As Tunisia’s President Kais Saied, reshuffled the country’s political landscape, a rift has divided the nation. The constitutional and political measures installed by him was unprecedented.
Based on the controversial article 80 of the constitution, the President decided to freeze parliamentary functions for thirty days, withdrew legal immunity for parliamentary officials, ousted the Prime Minister without appointing an alternative and imposed a partial night curfew for a month.
The reason put forward was because the cabinet had to tackle the COVID-19 health crisis and the economic slump attributed to the pandemic. The constitutional court never verified if these measures were legal.
The move saw both opponents and supporters of the measures take to the streets, and on the back of clashing views between the population it’s difficult to know if the country is sliding into chaos or is on the verge of turning the page of Political Islam.
The timing of changes poses a number of questions about the silent battle between the president and his supporters and the Islamist Ennahda whose leader, Rached el-Ghannouchi is the parliamentary speaker.
The Tunisian president is aiming to break the political deadlock by shaking up the power balance in a way that will give him an upper hand in running the country.
The timing to do this successfully is perhaps running out, with what are currently mild criticisms from human rights organizations and some governments. Will these criticisms become more severe?
They are expressing concern that Saied’s motives are the first steps towards returning Tunisia to the pre-Zine el Abidine Ben Ali era when a one party rule dominated the political spectrum.
Saied does appear to have support in the region, however. His recent visit to Egypt indicated that the two countries are coordinating efforts to confront the organizations of political Islam.
If the President succeeds in limiting the rising influence of the Islamist groups and basic democratic principles, then this will become a turning point for political Islam in Tunisia. Islamist Ennahda took a conciliatory approach following Saied’s changes and called for political dialogue and withdrawing calls for protests.
The army too is an important stakeholder in the standoff, and meticulously executed the presidential orders. In the past it has stepped back and kept a measured distance from different political factions in the country.
With the highest ranking military officials taking part in the president’s press conference announcing the governmental changes, it is clear the army has consented to them.
Ten governments over ten years have all failed to address basic economic and social issues.
According to the World Bank, Tunisia’s macroeconomic status in 2020 experienced a sharper decline in economic growth than most of its regional peers, having entered this crisis with slow growth and rising debt levels.
Tunisia was at one point viewed as a role model for how a government in the region should function following the Arab Spring.
It marched towards the path of democracy while other countries descended into chaos and civil strife. Free and fair elections held in the country gave way to diverse political representation with Islamists, liberals and communists all prominent.
This was all well and good, but it has proved somewhat futile because stalemate in the political process has never fully receded.
Tunisia’s constitutional institutions have failed to curb the social and economic crises that ignited the 2010 protests. The mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the situation, with protests the result.
The fall of political Islam in Tunisia, if that is the objective, cannot be achieved through controversial unilateral steps. Rather, the rise of a new Tunisia requires implementing a long-term plan that preserves democracy, introduces development across the country through job creation, and develops sound economic policies.
Tunisia can reach this stage. It enjoys all the cultural and human resources needed for such a leap.