Tunisia: master of its own weakness

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For more than a year now, Tunisia has been ruled by the government headed by Youssef Chahed, sworn in on August 16, 2016 with 167 votes in favor, 22 against and five abstentions. Two of the priorities set by the Prime Minister are the war on terrorism and the fight against corruption.

On the first front, after the two anni horribili – 2013 with the two political assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, and 2015 with the terrorist attack at the Bardo museum in Tunis and then at a beach resort in Sousse – positive steps have been taken. Security coordination within the Tunisian security sector and more targeted and efficient cooperation with European countries and the US have been achieved, thanks to the so called “G7+” mechanism. This partially explains the increased security the country has benefitted from since 2016. It should be noted, however, that despite the non-occurrence of terrorist attacks, the state of emergency has been in place since November 2015. 

The second front, eradicating corruption, which has traditionally plagued the country’s economic performance indicators and impacted citizens’ daily activities and their perception of the ruling class, has elicited only small victories. Individual arrests of businessmen have tried to cover for the lack of structural reforms that the parliament has failed to pass. This, however, is far from a unique phenomenon: in the past year, only three new laws have passed overall. Interestingly, two have been advanced by the government and one by the presidency.

Those proposed by political parties have either stalled in the legislative assembly or have been voted against by the remaining parties. This was the case with the law on conflicts of interests promoted by the Ennahda Party, and of the one repudiating the 1987 Law 17 on the Code of Honor promoted by the Nidaa Tounes Party. Without an agreement between these two key parties, no law stands a chance of passing. Many have complained, and rightly so, about the dearth of funding for the ordinary activities the parliament should carry out, including insufficient resources for basic assets such as political parties’ work spaces and expert personnel who contribute to deputies’ daily tasks.

While the parliament tends to enjoy a good reputation in the country and abroad, formal political participation is decreasing, as the registration rate for the next municipal elections shows. Despite the new postponement of these elections from December 2017 to the spring of 2018, the registration of voters was possible for two months over the summer of 2017. Out of seven million potential voters, only five million registered. The importance of these elections should not be underestimated, as they will be the first democratic local elections the country has ever experienced. Young voters between 18 and 21 years old will almost abstain as a demographic category, as only 3% is registered.

This happens at a time when protests and mobilizations have continued unabated for the past year in peripheral regions of the country, or those that still tend to be considered marginal, starting from Kasserine (bordering with Algeria). Activism, in other words, is far from having subsided. Trust in the capacity of the parliament to introduce reforms and needed change, instead has. This is somewhat striking as the 2014 Constitution rejected, thanks to pressure from the Islamist Ennahda, a presidential form of government, in light of the country’s historical legacy of two strongmen (Habib Bourguiba first and Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali since 1987) and the hurdles of challenging their authoritarian rule given a weak and inefficient parliament. Despite these intentions, and the limited range of powers formally attributed to the president, notably foreign and defense policy, President Beji Caid Essebsi has been increasingly dominating the political spectrum and the choice of policies to be carried out.

The President, when backing a bill, is indeed successful, as was the case with the recent Reconciliation law, which pardoned those involved in cases of corruption, paradoxically weakening one of the only battles the current government will be assessed for. This has had some unintended consequences, such as the marriage of convenience between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes. The politics of consensus, while partially understandable from Ennahda’s point of view as a rational calculation, being part and parcel of a long-term strategy of becoming a fully legitimate and accepted Tunisian political actor, is also a consequence of a weak parliamentary system with a strong and charismatic President.

The political paralysis and stalemate between the key political parties, obliged to work together and paper over significant policy differences, was manifest on the occasion of the Reconciliation law, swallowed by Ennahda, as were Essebsi’s declarations acknowledging Tunisian women’s full inheritance rights. This is occurring while both parties are involved in an electoral campaign for next year’s municipal elections: both will suffer from being the incumbents(as being in power has brought very limited change in terms of socio-economic redistribution) and being in a coalition government has diminished their capacity to claim any significant programmatic difference or ontological political virginity.

As the two main political parties have been tied in forced cohabitation, freezing, at least on the surface, more evident differences, the social cleavages, however, have not frozen. Instead they continue to manifest themselves, especially in their center-periphery dimension, with protests rocking the boat in the center and south-east of the country, and between capital and work, with illegal employment now representing almost half of all work and 40% of the country’s GDP - and increasingly repressed by the police and stigmatized by the key union representing business interests, and the government.

The frequency and brutality of episodes of daily humiliation suffered by illegal vendors, including in the center of the capital, perpetuated by the police is a sober reminder of the pre-2010-2011 uprisings.

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