country’s divergent factions and prevent a dangerous political vacuum from taking shape.

Such fears soon materialised. Ennahda came out ahead in legislative polls and an independent former professor with no political experience, Kais Saied, won presidential elections with Ennahda’s backing.

Almost three months after the elections, the future looks as uncertain as ever. Political parties continue fighting, the designated prime minister has been struggling to form a government and the concerns of the population go unheeded.

The impasse has led many to question the intentions of Ennahda and wonder if Saied was too utopian to adequately address Tunisia’s complex problems.

Saied has also been criticised for isolating himself by directing fiery rhetoric at some of Tunisia’s foreign partners in Europe and the Arab world. Some have gone so far as to describe him as another Muammar Qaddafi, the long-time Libyan leader, but in a country with no natural resources or wealth.

Saied inflamed tensions at home by publicly criticising state institutions, such as customs authorities. There is suspicion that Saied is testing how far he can influence the people, with the aim of eventually pushing for his decentralisation project if state institutions collapse or find themselves under siege by the mob.

The suspicions grew after Saied’s December 17 speech in Sidi Bouzid, in which he accused politicians of being involved in “plots and conspiracies that they end up blaming on him.”

He explained he was not interested in power or even holding onto the presidency but only in realising the Tunisian people’s dreams of freedom and dignity. Saied then spoke against the “enemies of the revolution and the people hiding behind them,” calling on the crowd to resist “dark designs.”

In 2020, Tunisia faces the prospects of riots because of its economic and political crises that only seem to be worsening. The country’s economy, especially, is in dire shape. The state survives on donations and loans, which are often misused, and purchasing power decreases as any wage increase is quickly overtaken by inflation.

The judicial system, which is accused of being used as a tool of political parties, has also resisted calls for reform, causing many to lose trust in the institution.

Media mogul and presidential candidate Nabil Karoui was arrested on years-old charges right before the presidential election. Prominent media figure Sami Fehri was also arrested. The two high-profile arrests were criticised by some as a witch hunt for prominent critics of Ennahda.

In light of these controversies, Tunisia, more than ever, needs a constitutional court to ensure the rule of law is followed and the country’s democratic principles upheld.

However, it should be evident that no democracy is functional amid widespread impoverishment and inequity.

Tunisian people, increasingly disenchanted, need achievements, not promises. The fight against corruption must become a priority for which the country’s leaders need to devise an effective strategy, with concrete actions.