Can Tunisia Get Hit by a New “Arab Spring”?

Vladimir Danilov
SAI03243As you know, it was with the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia in 2010-2011 that a wave of protests began throughout the Arab world, whose consequences are still being felt by a number of countries. And against this background, Tunisia became the first “new democracy.” The Ennahda that came to power as a result, closely linked to the international Muslim Brotherhood movement (its activities are banned in the Russian Federation) actively supported by Ankara, caused a sharp change in the course of Tunisian foreign policy. The “new” government of the country has established strong relations with Turkey, as well as other forces of the “Arab Spring,” primarily with those close to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Libya and a number of other Muslim countries.

After the death of Beji Caid Essebsi, who won the 2014 presidential election, in July 2019, extraordinary presidential elections were held in Tunisia, in which independent candidate Kais Saied unexpectedly won. According to a number of experts, Saied’s victory was due to general popular fatigue from the Ennahda government, which did not implement the reforms and changes demanded by the people during the “Jasmine Revolution.” After coming to power, Saied began to pursue a policy of strengthening his own power and in the first years of his rule established close relations with the command of the army and police of the country.

By the summer of 2021, Kais Saied had concentrated enough power in his hands to launch an offensive against the parliament, which was under the almost complete influence of Ennahda. While enlisting the support of the broad masses who came out to numerous rallies demanding the resignation of the government of the Ennahda party, on July 25, on the Republic Day celebrated throughout the nation, Saied dismissed the Prime Minister of the country, a number of government members, and also suspended the work of the parliament. Participants of the rallies demanded a change of the political regime, bringing to justice corrupt officials and those responsible for the deterioration of the epidemiological and socio-economic state of the country. President Kais Saied, having shown personal responsibility in the need to curb corruption and political demagoguery of the Parliament, assumed executive powers and supervision of the prosecutor’s office. The judiciary opposed these political maneuvers of Saied.

On February 13 of this year, Tunisian President Kais Saied issued a decree on the creation of the interim Supreme Judicial Council, thereby effectively replacing the body abolished on February 6, and also granting himself additional powers to control the country’s highest judicial body, reports Al Jazeera.

Taking into account the financial crisis Tunisia is experiencing, in order to ensure social reforms, negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were launched in February to receive assistance in the amount of about USD 400 million in exchange for economic transformations. To this end, the Tunisian Government has prepared an extensive reform program in accordance with the conditions of the IMF designed for the period from 2022 to 2026.

However, experts and political forces in this North African country were not optimistic about discussing aid with the IMF, while predicting that the planned transformations will further aggravate the socio-economic crisis. The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) has declared its rejection of all proposals that affect the middle and lower classes, primarily measures to reduce wages and abolish subsidies for basic foodstuffs. In particular, Mohsen al-Nabti, a political activist and head of the People’s Movement party, pointed out the unfair conditions imposed by the IMF. At the same time, he believes that the deal is necessary to overcome the current crisis caused by the policies of members of the former ruling Ennahda movement, since moderate Islamists have made the state completely debt-dependent.

However, the World Bank has approved USD 400 million in funding for emergency social protection support in Tunisia. The statement of the international organization says that the money will be used to help 900 thousand Tunisian families, which is 30% of the total population of the republic. This will contribute to the country’s recovery from the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had a negative impact on the economy and the health system. The Tunisian Government will receive this funding three months after its approval, that is, at the end of June.

It must be recognized that Tunisia’s public finances have been depleted over the past few years amid political disputes. The Ukrainian crisis and the sharply reduced flow of foreign tourists, who served as the main source of revenue for the country’s budget, have aggravated the situation, causing a spike in fuel and grain prices. Investment bank Morgan Stanley recently said it expects the government to default on loans.

Amidst the deteriorating economic situation in the country, rising prices and unemployment, galloping inflation and increasing inaccessibility to some food and essential goods, the political crisis is escalating as well. According to Noureddine Taboubi, the head of UGTT, the country is preparing for a strike of public sector workers in protest against economic reforms that have been proposed by the government and provide for a reduction in subsidies and wage funds. UGTT promises to announce the time of the strike soon.

On March 30, the opposition to the current president represented by a number of members of parliament whose work was frozen by Kais Saied last summer held a virtual meeting and decided to cancel the exceptional measures announced by the president on July 25, 2021. A member of the Ennahda party, Abdelkarim Harouni, said that 115 of the 121 MPs present at the meeting voted for the cancellation of the president’s decisions.

In the administration of the president, who claims that he dissolved parliament to preserve the state, this demarche of the lawmakers was regarded as a “failed coup attempt.” “No one knows what was discussed at that meeting and for what purpose it was held,” said Kais Saied in an interview with one of the Tunisian television channels. “It is possible that it was dedicated to the preparation of a coup d’etat.”

As a result, Kais Saied issued a decree on the dissolution of parliament, and Justice Minister Leila Jeffal appealed to the Prosecutor General with a request to launch an investigation against the MPs. According to local media reports, several dozen lawmakers have already been summoned for questioning by the police.

According to the Tunisian Constitution, the president can dissolve parliament, but is obliged to immediately call new elections, and until they are held, the dissolved parliament continues to perform its duties. However, polls show that in the event of new elections, the party supporting Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, former president who was deposed in 2011, may win. With this in mind, President Saied announced that the country needs a new constitution, and promises to hold parliamentary elections in December, after its adoption.

Events in Tunisia are being closely watched from Europe and the rest of the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who actively supported the activities of the Ennahda party, has been the fiercest critic of Saied as of late. In response, Tunisian Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi accused Ankara of interfering in the country’s internal affairs.

Under these conditions and in order to reduce the socio-political tension in Tunisia, the EU announced on March 29 that it would provide this country with a loan of EUR 450 million to support its  budget. Brussels expects that the country will soon face an inevitable financial collapse if it is not given a package of rescue measures. In addition, in early March, Tunisia received a loan of EUR 103.95 million from the African Development Bank (ADB) as part of an agreement to finance the second phase of the road infrastructure development program.

Whether it will be possible in this way to muffle internal unrest in this North African country and avoid a new wave of the “Arab Spring” in it, the near future will show.