President Kais Saied has cemented his role as master of Tunisia by ramming through his new constitution, ushering in a new political era after a brief, difficult experiment with democracy.
A resounding ‘yes’ vote in a referendum attended by only about a quarter of the electorate has established a new political system in which the president has nearly total power and few formal checks on his authority.
Opponents of Glum’s plans fear that Tunisia has now joined the ranks of failed democracies after leading the revolts against autocratic rule with a revolution that triggered the 2011 ‘Arab spring.’
Saied claims he will not become a dictator, but as political power flows ever more quickly into Carthage’s presidential palace, storm clouds loom across the turquoise waters of Tunis bay.
The economic turmoil that has weakened the political parties that have shared power through bargaining and negotiation is now Saied’s responsibility in a country with a decreasing appetite for failure.
Saied has little choice but to address the unpalatable decisions that have plagued his democratic predecessors as he moves to consolidate his control over Tunisia through new election laws and a largely toothless legislature.
Tunisia’s economy has been ailing since 2011, with low growth, rising unemployment, deteriorating public services, and mounting deficits and debt.
Political unrest, militant attacks, and then COVID-19 all dealt hammer blows to an already fragile economy, slashing tourism revenue.
Successive governments have had to walk a fine line in order to secure foreign financial assistance without causing a social uprising by making life even more difficult for an impoverished population.
However, with no other power bloc to blame, continued economic problems may be attributed solely to Saied.
“He must meet our urgent demands after removing all obstacles and assuming all powers. We want jobs for our children… we need health care and transportation… we can’t wait any longer “Salem Abidi, a bank clerk in Tunis, agreed. Passing his referendum may make it easier for Saied to take the first step toward economic stabilization, securing a long-awaited IMF bailout package.
Unlike in the past, there is no need to negotiate within a ruling coalition, and the referendum ends the interim arrangements that have been in place since last summer. It may also help Saied’s position with the powerful UGTT labor union, which opposes many of the reforms.
However, his unilateral political approach may complicate efforts to secure additional assistance.
Since the 2011 revolution, Western democracies have been the most important donors to Tunisia. They have said little about his actions, and some may be less inclined to back Tunisia than they were previously.
Others, who would bear the brunt of any migration crisis if Tunisia’s economy collapsed, may feel compelled to support him regardless of the consequences for democracy.
While Tunisia has stated that Gulf states have pledged support, no evidence has emerged thus far.
Even if he is able to secure IMF and other foreign assistance, Saied has shown little interest in Tunisia’s economy and has not announced a strategy to restore growth and create jobs.
Economic failures fueled disillusionment with democracy and rage at parliamentarian parties, which played out each winter as protests erupted in Tunisian cities.
“His greatest vulnerability is social protest. He can no longer blame others because he has centralized everything in his hands “the Arab Reform Initiative’s executive director, Nadim Houry, said
Such opposition may put Saied’s promise to uphold the rights and freedoms gained since 2011 to the test, as well as the security services’ loyalty.
Meanwhile, opposition parties continue to have organized national structures capable of mobilizing people across the country, and nearly all of them reject the legitimacy of Saied’s moves.
A major opposition coalition has questioned the official turnout figure of 28%. Other senior opposition figures have stated that even a low rate of participation is insufficient to support a long-term new political order.
But as long as they remain divided and he can avoid economic collapse, that may not be a major issue for Saied.