Tunisian Turmoil:  Democracy in Crisis and the Shattering Hopes of The Arab Spring’s Sole Success Story

The unrest in Tunisia

‘Decades go by and nothing happens; then days go by, and decades happen’, as rightly said by Lenin. A revolution was sparked 11 years ago in a town of Tunisia, as a fruit seller set himself on fire. A fire that gave a glimmer of hope to the people against autocracy and dictatorship and led to the 2011 Arab Spring revolts. However, 11 years later this hope has turned into disappointment and disillusionment. The birthplace of the Arab Spring is in crisis, with the latest developments in Tunisia, the country that is often held up as the only success story of the Arab Spring. Tunisia is now on the brink of collapse, as the young democracy is in the middle of its worst political crisis since the removal of autocrat, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, from power over a decade ago. The struggling democracy is facing an extreme and dangerous crisis period, hanging on for its survival.

The country is further divided compounding the challenges faced by the young democracy with some celebrating the steps of President Kais while others protest against it. After a year of tumultuous government, many see it as a sign of new optimism; others see it as a constitutionally problematic decision with potentially destabilising connotations and far-reaching effects.

The story of Tunisia: Why and What? 

Twenty-three years of oppression and corruption ended for the Tunisia people when the disgraced President fled into exile to Saudi Arabia. The country, with a brittle democracy, has since been in turmoil for a decade. Tunisia’s economy and healthcare system have been on the verge of collapse since the revolution in 2011, and the COVID-19 outbreak has exacerbated the situation. In the latest development, on July 25, Tunisia’s Republic Day, protests broke out and the offices of the ruling party, Ennahda, were stormed. This allowed the President to use his Presidential powers to remove all government officials from office, creating essentially a dictatorship. The President previously made three decisions that contributed towards the breakdown of the democratic success story of the Arab spring. President Saied announced, in a shocking development, his first decision to freeze the functions of Parliament, as the Constitution does not prohibit the freezing of its activities nor does it prohibit the dissolution of Parliament. His second decision was to lift parliamentary immunity for all deputies and finally, he decided that the President of the republic will take charge of all executive powers with the help of a new government, which is to be headed by a new leader appointed by the President himself.

The state’s chaotic response towards unemployment, poverty and the economic crisis were some of the main reasons that led to the President’s decision to suspend Parliament, as he believed it would restore peace in the country and halt the ongoing protest by citizens.  At the same time, the decision resembles a constitutional dictatorship, as the emergency power is utilised solely by President Saied. He claims that he intervened only to “rescue the state.” However, in a country where the scars of decades of tyranny have yet to heal, his decision to dissolve an elected government creates more questions than answers.

The Turmoil: Possibility of coup & dictatorship.

President Kais Saied sacked the Prime minister, ousted the government and suspended the activities of parliament for 30 days with help from the army. The President also imposed night-time curfews and bans on public gatherings. While some celebrated the President’s decision, others are warning that such actions are a return of authoritarianism. Tunisia’s biggest political party, Ennahdha, called these actions taken by the President, “a coup against Tunisian democracy and its constitution.” President Saied argued that he acted constitutionally under Article 80 of the Constitution which allows the head of state to take exceptional measures in the event of an imminent threat. However, it is pertinent to know that the President’s actions will be permitted to stand for 30 days, after which the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the People will be able to apply for review in Constitutional Court. The Constitution also calls for a Constitutional Court to settle crises like these, to uphold democracy. However, due to ongoing disagreements over judicial appointments, the court has yet to be established. The current framework and developments in Tunisia are directing towards an unwanted situation as political scientist Selim Kharrat said, ‘decision of Saied’s are not constitutional by citing Article 80 as it states that parliament should be in open session.’

Constitutional crisis in Arab spring’s success story

The dramatic move by the President comes after a prolonged deadlock between the President, the Premier and Ennahda chief. The Constitution enshrines the Parliament with essential powers, largely limiting the President to security and diplomatic issues. However, President Kais officially plunged the young and fledgling democracy into a constitutional crisis for the first time by dissolving the government, creating uncertainty as to whether, President Saied had the authority to do so on his own. The suspension of the government has made the President nearly supreme, as the Constitutional Court has yet to be setup in Tunisia to review the President’s actions. A Constitutional Court was meant to be established by 2015, however due to parliament’s failure to agree on the four judges, who would make up the court, there has been no progression. The court is empowered under the constitution to strike down legislation that conflicts with the constitution’s provisions, notably its human rights protections. In the current political and constitutional crisis, it is of the utmost importance that President Kais should name the new Prime Minister and clear the air regarding the speculations of a coup, and the establishment of an authoritarian government.  

The raising fears among Tunisian democrats and Arab campaigners, is that the country that served as the last best hope for Arab democratic liberties may soon follow Egypt and revert to autocratic rule.  To prevent this, the President must choose a Prime Minister who will obtain the confidence of the Assembly of the People’s Representatives, by a two-thirds majority. Mr Saied should act within his constitutional bounds powers and recall the Parliament and allow for the establishment of a genuine government, capable of addressing Tunisia’s economic and healthcare problems. It is interesting to note that Mr Kais Saied was a law professor who taught constitutional law at Tunis University.

Transition is easy but is installing a democracy?

Overthrowing a regime is easier than putting a stable democratic government in place.  Democratic transition is not about overthrowing an individual, it is about systems and institutions, which may appear mundane, but they are the factors that form the bedrock of stability in institutions of democracy such as an independent judiciary and legislature, freedom of the press and other allied factors. Tunisia needs a robust institution to continue as the success story of Arab spring. Unfortunately, Tunisia which is already facing turmoil and gasping for stability, lacks both the political will and the resources need to overcome the current economic and security concerns to develop the legal and institutional frameworks for the protection of legal and human rights.

Concluding remarks: What ahead?

President Saied’s actions have seized the zeitgeist by acting against the political elite, who most Tunisians have long despised. Regardless of this fact, whether you think it’s a power grab or a necessary intervention to confront a problem, President Saied does not have a political party behind him.  This will hinder his ability to lead the country.  At the very least, the scenario increases the pressure on Tunisia’s politicians to improve a system that, however flawed it may be, provides the people with far more participation and authority within the workings of their government than any other Arab Spring country.  Currently, there is not an iota of doubt that the Tunisian government is facing their worst constitutional crisis, and is on the verge of collapsing.  

A major concern regarding the ongoing crisis is that Tunisia will no longer be the sole democratic success story of Arab Spring. Tunisians created a new path and adopted democracy after a great struggle. Other Arab countries deposed long-serving dictators but became embroiled in a civil war (Syria, Libya, and Yemen) or reverted to the former dictatorship’s regime following counter-revolution (Egypt).  A few days after Tunisia’s presidential coup and the internal and external calls for a return to constitutional and institutional life, as well as for the protection of freedoms and human rights, there are indications that Saied will find it difficult to replicate the Egyptian model and re-establish authoritarian rule in the country. There is little question that Tunisians are facing economic challenges, which have been exacerbated by Tunisian democracy’s inability to meet expectations for sustainable growth. Furthermore, political intrigues and reciprocal accusations, as well as, evident attempts to undermine government initiatives at any cost, contributed to the country’s current state. However, this does not excuse undoing the previous decade’s democratic accomplishments or permitting the populist president to subvert them and establish the circumstances for a new dictatorship. Democracy is both a remedy for the ills of authoritarian rule and a guarantee of civic rights. It is not a panacea for economic or social problems. This is what should be safeguarded within the framework of a democratic administration. The alternative is an oppressive regime that restricts liberties while failing to address socioeconomic issues.

Shelal Lodhi Rajput is studying law at Symbiosis Law School, Pune in India. He has interned with different law firms, think tanks and organizations. His primary research interests include but not limited to constitutional, human rights and international law amongst diverse interests. Shelal presently works as the Editor at the Wall of Justice platform in the capacity of an intern therein.

Leave a Reply