Will Tunisia's new dawn be another false one?

A deeply polarised country battles Covid-19, corruption and a flailing economy. And yet it remains a beacon of hope

epa08650532 Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi  speaks to media at  the site of an attack on Tunisian National Guard officers in Sousse, south of Tunis,Tunisia, 06 September 2020. According to The Tunisian National Guard three assailants were shot dead and one arrested after they ran over a National Guard checkpoint with their car. The attackers killed at least one police officer and wounded another using knives.  EPA/STR
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As a new government begins its term in Tunisia, the leadership faces a potent combination of challenges that have the potential to derail some of the progress made since January 2011, when the country began its transition to democratic rule. From an economy wracked by the Covid-19 pandemic, to growing political polarisation, to persistent corruption, Tunisia's political future remains uncertain.

Tunisia has fared relatively well during the pandemic, initiating severe lockdown measures early on that helped keep the number of cases down. While the country has seen an uptick in cases following the reopening of the land, air and sea borders on June 27, the number of cases (more than 8,000 cases and at least 129 deaths as of Thursday) remains low compared to other Mediterranean countries. But the damage Covid-19 has brought to Tunisia is far greater than the disease casualties. Rather, the pandemic has left Tunisia with an unemployment rate of 20 per cent, GDP growth rate expected to decline by 7 per cent this year and a tourism industry a shambles.

Even prior to the pandemic, Tunisia’s economy was fragile and had just started showing signs of positive growth, with some of the best economic figures since the 2010-2011 uprisings. But the pandemic has spoiled much of the good news, making it imperative that the new government prioritise reform aimed at addressing economic growth and levelling the playing field for the country’s traditionally marginalised interior and southern regions, which have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic.

On September 2, the Tunisian parliament approved Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi's government. This is the 12th government since 2011 and the third attempt at government formation since the October 2019 elections that brought this parliament into power. Habib Jemli, who was tasked by the largest party in Parliament, the Islamist Ennahda, to form a government, failed to secure enough votes to move forward. His successor, Elyes Fakhfakh, was chosen by President Kais Saied in January and secured a vote of confidence in his government the following month, leaving the country without a functioning cabinet for four months. But Mr Fakhfakh's government was short-lived, and he was forced out by the President in July.

Mr Saied's choice of Mr Mechichi as Prime Minister surprised many within the political establishment, as he was not one of the candidates put forth by a political party. And while he had some previous governing experience, his most important quality seems to be that of his close ties to Mr Saied. Mr Mechichi is one of Mr Saied's advisers and had served, briefly, as interior minister in the previous government. His appointment signalled that Mr Saied is looking to tighten his control over the government and siphon power away from Ennahda, the controlling party within government, from whom the President has grown increasingly distant over the past few months.

And Mr Mechichi’s choices seem to have echoed his own selection. Rather than cobbling together a government representing various party interests, he chose to arrange a “technocratic” government, with ministers selected based on their technical skills, instead of political affiliation. While some ministers come from the bureaucracy, others are Saied loyalists, including some of the most high-profile posts. The Minister of Interior, for example, is a private lawyer who had served as a campaign co-ordinator for Mr Saied. The Minister of Defence is a former law professor, like Mr Saied. And the Minister of Foreign Affairs is one of his former diplomatic advisers.

Mr Mechichi’s decision to de-politicise the government could be a smart move.  Mr Fakhfakh’s government failed, in part, due to growing polarisation. The October 2019 elections brought a whopping 31 parties into parliament, with the two largest parties – Ennahda and Qalb Tounes – holding only 24 and 18 per cent of seats, respectively. This reflects both the high amount of dissatisfaction of the public with the political establishment, particularly traditional parties, and the growing political polarisation within the country.

One trend that is both a result of and contributes to the weakness of political parties is the phenomenon of party tourism, where political figures jump from one party to another in order to stay in power. Additionally, parties tend to quickly shift their alliances, making it difficult to discern what a party actually stands for. For example, Ennahda and Qalb Tounes, which entered 2020 as political foes, with Ennahda vociferously condemning Qalb Tounes for its ties to corruption, have now turned into allies, united by their shared animosity toward President Saied.

The political landscape has also suffered from growing polarisation, which has manifested itself in sometimes violent interactions between politicians within the halls of parliament. Some of the most vicious attacks have been lobbied between the Karama Party, a conservative Islamist party pushing for a larger role of religion within the state, and Abir Moussi’s Free Destourian Party, made up largely of supporters of the former regime, who are fed up with the democratic transition. While the fight is often framed as a secularist-Islamist divide, the reality is far more complex, with fights over religion as well as the Tunisian identity and deeper social issues.

SIDI BOUZID, TUNISIA - DECEMBER 17: People attend the unemployment protests as they gather to mark the celebration for 8th anniversary of revolution at Bouazizi Square in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia on December 17, 2018. (Photo by Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
People attend the unemployment protests as they gather to mark the celebration for eighth anniversary of the revolution at Bouazizi Square in Sidi Bouzid in 2018. Getty Images

Regardless of the cause, the polarisation and fractured political landscape have made governing difficult and led to little likelihood that parliament or the government will be able to come to agreement on the issues necessary to fix the socio-economic problems that are plaguing the country.

Another major issue facing Tunisia today is the persistence of corruption – one of the key causes of the uprisings. While the country has made tremendous strides in dismantling the mafia-like structures that dominated the Ben Ali era, corruption has become democratised and many of the practices that allowed corruption to flourish have yet to change. The sole issue on which Mr Saied campaigned in the presidential race was fighting corruption. Thus, he has taken a particularly strong interest in this issue. And Mr Fakhfakh was brought down by corruption allegations, despite winning praise from Tunisians for his handling of the pandemic.

The Fakhfakh affair spiralled into a larger contest between him and the National Anti-Corruption Body. In what many saw as a retaliatory measure, Mr Fakhfakh fired its head, Chawki Tabib, who initially refused to leave his post, citing impropriety in his dismissal. Mr Mechichi and his government will need to work closely with the new head, Imed Boukhris, to keep the anti-corruption fight moving forward. This is an issue that Mr Saied continues to watch closely.  Most recently, he established of his own committee to fight corruption and recover stolen assets. The committee will be houseed under the presidency, despite corruption falling clearly under the mandate of the prime minister, signalling that even with his close ties to Mr Mechichi, he wants to maintain strict control over the anti-corruption agenda.

Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda party celebrate outside the party's headquarters after claiming victory in a local poll in Tunis, Tunisia, May 6, 2018. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi
Ennahda supporters celebrate in Tunis after their party claimed victory in last year's parliamentary election. Tunisian politics has become deeply polarised. Reuters

Tunisia is embarking on a critical period. December will mark the 10th anniversary of the revolution and will shine a spotlight on the country's successes – and failures – of the past decade. As the second decade of transition begins, there are several signs of hope. First, the continued pride Tunisians, particularly youth, have in their country's accomplishments and dedication to the principles of the revolution shows that the public will not easily turn its back on the democratic transition. Second, despite its challenges, Tunisia continues to serve as a beacon of hope for people across the Arab world, both as a haven for freedom of speech and expression and a potent and living symbol that democracy can flourish in the Arab world.

However, passion, pride and hope are not sufficient to sustain a transition or boost the economy. Rather, Tunisia's new leaders should figure out a way to put politics aside and take on the difficult tasks necessary to thrust their country into the next decade as a healthy democracy.

Sarah Yerkes is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Programme