TEN years after it served as the trigger for the Arab Spring, Tunisia is in turmoil once again. For the past few weeks, protests have rocked it over the deteriorating socio-political conditions in Africa’s northernmost country. To halt the drift, the President, Kais Saied, did the absurd; with the support of the army, he summarily sacked the Prime Minister, Hichem Mechichi, and dismissed the parliament. Though a populist move, this nevertheless set off a political wildfire that has gained global attention because of the negative implications for Tunisia’s fragile democracy.
As expected, there have been protests in support and against the attack on democracy in Tunisia. Even the world has intervened, some with diplomatic visits to Tunis, the capital. “I warn any who think of resorting to weapons… and whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets,” Saied said. That is a dictator’s language, incongruous with democratic canons. Justifiably, the opposition calls it “a coup d’état.”
Not surprisingly, the Arab world has offered its support for Saied. Saudi Arabia and Morocco in particular offer no condemnation even though the president’s actions undermine the country’s fledgling democracy. Tunisia has been cited widely as the sole success story that rose from the turmoil of the Arab Spring uprisings. Conversely, the West, where democratic tenets hold sway, has condemned Saied for his assault. The United Kingdom and the United States have led the way, admonishing Saied to restore democracy. He has yet to offer a definite way forward.
In truth, there is no easy way out. A majority of Tunisia’s 11.7 million people is disenchanted that the Arab Spring, which erupted when a young man self-immolated to protest his desperate condition, has not brought significant improvement. At 16.69 percent, unemployment is extremely high. It is a sign of the prolonged economic trouble that in part provoked the Arab Spring. In 2010, Tunisia’s GDP was $45.04 billion but dwindled to $38.8 billion in 2019. Naturally, this has instigated deep discontent.
It has also aggravated the health situation. With more than 579,000 reported cases and over 19,000 deaths, Tunisia has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 pandemic death rates in the world. Like much of Africa, only 7.7 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated against the virus, amid a rising incidence that recently saw 300 unprecedented deaths in one day. This has pushed the ordinary citizen to desperation and anger. Similarly, South Africa has vaccinated 9.41 percent, Egypt 3.61 percent, Ghana 2.79 percent and Nigeria 1.23 percent against coronavirus.
The economy has tanked. Social infrastructure is in ruins. Worse, corruption is deep rooted. Before sacking the democratic institutions of state, Saied had accused officials of looting $5 billion. As a pretext, the President invoked Article 80 of the 2014 Tunisian constitution against the majority party in the parliament, Ennahda (and the other parties), claiming that they received foreign funding to prosecute the elections in 2019.
In the process, the economic trouble has had a domino effect on politics and social life. Since the Arab Spring ended in 2011, Tunisia’s government has changed hands on 12 occasions. The incumbent president, a law academic, came to office in 2019. He is threading a shaky ground already. That is a sign of entrenched instability.
Saied is pressing forward brutally. Between July 25 and now, he has dismissed several top government functionaries, including the defence minister, the head of the national television channel,Wataniya, and the army’s chief prosecutor. Having also suspended parliament for 30 days and assumed executive powers, Tunisia has now turned 360 degrees. Over the past 10 years, it has embarked on the democratic odyssey with mixed results, but Saied’s clampdown threatens all .
Unfortunately, Tunisia is a true mirror of democracy in Africa. From the South to the North, democracy is being crudely mismanaged. Tunisia, where ex-president Ben Ali held tenaciously to power between 1989 and 2011, is bordered by unstable Libya and Algeria, also undergoing political turmoil. Those two used to have prolonged periods of strong rulers. In Nigeria, the Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) regime is bent on reversing the little gains of 22 years of its fragile democracy, banning Twitter, disobeying court orders, and playing along with anti-media bills in the parliament. In Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, DR Congo, Rwanda, Congo-Brazzaville and elsewhere on the continent, the leaders perpetuate themselves in office through several means in a direct antithesis of democracy.
In a nation used to theocratic Islamic principles, the parliamentary system introduced after the Arab Spring uprisings has instigated dissonance. Saied’s duty is to interrogate this and find the middle point and a unique democratic system that will lift Tunisia out of the current decay. The president should start by restoring the democratic institutions, including an early referendum on the politics of the country. He should repair the health of the people, with vaccinations against the virus a priority; relaunch an economic pathway and undertake a transparent war on corruption.
Saied should devise means to make democracy work and include the young people of Tunisia. These are the ideals and freedoms Mohamed Bouazizi campaigned for when he immolated himself in December 2010 in the capital.
Still, without democracy, Africa’s future is imperilled. This is where the African Union, the United Nations and the West have their role. In 2017, ECOWAS undertook a significant intervention in the Gambia when Yahya Jammeh refused to vacate office after 22 years as president. The AU, UN and the West should similarly apply pressure for the restoration of democracy in Tunisia.