Tunisian president assumes dictatorial powers amid worsening social unrest
Tunisian President Kais Saied dissolved parliament last week, after more than half of its members voted to repeal the draconian powers he gave himself after staging a coup last July.
Powers included suspending parliament, appointing ministers and presiding over cabinet meetings, using presidential decrees to pass laws and dissolving the Superior Judicial Council in February which deals with judicial independence. and taking control over the selection and promotion of judges.
Saïed’s latest move came against a vote that, while not legally binding, is the most open sign yet of the infighting within Tunisia’s political elite. It prepares the ground for an intensification of the country’s political and economic crisis.
Last year, he sacked the government of the Islamist Ennahda party, suspended parliament, lifted lawmakers’ parliamentary immunity and deployed the military to guard state buildings. It follows months of protests against police brutality, economic hardship and the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic which has killed more than 28,000 of the country’s 12 million population. He went on television to warn that the military would not hesitate to use force against those who opposed his coup, a clear threat to the working class.
Saïed banned dozens of judges, politicians and businessmen from traveling and put others under house arrest. He shut down the National Anti-Corruption Authority and dismissed the Independent High Authority for Elections. He appointed Najila Bouden, a professor of geophysics, to head a government and abolished the 2014 constitution. Saied said he would hold a referendum in July this year on a new constitution to be drafted by a group of experts – after an online public consultation process – which should greatly strengthen the powers of the presidency. The referendum, scheduled for July 25, will be followed by general elections on December 17.
In this case, less than 10% of voters took part in the poll, indicating widespread hostility towards the president and his policies. The two largest parties, Ennahda and the Free Constitutional Party, both equally deeply unpopular, rejected Saïed’s plans for a referendum in July and called for elections to be held within the legal 90-day deadline after the dissolution of the parliament.
After the 2011 ousting of longtime autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Riyadh, Saïed, a former law professor and establishment figure with conservative views, entered politics and became president in 2019.
Saïed’s long-planned actions were the prelude to the establishment of a presidential dictatorship, aimed at maintaining the grip of the venal Tunisian elite on economic and political power in the face of growing unrest among workers and young people. The major imperialist powers issued pro forma statements urging him to respect the constitution. The Tunisian General Labor Movement (UGTT), the largest union, called on him to “guarantee the constitutional legitimacy of all actions taken in these difficult times”.
In the eight months following his coup, the economic situation deteriorated. The OECD report, Tunisia 2022, published on Monday, said: “Tunisians are facing the worst crisis in a generation, as COVID-19 hits an economy that was already slowing down.” The pandemic has led to severe economic contraction, particularly in the tourism and service sectors. Unemployment has risen from already high levels, particularly among Tunisia’s young population, more than a third of whom are between the ages of 15 and 29. Poverty is on the rise. Sugar and rice shortages are widespread.
Public finances have collapsed, with some public sector salaries being paid late in recent months. This prompted the government to turn to the International Monetary Fund for a loan that would require privatizing its state-owned enterprises, reducing its public sector wage bill, imposing new taxes and increasing existing ones, and remove bread subsidies under generalized food conditions. shortages. But such a loan, which would require the buy-in of the main political parties and the UGTT, is unlikely to be concluded before the summer, which could well be too late to prevent a collapse of the currency, delays or non-payments of state salaries and the country’s ability to import state-subsidized staple foods.
The loan is further jeopardized by Tunisia’s response to the US-NATO-induced war in Ukraine, as Saïed attempts to maintain relations with Russia that Tunisia relies on for tourism and trade, without upsetting the United States and Europe, whose financial and diplomatic support is crucial. to keep the economy afloat. While Tunisia voted in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it refrained from publicly denouncing Russia. By welcoming the new Russian ambassador to Tunisia a few days later, Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi underlined a desire to strengthen relations between the two countries.
This year has seen many demonstrations protesting against social and economic conditions, with the total number of protests in the eight months since Saied’s July coup surpassing those that preceded it.
Last month, 13 Tunisian and international rights groups reported on a leaked bill that would give government authorities sweeping powers and discretion to interfere with the formation, funding, operation and freedom of expression of NGOs and civil society organizations, reinstating many restrictive regulations. of Ben Ali’s repressive regime. Human rights groups have warned of the growing crackdown on journalists and activists by a president who has vowed to uphold the rights and freedoms won in the 2011 uprising.
Turning reality on his heels, Saied accused lawmakers of an “attempted coup” by holding an “illegal” meeting and defended his decision to dissolve parliament as a defense of the state. The Minister of Justice reportedly ordered an investigation into those who participated in the online session “for conspiracy against state security”. Rached Ghannouchi, the assembly’s parliamentary speaker and leader of Ennahda, the largest with a quarter of its 217 seats, said the Terrorist Crimes Investigation Unit had summoned him and at least 20 lawmakers from Ennahda and other parties for questioning.
Saïed can once again count on the support of the UGTT. Secretary-General Noureddine Taboubi has long called on politicians to put aside their differences and hold a “national dialogue” before the elections, saying: “We must overcome the difference of seeing what happened last July 25 as a coup or not. ”
He called on Saïed to dissolve parliament and applauded him when he did, saying it was a response to an effort to “destabilize the country and lead it to a wave of conflict over legitimacy”. On April 1, he spoke with Saïed and agreed on the need for a “partnership” to overcome the economic crisis.
The major powers have remained largely silent, with the European Union (EU) letting the financial taps run to prevent the country’s collapse. On the same day Saïed dissolved Parliament, the European Commission announced that it would lend 450 million euros in budgetary aid to Tunisia this year, following a meeting between Saïed and the European Commissioner for enlargement Olivér Várhelyi in Tunis.
The events of the past 11 years since the protests that toppled the Ben Ali regime have demonstrated that without the working class intervening independently of all political parties and unions, the ruling elite, under the guise of a “technocrat as in Tunisia, Lebanon and Iraq, or a military figure as in Egypt, resort to increasingly repressive means to maintain the power of the kleptocracy.