03 Aug 2021 20:23 IST

Tunisia falls back into chaos ten years after the Arab Spring

Tunisia’s Saied regime poses a threat to democracy as the country grapples with the double-digit unemployment problem.

Tunisian athletes, all 63 of them, marched gleefully during the opening ceremony in Tokyo, waving their red flag emblazoned with a white circle in the middle, with pride. When the games began, Ahmed Hafnaoui, an 18-year-old, shocked the swimming world when he won the gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle event finishing in 3 minutes, 43.26 seconds, putting his country on the medal board. This time, it is the only gold that the country has won so far.

But when Hafnaoui and his fellow athletes return home after curtains fall on Tokyo and the 2024 Paris Games kickoff, they will find their country completely transformed. In a matter of a few weeks, their President Kais Saied has suspended parliament, dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, the duly elected leader of the ruling party, and announced that he will temporarily rule using his executive powers before installing a new Prime Minister.

 

 

Flag-bearers Ines Boubakri and Mehdi Ben Cheikh of Tunisia lead their contingent at the Tokyo Olympics Opening ceremony

 

 

 

 

 

Breaking point

The parliament speaker has called the president’s move a coup attempt. Many western powers have not said so in public yet, although they privately express concern. These events were clearly neither foreseen nor desired.

As fledgling democracies go, Tunisia is at the top of the pack. It was only ten years ago that events in Tunisia triggered the so-called Arab Spring, a series of anti-government protests that ousted leaders who had entrenched themselves and their families in power for decades. The first to go was Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011. Quickly, the leaders of three other countries fell —Muammar Gaddafi from Libya, Hosni Mubarak from Egypt, and Ali Abdullah Saleh from Yemen.

The movement spread like wildfire in nearly every country in the Arab world, including, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Morocco, Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, and Sudan. Seeing the writing on the wall and being provided with an advanced warning about how other dictators fell, these countries skilfully managed to remain in power. Some bribed their people with government handouts (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE) while others crushed the rebellion (and continue to do so today) with brutal force (Syria, Bahrain).

Tunisia stood out and went the farthest as it attempted to reform itself into a modern democracy. The secret police organisation was dissolved. For decades, the ruling party of Ben Ali had amassed assets vastly disproportionate to member donations through corruption and the sale of Tunisian natural resources to foreign powers. The new reforms dissolved the party, liquidated its assets, and returned them to the state.

Under Ben Ali, one could go to jail simply for politically opposing him as Tunisia practised some of the toughest sedition laws in the region. In the new Tunisia, all political prisoners were released without prejudice. In a victory for the West, in less than a year from when the protests started, the country went to the polls to elect a Constituent Assembly (Parliament). Like in France or in the US, the country’s new constitution permitted direct elections for the president as the head of state.

Turbulent times

The transition from dictatorships to democracies is hard. People cheered reforms, but bread-and-butter issues which triggered the Arab Spring movement remained, even with the new government structure. Impatience set in as the country continued to suffer economically.

And then, Covid hit. A BBC report showed that the unemployment rate in the age group of 15-25 years rose to 40 per cent. Those who could find jobs in other countries simply left, leading to brain drain. The news of politicians taking sweet-heart deals for themselves began to leak, re-evoking horrible images of the past. In January, people gathered on the streets of Tunis to begin protesting the behaviours of what they called a corrupt parliament.

 

Tunisian President Kais Saied

 

 

President Kais Saied, who had been elected to office in 2019 Trump-style (he was a former businessman with no political experience), saw that the people did not hold him responsible for the country’s precarious state of affairs, although he is the head of the government. In a bold move on July 25, he suspended the parliament for 30 days and sacked the PM, citing powers vested in him under Article 80 of Tunisia’s constitution.

But he didn’t stop there.

The next day, he sacked the Ministers of Defence and Justice, aiming to consolidate powers within the presidential palace. Following this move, he announced a one-month curfew. Critics of the president, such as Yassin Ayari and Maher Zid, both members of parliament, were arrested by plain-clothes security men.

Warning signals

Many people who cheered the dismissal of the corrupt parliament and saw President Saied as a hero are uncomfortable with the way the president is amassing power. It is little wonder that there are now protests and counter-protests on the streets, with military and police forces taking the side of the president.

The West Asian region has never been this unstable in a decade. The wars in Syria and Yemen continue. Muammar Gaddafi’s second son, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, is plotting to take over Libya. In Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, 60, a deeply conservative cleric and former head of the judiciary, takes over as President during the first week of August, having won 62 per cent of the vote. He was Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s favored candidate. With the US having already withdrawn from Afghanistan and leaving behind weapons and military equipment, the Taliban is slowly making progress, retaking outer provincial capitals and attempting to move into Kabul.

The last thing that the world wanted to see was trouble in the most stable country of them all — Tunisia. But fate always has a strange way to speak.