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Stemming Tunisia’s Authoritarian Drift
Stemming Tunisia’s Authoritarian Drift
Strengthening Institutions in Tunisia
Strengthening Institutions in Tunisia

Stemming Tunisia’s Authoritarian Drift

As dangerous signs of political polarisation mark the seventh anniversary of the 14 January 2011 Tunisian uprising, Crisis Group’s Tunisia Senior Analyst Michaël Béchir Ayari reflects on a growing but illusory popular nostalgia for strong, centralised government to get a grip on the country. He argues that to save the Arab world’s sole successful transition since 2011, the governing coalition should enact promised reforms, create a Constitutional court and hold long-delayed local elections.

Stemming Tunisia’s Authoritarian Drift

Tunisia Senior Analyst Michaël Béchir Ayari argues that to save Tunisia's transition the governing coalition should enact promised reforms, create a Constitutional court and hold long-delayed local elections. CRISIS GROUP

Strengthening Institutions in Tunisia

Tunisia is in limbo between two different forms of government, deepening socio-economic difficulties for many citizens and putting the country’s security at risk. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group proposes that the EU and its member states use their influence to persuade Tunisia actively to promote economic growth and speed up government restructuring.

This commentary on strengthening institutions in Tunisia is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

While Tunisia’s democratic transition continues, socio-economic unrest driven by rising costs of living and laggard economic growth, combined with the government’s struggles to strengthen institutions, puts the country at risk of sliding back into authoritarianism or instability. The EU should focus on helping promote economic growth and supporting institutional reform, notably persuading Tunisian authorities to establish and protect the integrity of those bodies mandated by the January 2014 constitution.

Socio-economic unrest contributing to nostalgia for a strong state

As the protests that rocked parts of Tunisia in mid-January showed, socio-economist discontent remains high as the cost of living steadily rises. Those protests were triggered by opposition to tax and tariff hikes intended to balance public finances. The economy has deteriorated since 2016: growth is slow (between 1 and 2 per cent), inflation seems to be rising faster than the official rate of 6.3 per cent and the trade deficit remains high despite a depreciating currency. As Tunisia enters an electoral cycle with municipal elections in May 2018 and parliamentary and presidential elections expected in 2019, economic grievances are moving to centre-stage in national politics.

Nostalgia for the old regime is spreading, as is a discourse that claims the revolution has impoverished the population, while politicians divide the country’s wealth among themselves.

A weak economy increases the danger of riots, which could force Tunisian policymakers to find short-term solutions akin to those of the old regime: repression of protesters and dissidents, marginalisation of civil society forces such as trade unions, and centralisation of power in the hands of a strong executive. The harshness of daily life and the deterioration of public infrastructure (transport, health and education) means ever more Tunisians believe that only a strong, ideologically homogeneous executive authority – a hyper-presidency, in other words, similar to that of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – can save the country. They consider the institutions created in the wake of the 2010-2011 revolution artificial, ill-suited to Tunisian political culture and dysfunctional. A commonly held view is that democracy has not taken root; instead, power is dispersed, corruption rampant and political debate useless. Many Tunisians are focused on coping with their daily lives, evincing no interest in politics. Several polls suggest there could be record abstention rates in the forthcoming municipal elections. Nostalgia for the old regime is spreading, as is a discourse that claims the revolution has impoverished the population, while politicians divide the country’s wealth among themselves.

A constitution awaiting effective implementation

The current order has been made more fragile still by the government’s foot-dragging in implementing vital elements of the 2014 constitution. The Constitutional Court, the only institution constitutionally mandated to declare the temporary or definitive vacancy of the presidency, has not yet been established. Its absence means that were the president, who is 91, to become unable to fulfil his functions or pass away, any transfer of power would be unconstitutional, perhaps opening the door to an authoritarian takeover. President Béji Caïd Essebsi has pledged to establish the body before the end of 2018.

Likewise, independent bodies conceived in the wake of the 2010-2011 uprising as checks on poor public administration (including the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication, the Authority for Human Rights, the Authority for Sustainable Development and the Rights of Future Generations, the Authority for Good Governance and the Authority for the Fight against Corruption) still do not exist. Nominally independent administrative bodies that are in place lack autonomy from the government and political parties. For example, pressure from Tunisia’s ruling coalition on the Independent High Authority for the Elections has already led to postponement of municipal elections. More generally, government officials and political leaders have blocked the process of decentralisation mandated by the constitution from starting in earnest.

The gap between constitutional principle and political reality is widening. But a renewed debate on the revision of the constitution, a step that President Essebsi and several political figures have suggested, would be a mistake. Amid the country’s political and economic turmoil, such a debate would be akin to reopening hostilities between the parties over core political and social issues.

What the EU can do

The EU has influence in Tunisia, where it is already supporting anti-corruption and decentralisation efforts. It should go further, both in helping the country’s economy and in developing incentives for the government to counter the short- and medium-term danger of authoritarian drift. This should be done as part of its Privileged Partnership with Tunisia, and during its review of political priorities ahead of the EU-Tunisia Association Council, expected to take place in the first half of 2018.

A first priority are measures to diminish risks of potentially destabilising socio-economic unrest. In this context, the EU should encourage the government to urgently address regional inequalities, putting this question at the centre of economic reform efforts. In particular, short-term measures to deliver economic relief should be paired with longer-term efforts to encourage investment and job creation in Tunisia’s southern and interior provinces.

At the same time, the EU should continue to encourage the Tunisian government and parliament to establish the Constitutional Court and speed up the restructuring of the electoral authorities. If those bodies were firmly ensconced, they could fulfil their mandates in the event of a presidential vacancy and in accordance with the constitution. The EU should discourage any attempt to alter the constitution before the 2019 legislative and presidential elections.

While a return to the past is not the most probable scenario, outside actors could make it likelier, especially if the internal situation continues to deteriorate. The United Arab Emirates promotes a polarising anti-Islamist political discourse in the Tunisian media, which could gain resonance if additional jihadist attacks occur. Neighbouring Algeria, which considers Tunisian stability a matter of national security, has supported the ruling coalition between Islamists and secularists in place since 2014. But more recently it has appeared to waver from this course, and could be tempted to back a tougher regime – one with greater presidential power, more intrusive intelligence gathering and harsher repression – to prevent public rioting, terrorist attacks or a political crisis. The EU should play a more active diplomatic role to counterbalance these influences and promote the more inclusive and open polity to which the Tunisian uprising gave birth.