Tunisia’s political crisis deepens, alienating public

With the political crisis growing, some politicians are looking to the military to play a role in managing the Tunisia’s challenges.
Tuesday 23/10/2018
Tunisian Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi (R) greets military officers while attending the Tunisian naval forces military intervention drill, last June at the port of La Goulette in Tunis. (AFP)
Tunisian Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi (R) greets military officers while attending the Tunisian naval forces military intervention drill, last June at the port of La Goulette in Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisian Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi lambasted the country’s political leaders for failing to “protect the interests of the people,” showing the growing disillusionment with a political class that has been wracked with party disputes and infighting.

“The politicians who are pretending to be elected to represent the interests of the people will account for their deeds to the people one of these days,” Zbidi said at a gathering of senior officers and officials mourning the death of two soldiers during an anti-terror operation.

Zbidi’s rare public critique resonated in Tunisia where high inflation, mass unemployment and general economic stagnation have angered the population.

“We’ve reached a stage in which the authority of the state has completely collapsed,” said philosopher and Islamic scholar Youssef Essedik, who pointed to recent tragedies in the country.

“The politicians are lying to us. Where was the authority of the state when we heard that a baby lost his fingers in an oven half an hour after being born at the hospital; that a toddler girl was raped and that takfiris (violent Salafists) are smuggling weapons and foreign currencies, among other bad things?”

Former Social Affairs Minister Abid Briki said: “Tunisia has never experienced a deep and broad crisis, like the current one, since its independence.”

He said the country is plagued by mistrust. “The citizen has no trust in his rulers. The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) mistrusts the government and the government nurtures the same mistrust of the UGTT,” he said.

The country’s political instability intensified after Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, the most influential leader in the secularist camp, announced his entente with the Islamist Ennahda Movement had ended after five years.

A realignment among secularists added a layer of uncertainty regarding the government led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

Chahed’s rivals in Nidaa Tounes, which was founded by Caid Essebsi and is led by his son Hafedh Caid Essebsi, merged with the Free Patriotic Union (UPL) headed by businessman Slim Riahi, who called on Chahed to step down.

The alliance, which caused Chahed’s bloc in parliament to lose 15 UPL deputies, exacerbated the political infighting, leaving Ennahda as the dominant party.

Nidaa Tounes officials said the merger was meant to ward off a “putsch” by Chahed to take control of the party. Chahed, a leading figure in Nidaa Tounes, is locked in a power struggle ahead of presidential and parliamentarian elections in December 2019.

The political wrangling has alienated Tunisian citizens, who say politicians should focus on programmes and policies to address the country’s crises.

“It is a shame to belong to this political class. Politicians are one day insulting one another and the next kissing one another,” Mohsen Hassan, a senior Nidaa Tounes official, said after Nidaa Tounes and UPL merged.

A 2018 Afrobarometer survey indicated that 81% of Tunisians polled said they did “not feel close to any political party” while 79% said that, if elections were tomorrow, they would either not vote or did not know who they would vote for.

The trend tracks with this year’s municipal elections, which recorded a record low voter turnout of 34% and saw independent candidates pick up the largest number of seats.

Tunisia’s political impasse, seven years after the country was hailed as the success story of the “Arab spring,” has made many questioning the country’s trajectory.

“In the face of the enduring menace of terrorism, worsening economic difficulties with a looming social explosion, we have a political class that is carefree and unconscious as it is obsessed by monopolising power and the control of the state institutions while it is forgetful and absent-minded about saving the country from a looming shipwreck,” said political writer Nejib Ouerghi.

Tunisia’s political framework will be tested further by a planned general strike by hundreds of thousands of public sector workers. The work stoppage, set for October 24 by the UGTT, which is allied with Chahed’s rivals in government, is aimed at securing wage increases.

With the political crisis growing, some politicians are looking to the military to play a role in managing the country’s challenges.

“It is a role the army does not appreciate because it is not its role but the national duty could call the military to take that role by declaring a temporary end of ‘this democratic transition,’ which no person can see the end of its tunnel,” wrote Lotfi Zitoun, an adviser to Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi.

“The economic and financial situation of the country is a recipe for disaster leading the country to lose its sovereignty. The wolf is already in the henhouse with the looming chaos,” he said in a post on social media.

Former military commander Rachid Ammar said politicians calling for the army to become involved in the political system or even launch a coup were “irresponsible.”

“The duty of the armed forces is in the barracks,” he said in a statement in early October.