Tunisia’s democracy on the brink as President Saied cracks down

The EU is to continue to provide budget support to Tunisia, even as the country’s controversial President Kais Saied announced that he would immediately dissolve parliament after it voted to repeal his decision to rule by decree and freeze democratic institutions. [EPA-EFE/MOHAMED MESSARA]

North Africa’s last remaining democracy following 2010’s Arab Spring, Tunisia, is facing an existential political and constitutional crisis, six months after the country’s president suspended parliament and announced he would govern by decree.

Kais Saied, who was elected president in 2019, initially rode a wave of public popularity after suspending the constitution and parliament last July, despite opposition accusations that it was a constitutional coup. Saied promised to root out corruption and fix a sclerotic economy and dysfunctional parliamentary system. But the tide of public opinion is turning.

“Under President Saied, we have left the democratic path,” Chaima Aissa of Citizens against the Coup told EURACTIV. Aissa describes the human rights situation in the country as “very dangerous” following a wave of arrests of pro-democracy protestors.

The violence used by the state, including the use of water cannons and kidnapping, is of a scale not seen since before the 2011 revolution, which saw the overthrow of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, she adds.

But six months on, opposition and civil society groups told EURACTIV that everything is changing.

Opposition activists say that Tunisia’s retreat to a full-blown police state is almost complete with political parties effectively prohibited and a rapidly deteriorating human rights situation.

In recent months, Saied has bolstered the Ministry of the Interior, which has stepped up arrests of protestors and opposition officials in recent weeks. More than a dozen people arrested at protests against the regime on 15 January are still in prison without access to legal representation.

Meanwhile, the former Justice minister and current Ennahda party deputy chairman, Nourredine Bhairi, who has kidnapped on 31 December and then jailed, remains in hospital after going on hunger strike in prison.

Opposition officials told EURACTIV that Bhairi has still not been charged with an offence but has been unable to see his family or a lawyer.

The United Nations has also expressed concern about human rights abuses in Tunisia and demanded that Bhairi be either charged or freed.

Last month, the envoys of seven Western countries and the European Union urged Tunisia to respect “fundamental freedoms” and set a timeline for returning to democratic institutions.

However, civil society activists told EURACTIV that the EU and the wider international community need to offer more substantial support for democracy campaigners in Tunisia.

In the meantime, once divided opposition parties are now working with civil society groups. Citizens against the Coup, a non partisan campaign group bringing together independents and political figures from across the spectrum, is seeking to mobilise a succession of protests and a united political front against President Saied.

“We invited all political parties to work with us. Our work is to create an alternative, in terms of economic and social policy as well as political,” says Chaima Aissa.

However, despite growing public discontent, Saied appears determined to use the digital consultation that he launched earlier this month to change the constitution in a referendum due to be held in July, with new parliamentary elections tentatively planned for December.

One hundred thousand citizens have taken part in the consultation so far, but opposition and civil society groups have been shut out from the process. That, together with concerns that the government could misuse citizens’ data on the platform, has left many sceptical at the initiative. Opposition leaders say that the consultation process is a blatant attempt by the president to change the electoral law and the constitution to entrench power with the presidency.

Before last July, most executive powers lay in the hands of the prime minister.

“The consultation is a big joke. A legitimate President would not have done this,” said Oussama Khlifi, a Qalb Tounes MP.

Tunisia is facing “a profound crisis”, he says, adding that there is no longer any room for negotiation with President Saied.

Some opposition politicians are warning that the powder keg of political divisions created by the president, and exacerbated by extreme social and economic hardship and another wave of COVID-19, could lead to civil war.

Despite promising to fix the economy, Saied has instead seen a further decline in the state’s finances, and foreign investment has stalled. In the capital Tunis, unemployment is running at about 18% and is above 30% in the poorer south.

“Our job is to keep people calm,” said Khlifi, though he warns that the pandemic, economic woes and state repression could cause a ‘social explosion’.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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