En Tunisie, l’urgence est économique et sociale
En Tunisie, l’urgence est économique et sociale
Tunisia’s Leap into the Unknown
Tunisia’s Leap into the Unknown

En Tunisie, l’urgence est économique et sociale

Alors que le chaos règne à travers le monde arabe, la Tunisie vit une transition démocratique relativement pacifique. Or, au-delà de ce calme apparent, les slogans de la contestation résonnent encore. Les nombreuses manifestations sociales et la violence salafiste, dont les principaux acteurs sont issus d’une jeunesse marginalisée, sont les symptômes de ce mécontentement. Les difficultés économiques ébranlent la confiance que les citoyens accordent au gouvernement. Le président tunisien, Moncef Marzouki, a affirmé que si les problèmes socio-économiques ne sont pas rapidement pris en compte, le risque de “révolution dans la révolution” n’est pas à écarter. 

Si la colère gronde, la Tunisie n’est pas au bord d’une nouvelle insurrection. Ni les partis politiques ni la puissante centrale syndicale, l’Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT), ne sont à la recherche d’une nouvelle épreuve de force. Les classes moyennes, de plus en plus lasses, souhaitent également éviter l’irruption d’une nouvelle contestation. Mais, afin de contenir la colère populaire, le Premier ministre, Hamadi Jebali, et son équipe gagneraient fort à s’attaquer à trois problèmes majeurs. En premier lieu, la question du chômage, surtout celui des diplômés de l’enseignement supérieur, doit être une priorité absolue. Ces derniers sont enclins à descendre dans les rues pour exprimer violemment leur ressentiment. En second lieu, le gouvernement devrait réduire les inégalités régionales qui font peu à peu perdre espoir aux habitants de l’intérieur du pays. Enfin, il devrait prêter attention à la réorganisation des réseaux de corruption depuis la chute des familles du président Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali et de son épouse, Leïla Trabelsi. Une sorte de “réveil des intermédiaires” - ces fonctionnaires de moyen rang corrompus - très préoccupant semble se produire. 

L’Assemblée nationale constituante (ANC) devrait adopter des mesures d’urgence afin de surmonter les obstacles administratifs freinant les projets relatifs à l’emploi des jeunes diplômés et au développement régional. Elle pourrait par exemple nommer un comité de crise bénéficiant de l’autorité nécessaire pour débloquer ces projets dans les plus brefs délais. Le gouvernement pourrait, de même, créer des commissions d’enquête et d’actions composées de forces sécuritaires et de médiateurs locaux afin, d’une part, de répondre aux conflits violents, notamment dans le bassin minier, et, d’autre part, d’enquêter sur les activités du marché noir, y compris la contrebande - vivier de groupuscules jihadistes violents - dans l’intérieur du pays et les régions frontalières. 

Le secteur informel doit sortir des marges de la légalité pour devenir un véritable moteur de croissance. Lourdeurs bureaucratiques, humiliations quotidiennes et confinement dans une économie désorganisée découragent l’esprit entrepreneurial et freinent le développement d’une économie plus transparente dont les acteurs seraient enclins à rendre des comptes de manière responsable. Lorsque justice, équité et lutte contre l’impunité sont mises à mal, des émeutes et des violences claniques éclatent, révélant ainsi la faiblesse du dialogue et l’étendue des clivages séparant gouvernants de la capitale et gouvernés des régions oubliées. Les syndicats et les associations civiles pourraient pallier ces lacunes. La communauté internationale pourrait soutenir le développement régional et local ; encourager la formation continue des jeunes diplômés en recherche d’emploi ; fournir une assistance technique dans le domaine de l’insertion professionnelle ; et faciliter la croissance des entreprises locales, y compris à travers l’assistance technique aux start-up et l’octroi de microcrédits. 

La démocratisation devrait impérativement atteindre les administrations régionales et locales. Des nouveaux mécanismes de consultation, permettant aux habitants des zones les plus reculées de mieux comprendre les politiques économiques et sociales et de s’exprimer à leur sujet, pourraient être expérimentés dans les gouvernorats de l’intérieur du pays. 

Même si le gouvernement est conscient de ces problèmes, la contestation risque de provoquer une crise de légitimité des élites politiques. Afin de l’éviter, les stratégies à mettre en œuvre devraient privilégier le dialogue entre tous les segments de la société. Après avoir subi des décennies durant des décisions venant d’en haut et étant donné les défis socio-économiques énormes auxquels ils devront faire face, les Tunisiens ne méritent pas moins que cela.
 

Supporters of Kais Saied seut up the Tunisian flag on the roof of a store in front of the riot police, during a demonstration held in front of the building of the Tunisian parliament in Bardo, in the capital Tunis, Tunisia, on July 26, 2021. Chedly Ben Ibrahim / NurPhoto via AFP

Tunisia’s Leap into the Unknown

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.

What has happened in Tunisia?

Late on 25 July, following a day of rowdy demonstrations that included reports of looting, President Kaïs Saïed invoked the constitution’s Article 80, which grants the president augmented powers in emergency situations, citing as his justification the collapse of many public services and destruction of government property. Saïed also “froze” parliament for 30 days, revoked legislators’ parliamentary immunity and seized control of the public prosecutor’s office. The next day, he cited the same article to dismiss by presidential decree Hichem Mechichi, the prime minister and interim interior minister whose nearly one-year tenure had become marked by increasing paralysis as the country grew more polarised, as well as the defence, justice and civil service ministers.

These actions have triggered the worst political crisis in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution that brought down its autocratic leader, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, in the first of the Arab uprisings. An angry rejection of President Saïed’s move came immediately from his main political opponent, Rached Ghannouchi, the speaker of parliament and head of the Islamist Ennahda Party, Tunisia’s largest, who called the move a “coup against the revolution”. Other parties allied with Ennahda and representing a majority of seats in parliament also cried foul, arguing that Saïed’s seizure of emergency powers was unconstitutional on two grounds: first, they claimed that he had not fulfilled the requirement to inform the parliament speaker and prime minister prior to invoking Article 80; and secondly, they said he exceeded his constitutional powers in freezing parliament (which Article 80 foresees operating in permanent session alongside the president in emergencies) and stripping deputies of immunity, as well as in taking control of the public prosecutor’s office.

Now there is a serious risk of further confrontation. The direction of events is uncertain, and the president’s action feels like a leap into the unknown.

Popular participation in events in the first 24 hours went through three phases. The first was a wave of rioting in several cities that preceded Saïed’s announcement on 25 July. The rioters were not clearly associated with any single political party, and their ranks included soccer hooligans and other unruly elements. These rallies took on a markedly anti-Islamist flavour, with crowds raising chants blaming Ennahda for the 2013 assassination (allegedly by Salafi jihadists) of two leading Tunisian left-wing secularists, Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahmi. The mobs targeted the Ennahda offices in Monastir, Sousse, Sfax, El Kef and Tozeur, reportedly engaging in looting.

In the second phase, which began later that day, after Saïed announced his power grab, the character of demonstrations changed to one of celebration among more middle-class Tunisians, especially in the capital Tunis, with people dancing, singing the national anthem and shouting: “Long live the president!”

The third phase came the next morning, on 26 July, when the mood turned tense as Ennahda supporters trying to gain access to parliament were stopped by security forces. Demonstrators threw stones and bottles, and a few people were wounded by gas canisters and projectiles.

While clashes between supporters of the two camps have so far been limited, the risk of an escalation of violence over the coming days cannot be ruled out

While clashes between supporters of the two camps have so far been limited, the risk of an escalation of violence over the coming days cannot be ruled out. The president’s next decisions (were he to use corruption arrests against parts of the political and business class, as his takeover of the public prosecution office and his apparent policy priorities might indicate, or order the security forces to arrest key opposition figures, for example) and the opposing side’s reactions (potentially mobilising their own networks against Saïed on the streets) will be crucial.

Was what happened a coup?

While President Saïed’s opponents say his manoeuvres were extra-constitutional and thus amount to a coup, or a “constitutional coup”, Saïed pointed to the constitution itself, lecturing his detractors to educate themselves by taking some law classes. (He was a constitutional law professor before being elected president.)

But whether or not Tunisians and foreign governments deem Saïed’s 25 July action a coup, it was clearly an orchestrated power grab. His close circles had spoken months ago about his desire to invoke Article 80 of the constitution. The demonstrations that framed his actions themselves looked provocative and may well have been pre-planned, even if nurtured by the frustrations of impoverished citizens. A recent controversy surrounding a transitional justice financial compensation of Ennahda activists who suffered during Ben Ali's era had recently stoked further popular anger.

The military has been involved, but only up to a point. Once Saïed invoked emergency powers under the constitution, the army moved quickly to seal off parliament and took control of the headquarters of the state radio-television broadcaster. So far, however, that is the extent of the military’s muscle flexing. There has as of yet been no wave of arrests of opponents, though there are rumours of thousands of politicians and senior officials being prevented from leaving the country, which could indicate future arrests.

What is the main cause of Tunisia’s political polarisation, and will Saïed’s actions resolve or exacerbate it?

Saïed soared to power in 2019 with 73 per cent of the vote, buoyed by his promises to fight corruption and rebuild state sovereignty, which Ennahda supported at the time. But despite this large popular mandate, he argued that he was unable to govern properly due to other parties’ control of parliament and Tunisia’s political system, which empowers both president and parliament. Mechichi, the prime minister whom Saïed himself had put forward in September 2020, increasingly distanced himself from the president, to the point that in January 2021 he dropped the president’s nominee for the all-powerful interior minister position. Even worse polarisation and paralysis ensued, as Saïed refused to allow the swearing-in of the new government.

Saïed claims to be strengthening his hold on power so as to break the country’s political impasse

This deadlock has exacerbated popular anger at a series of pre-existing and more recent problems, which gave Saïed a pretext for his 25 July announcement. These include the public’s ever-increasing loss of confidence in legislators and political parties; rising living costs; the socio-economic consequences of repeated border closures with Algeria and Libya; a series of lockdowns and curfews aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19, which have failed to reduce the number of new cases and deaths; and a general sense that institutions are dysfunctional. Saïed claims to be strengthening his hold on power so as to break the country’s political impasse, and to be addressing the socio-economic crisis. But the cost may be very high – potentially even the end of Tunisia’s post-2011 experiment with parliamentary democracy.

It is not impossible that Saïed succeeds in establishing a new status quo. In what undoubtedly will be a stiff battle of messaging at home and abroad, Ennahda and its parliamentary allies will hold up the banner for parliamentary politics and democratic process, while Saïed will stress his promises to end corruption and make the state strong and effective. His enduring popularity among some parts of Tunisian society suggests that at least some citizens want power in the hands of a strongman who they believe can make the state work better. By supporting an anti-corruption campaign against officials and businessmen tied to Ennahda, for example, he could permanently weaken some of his strongest political rivals.

Still, there are plenty of other scenarios that are at least as plausible, given the potential opposition to Saïed. It remains unclear whether the public administration, business circles, professionals, political parties and civil society groups will collaborate with or resist the president’s next moves. A second important factor will be the profiles of the people he chooses to advise him and to fill the state’s key positions, as they will help define his policy priorities and their execution. Third will be the reaction of international financial institutions, rating agencies and creditors, which could widen or narrow Saïed’s room for economic manoeuvre.

The economy is in dire shape, with a contraction of 8.8 per cent and a fiscal deficit of 11.4 per cent of GDP. The pandemic has exacerbated these problems, with hundreds of deaths per day and severe restrictions on movement. The country desperately needs international loans to balance its budget, and it is not clear where the money will come from. Saïed will inevitably be forced to adopt austerity measures, which will likely prove unpopular. This reinforces the likelihood that the 25 July events signal a turn toward more authoritarian rule.

What are the regional dimensions of the crisis?

Tunisia is a small country of 11 million people, much weakened by economic disruptions since the Arab uprisings, the latest political stalemate, mismanagement of the COVID-19 response and the decline of tourism. It is thus unusually dependent on the policies and support of its larger, often richer North African neighbours – notably Algeria, Egypt and Libya – as well as the Gulf Arab states and the former colonial power France just across the Mediterranean. All these countries pursue their own agendas vis-à-vis Tunisia.

Many in Tunisia accuse outsiders of having a hand in recent events. Ennahda officials, for example, tend to blame the first wave of anti-Ennahda demonstrations on 25 July on the United Arab Emirates (UAE), noting that the Emirati satellite television network Al Arabiyya broadcast images of demonstrators live and at length, making it look like there were large masses blaming the party for a decade of mismanagement and assassinations of secularist and leftist politicians. Meanwhile, the widely watched Al Jazeera network called upon Tunisians to rally to the defence of “revolution and democracy”. Al Jazeera is based in Qatar, a Gulf Arab rival to the UAE that has long supported the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that inspired Ennahda’s founders. Shortly after Al Jazeera broadcast its call, police stormed its offices in Tunis and closed them down. Some Tunisians also noted that in April, Saïed visited Egypt, where he voiced support for the policies of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who crushed the Muslim Brotherhood after taking power in 2013 and is often seen as part of a regional anti-Islamist axis and close to the UAE. For them, Egypt is a clear supporter of Saïed’s move.

The current crisis owes more to deteriorating living conditions and political deadlock than to the role of outside players

In reality, though, domestic factors offer a better explanation for the recent developments than regional politics. While in the past external actors have interfered with and aggravated pre-existing tensions, the current crisis owes more to deteriorating living conditions and political deadlock than to the role of outside players.

Is there anything the world can do to promote a peaceful resolution of the situation in Tunisia?

Everything is in flux. Tunisia’s main social and economic actors, including lawyers’, judges’ and journalists’ professional associations, are calling for respect of the constitution’s fundamental tenets. The General Union of Tunisian Workers (known by its French acronym, UGTT), the powerful and broadly representative federation of trade unions, has demanded that the president specify the goals and duration of the exceptional measures.

Most countries are aware of the nuances of Tunisia’s predicament and are unwilling to rush in to act or even comment. While Turkish officials have condemned the president’s move, others, including France, the European Union (EU), the African Union and the U.S. – all of which are influential in Tunisia – have avoided taking a clear stance on these events, instead preferring to encourage all parties to stick to the constitution, without passing judgment on whether Saïed’s power grab was constitutional, and avoid violence.  

Outside powers should put as much pressure as possible on those interlocutors who listen to them to avoid polarising things further and risking violence. In particular, France, the U.S., the EU and Germany should take a tougher line, even if behind the scenes. They should push the president to publicly commit to a roadmap detailing what he intends to do during this period and to re-establishing normal democratic processes, including parliament’s constitutionally defined role, no later than October, when parliament returns from recess. The U.S. and EU have already made statements to this effect. They should urge him to regularly consult the country’s main political, social and economic groups, including opening talks with his rivals, during this emergency period and to operate within the constitution’s limits. They should send clear signals that crackdowns against opponents or the misuse of corruption trials would run against serious foreign opposition.

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