Fear and frustration at EU silence on Tunisia’s slide to autocracy

“There is a high level of public fear,” Ahmed Gaaloul, told EURACTIV, as Tunisia fragile democracy faces growing threats from an increasingly autocratic President. [EPA-EFE/MOHAMED MESSARA]

“There is a high level of public fear,” Ahmed Gaaloul told EURACTIV, as Tunisia’s fragile democracy faces growing threats from an increasingly autocratic President.

Last week, Tunisian President Kais Saied moved to dissolve parliament after it voted to repeal his decision to freeze democratic institutions and rule by decree. Since then, MPs have been interrogated, and justice minister Leila Jeffal has requested the public prosecutor initiate arrest proceedings against the lawmakers who participated in the session, accusing them of “forming a criminal association” to “endanger the state and cause chaos on the Tunisian territory”.

The potential charges under the anti-terrorism act carry a sentence between 20 years in jail and the death penalty. A number of MPs are being harassed, particularly those who participated in the session and their families.

Yet despite Tunisia’s slide towards autocracy, Gaaloul, a former minister from the Ennahda party and current advisor to Speaker Rachid Ghannouchi, believes that President Saied’s position is increasingly weak.

“I think that Kais Saied will not have time to build a dictatorship because he doesn’t have the tools to do so. For democracy to be successful it needs political and economic stability. A dictatorship needs the same thing. It needs stable governance and economic resources,” he said.

“What we fear is the scenario that is worse than a dictatorship: total chaos. That he is not able to govern, no political buffer, and total despair from the population.”

Nonetheless, opposition groups have been disappointed by the lack of support for democracy and condemnation of President Saied’s actions from the EU institutions.

While the United States has announced that future financial support for Tunisia will be conditional on the restoration of democratic institutions, and Turkey’s President Recep Erdoğan has described the dissolution of parliament as “a blow against the people”, the EU has been silent.

Instead, the European Commission announced last week that it would lend Tunisia €450 million in budget support this year.

Gaaloul believes that geopolitics has contributed to the EU’s silence, pointing out that President Saied did not want to vote against Russia in the United Nations and that supplies of Algerian gas to Europe, which EU states want to increase, go through Tunisia.

“I cannot understand why the EU has taken this stance. The US has the courage to describe things as they are, though until now the international community has not considered Kais Saied’s actions as a coup,” he told EURACTIV.

“It is true that the EU considers that Tunisia is on its doorstep and they do not want to lose Tunisia. Everyone knows that Kais Saied was unhappy about voting against Russia on Ukraine, and that the agenda of Saied is dragging Tunisia towards Russia and Iran.”

However, Gaaloul points out that the amount of financial support on offer from the EU to Tunisia will not solve the economic crisis in the country.

In the meantime, despite dissolving parliament, President Saied is pressing ahead with his so-called roadmap of constitutional reform, following an online consultation that started in January.

On Wednesday (April 6), Saied announced that Tunisian parliamentary elections expected to be held in December will take place over two rounds, and people will vote for individuals rather than lists as in previous elections. These plans have not been agreed with any political parties and, although Saied says that a political dialogue will be held, it is unclear which, if any opposition parties, will be included in talks.

The president also plans to overhaul the composition of the Independent Electoral Commission ahead of any elections.

Gaaloul told EURACTIV that the leaders of the main political parties are more unified than they have been since last July, when President Saied sacked the government, suspended parliament, and began to rule by decree. He added that a major demonstration is expected to be held on April 10.

But while the political impasse continues, the social and economic crisis facing Tunisia continues to deepen.

Saied is now trying to reach out to the International Monetary Fund for a financial support package, but this is unlikely to be obtained any time soon.

Tunisians were already feeling the effects of a decade of economic stagnation and the COVID-19 pandemic before the prospect of wheat shortages caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Ramadan is already a very tough month for Tunisians because they have to queue for bread, oil, most of their basic needs,” said Gaalou, noting that “people live with the threat of food shortages every day. If you go late to the bakery then you will not get bread.”

“During the COVID time, there was a lot of charity. This year, people are not helping each other. We are going through the third year of economic crisis,” he added.

Due to budget pressures, Tunisia had only been able to buy smaller volumes of wheat imports before the Ukraine crisis, though it will be able to tap a €200 million EU fund, along with Morocco, Egypt, and Algeria, designed to mitigate against the grain shortages resulting from disruption to grain supply from Ukraine and Russia.

Gaaloul told EURACTIV that the economic and social situation will reach its limits in May or June.

“The best-case scenario is that once Kais Saied fails, and he is going to fail, then the opposition will have to present itself as a viable democratic alternative,” Gaaloul said.

“But this will not be possible if the international community does not do its duty in supporting this democracy and giving hope to the Tunisian people that they are there to help them build a democracy that can deliver.”

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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