I.n 2011 Tunisia was the first Arab nation to overthrow its dictator, and the only one where genuine democracy survives. But events in the capital Tunis suggest that the country is undergoing a counterrevolution. On Sunday, the president, Kais Saied, fired the country’s prime minister, removed the government and froze parliament. Saied has waived the parliamentary immunity of lawmakers, a clear warning to political opponents. It is never a good sign for security forces to raid television stations. Demonstrations have broken out, with protesters taking to the streets both in support of the president and against him. The heat of the Arab Spring has definitely turned into the cold of winter.
The opposition, led mainly by Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party with the most seats in parliament, called its actions “a coup.” It’s hard not to agree with that description. But many in Tunisia shrug their shoulders or, worse, are drawn to demagogues, religious hardliners and those who praise the country’s former dictatorship. The reason why sectors of the population are receptive to apathy or illiberal notions is that freedom and democracy in Tunisia have not provided political stability and a prosperous economy. Instead, corruption, inflation and unemployment persist. In recent years, Tunisians have taken to the streets to express their discontent, sometimes with violence.
The pandemic it has also exposed how dysfunctional the Tunisian state has become. A survey for the Tunisian National Statistical Institute found that a third of households feared running out of food last year. However, the government, according to leaked documents, appeared willing to eliminate bread subsidies in negotiations for a loan of $ 4 billion from the International Monetary Fund, the fourth in 10 years. Anger over the government’s handling of the pandemic has only been compounded by the level of the national debt: loan repayments are now six times the size of the country’s health budget.
It is easy to see how one could argue that democratic institutions in Tunisia are not delivering what the public needs. But a strongman presidential system collapsed a decade ago because it proved incapable of meeting the demands of the people. The dictatorship survived brutal repression. What Tunisia needs is for politicians to take a more realistic view of where the country should go. A return to autocracy will not guarantee the stability of the regime. President Saied challenged the constitution to suspend parliament. His inability to work with a prime minister he elected suggests that he is not well suited to complex politics. its Praise to the Egyptian military dictatorship does little to inspire confidence.
Tunisian democracy has been a triumph of the politics of consensus. However, the coalition government has often meant that decisions are postponed for fear of breaking alliances. This has led, especially after the 2019 elections, to an increase in support for new and more extreme parties since calls to improve living standards and social justice were not heeded. By crowding closer together, elected representatives appear to have fostered the political instability they wanted to avoid. However, the country is not deprived of canny politicians. Rachid Ghannouchi, the current speaker of parliament and co-founder of Ennahda, saved Tunisia’s early democratic transition from collapse once before, in 2013. There is a crisis in Tunisia. This will be turned off by seeing the emergency for what it is and addressing its causes, not insisting on undemocratic arguments far beyond its expiration date.