Tunisia, home to the first and arguably most successful of the 2011 Arab uprisings, appears to be backsliding in its transition to democracy. In mid-2021, President Kaïs Saïed consolidated powers in the executive through a series of steps widely regarded as unconstitutional. Opposition is growing though the president retains a strong social base. The polarisation could threaten stability, particularly as it intersects with persistent budgetary woes and popular discontent over economic and other inequality. Crisis Group works to help resolve these tensions in a country that remains critical for security in North Africa as a whole.
Along with democratic backsliding, Tunisia is facing an economic crunch, magnified by foreign debt it is struggling to repay. Outside actors should keep pressing the government on human rights, while looking for ways – chiefly, a revised IMF loan – to stave off the worst-case scenarios.
Crackdown on free speech continued with judicial harassment of journalists, and IMF for first time placed Tunisia on so-called black list.
Repression of dissent continued. Tunis court 10 Jan gave journalist and columnist Zied el-Heni six-month suspended prison sentence for allegedly insulting minister during radio broadcast, and released him from prison, where he had been held since 28 Dec. Authorities 3 Jan arrested Al Jazeera journalist Samir Sassi on suspicion of belonging to “terrorist organisation”, before releasing him few days later. Interior ministry note leaked on social media 13 Jan requested opening of investigation against twenty public figures (most of whom are likely to stand in presidential election due to be held by year’s end) on allegations of money laundering. Protesters took to streets on different occasions. Demonstration in support of Palestinians 11 Jan took place in front of South Africa embassy in capital Tunis; protesters expressed support for Pretoria’s genocide case against Israel at International Court of Justice. Hundreds of people 14 Jan demonstrated in Tunis to mark anniversary of 2011 uprising that led to ousting of then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and to demand release of jailed opposition leaders. Demonstrations 17-18 Jan broke out in El Hencha village, north of Sfax city, after boat carrying 37 residents attempting to cross Mediterranean Sea went missing.In another important development. Tunisia 5 Jan appeared on International Monetary Fund’s “negative list” of countries with over eighteen-month delay in completion of consultations with financial institution. President Saïed late Jan extended state of emergency by eleven months until 31 Dec 2024.
The Europeans feel that they are on the front line of instability in North Africa and in the Mediterranean.
Tunisia’s socio-economic woes could get worse if it defaults on its debt. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2023 – Autumn Update, Crisis Group advises the EU to encourage a revised loan deal with the IMF but to pressure Tunis on governance and human rights.
Political tensions fuelled by President Saïed’s power grab and subsequent policies risk sending a crisis-ridden Tunisia over the edge. Saïed should organise a national dialogue and return to a negotiated constitutional order. In response, international partners should offer new economic perspectives for the country.
Tunisia faces multiple economic and social challenges following the suspension of parliament and the dismissal of the prime minister. This current state of emergency could fuel political turmoil and violence in the country. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2022, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to maintain bilateral cooperation with Tunisia and offer further economic incentives.
On 25 July, Tunisia’s President Kaïs Saïed invoked the constitution to seize emergency powers after months of crisis. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Riccardo Fabiani says compromise between Saïed and his parliamentary opponents remains possible, but so does grave violence.
Despite a marked decline in jihadist attacks in Tunisia since 2016, the government persists with repressive and unfocused counter-terrorism measures. The Tunisian authorities should make criminal justice and security reforms to prevent an upsurge in violence.
Tunisia’s new government and president represent political forces that emerged in late 2019’s elections, stirring up populism, polarisation and tensions. With judicious support from the EU, the new political class should focus on the economy and choose a path of dialogue and administrative reform.
Tunisia’s new president risks heightened tensions and instability as he aims to tackle worsening socio-economic conditions. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU, as Tunisia’s main trading partner, to prevent strife by accommodating Tunisia’s will for greater economic self-determination.
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