Apathy and poor leadership paralyse Tunisia

December’s record low voter turnout was both a protest and a symptom of disenchantment with the country’s leaders.

Tunisia’s political crisis shows no signs of ending. On 17 December 2022 the North African country, once hailed as the 2011 Arab Spring’s sole success story, held parliamentary elections. Most parties boycotted, and the dismal voter turnout – officially only 8.8% – eloquently expressed what Tunisians felt about the undemocratic political reforms President Kais Saied has pursued over the past 18 months.

Saied effected a de facto coup in July 2021 when he sacked the democratically elected government and suspended Parliament, gathering almost all power to himself and ruling by decree. In July 2022 he held a referendum on constitutional changes that would transform Parliament into a rubber stamp of presidential government. Voter turnout for that plebiscite was also low, officially at 30%, though civil society groups put it below 10%. The members of Parliament elected on 17 December will be announced on 19 January.

Silvia Colombo, Researcher at the NATO Defence College in Rome, told ISS Today that Saied hoped the December elections would seal and conclude the construction of his ‘New Republic’, as he liked to call it. He must have been sorely disappointed.

‘The low turnout rate should be a wake-up call for Saied,’ International Crisis Group Tunisian expert Riccardo Fabiani told ISS Today. But he said Saied had shown little adaptability to political setbacks so far and was unlikely to do so this time.

The backlash is now likely to grow. The National Salvation Front, established last March by 12 political parties that Saied ejected from Parliament, has been staging protests in response to the December elections, though they haven’t drawn huge crowds so far.

Tunisia’s most powerful trade union federation, with over a million members, is starting to wake up

Tunisia’s most powerful trade union federation, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) – with over a million members – is starting to wake up. It has so far remained quiescent about Saied’s power grab. The union’s Secretary-General Noureddine Taboubi said last month it could no longer tolerate the threat Saied was posing to Tunisian democracy, including his one-man rule.

At the end of December he announced that ‘the UGTT will present, in collaboration with the components of civil society, an initiative to save the country from collapse.’ Taboubi didn’t spell out the details, although transport workers affiliated to UGTT conducted a fairly successful countrywide strike earlier in January.

Can growing political protests and concerted union action stop Saied and force him to return Tunisia to democracy? This isn’t clear.

Colombo suspects that neither the National Salvation Front nor the UGTT has the support or vitality to lead Tunisia out of its crisis. She notes that Tunisians cheered when Saied ejected the National Salvation Front parties from Parliament in 2021. (They were widely perceived as quarrelsome and ineffective.) She believes these parties wouldn’t have done well in elections, ‘because it’s a block of very different political figures; it doesn’t really have a constituency or programme. But also because these figures belong … to the past.’

And she doubts the UGTT can do much better. She notes that despite Taboubi’s calls for a bold new mobilisation against Saied, he’s been vague in articulating a programme. She adds, ' The track record of the UGTT has always been to try to find a sort of accommodation with the ruling authorities. It represents, in most cases, the old guard.’

Fabiani agrees with Colombo that the National Salvation Front lacks sufficient popular support to mount a serious challenge to Saied. But he believes the UGTT could inflict political damage on the president through extensive strike action were its core interests threatened – by austerity measures, for instance.

So far the political crisis has remained relatively peaceful – but that could change

Such measures could be introduced as conditions for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout that Saied is seeking to address the economic crisis that aggravates the political one. Already about 50% of Tunisians live in poverty, and more than 20% are unemployed. The dire economic landscape was another factor in last month’s low voter turnout.

Colombo thinks the dismal voter turnout was bad news for Saied and Tunisia. It underlined ‘a sort of apathy that has taken control of the minds of Tunisians about all that is politics.

‘Because since 2011 at least, Tunisia lived a very intense phase of popular mobilisation and lively political debate, civil society participation and so forth. This now means a return to the pre-revolution period, which was frozen politically … as a result of President Saied’s actions and the resentment they created among Tunisians. But also because other players have equally not been up to the challenge that Tunisia faces.’

So far the crisis has remained relatively peaceful. But that could change.

Fabiani believes the only way out would be genuine dialogue among all the main players to thrash out a compromise. ‘But at the moment this seems far-fetched. Unfortunately it looks like the situation might deteriorate until there is a mass mobilisation or even a coup.’

The IMF seems to be withholding the loan Saied wants until he commits to reforms

The international community seems seized by the same apathy. The European Union has avoided direct criticism of the elections, and the United States called them an ‘initial step’ (in the right direction).

Fabiani believes Western nations are holding back. With the war in Ukraine and Europe’s energy crisis, ‘The risk of instability is too high for most Western governments’ who fear that criticising Saied too sharply could undermine ‘an already precarious situation.’

The African Union (AU) has also been absent. As Institute for Security Studies Researcher Maram Mahdi wrote in December, the AU’s Peace and Security Council – mandated to address potential conflicts – has remained silent on Tunisia, probably partly because Tunisia is currently a council member. She suggests the AU consider suspending Tunisia since Saied’s actions violate the AU’s ban on unconstitutional government changes, including unconstitutional retention of government.

Mahdi noted that the AU’s own African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights declared on 22 September 2022 that Saied’s decisions violated human rights. The court ordered Tunisia to repeal all presidential decrees and return to constitutional democracy within two years. But this decision remains hollow without the Peace and Security Council’s backup.

The IMF seems to be withholding the loan Saied wants until he commits to reforms. Yet it seems unlikely he’ll reverse the direction of his ‘New Republic’ to please the IMF. While stronger interventions from the AU and other outside forces could help, they would probably do so only if Tunisians threw their full weight behind a domestic initiative to resolve the crisis.

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria

Image: © Tunisian Presidency Press Service

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