Tunisia's deadline for good governance

The President Kais Saied has challenges ahead, even beyond appointing a new governing team

Hichem Jamel, 37, is one of a few young men employed in his town of Dachret Jamal in Tunisia. Erin Clare Brown / The National
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A month ago, on July 25, Kais Saied, President of Tunisia, dismissed the country’s government and took over executive powers, pledging to improve governance and clean up corruption in a country with a population of nearly 12 million.

Mr Saied said last month he would appoint a new government in 30 days and lay out a roadmap for the political future of the country. But even as he has extended today's deadline, he maintains the support of the majority of Tunisians. As one of his supporters told The National, thinking that more than 30 years of corruption could be rooted out in 30 days would be naive. In a poll last month, 87 per cent of Tunisians supported Mr Saied's dismissal of the government, even as political rivals such as Tunisia's Islamist party, Ennahda, decried it as a coup.

The fact is that many Tunisians are long past the hopes they pinned on the political system formed in the wake of their country’s uprising in 2011. Facing budget deficits and the value of their life savings dipping, Tunisians need good governance and stable leadership. Like many around the Arab world, the Tunisian people understand the link between good governance and prosperity.

Mr Saied, 63, a former law professor, was elected by a huge margin in 2019. His no-frills election campaign – which forewent even air conditioners and chairs – was unlike those of other political parties. Mr Saied went door to door and ran on a message of integrity and anti-corruption, which resonated especially well among young voters.

Since last month, he has vowed to get to the bottom of allegations of $4.8bn of public money being plundered by officials. Mr Saied reportedly wants to overhaul the state apparatus and put an end to the political polarisation that has proliferated during the past decade in Tunisia. And he has shown that he means business: just last week he sacked 14 officials high up in the phosphate industry, including a director and procurement head at the ministry. Once one of the biggest producers of phosphate, Tunisia's mineral yield has declined from about 8 mn tonnes in 2010 to 3 mn last year. Intolerant of graft, Mr Saied has since frozen Parliament, appointed new interim caretakers in key ministries, particularly the interior ministry, and picked a new intelligence chief.

This sends a message of seriousness and strong decision-making to people even as they wait to see whether the new government, when it is installed, will live up to expectations. The mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic by the now-suspended government pushed people to pin their hopes on Mr Saied, who represents a future they want and deserve. With an unemployment rate of over 17 per cent, distraught Tunisians feel they have, over the years, been dealt a raw deal. They are disinclined to put up with any further mismanagement and draining of national resources.

Those who oppose Mr Saied’s plans complain that he has not been as transparent as he could be about the steps he will take. His government has demonstrated its ability to communicate and organise well in other areas – for example, its recent response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Mass vaccination drives progressed well in the past few weeks. On Saturday, nearly 600,000 people received a jab, and earlier in August, nearly five per cent of the population was inoculated in a single day – bolstered by 47 tonnes of medical supplies sent by the UAE.

Tunisians see in Mr Saied a man to get the house in order and end the corruption and political malaise. The challenge will be whether he can deliver in such challenging circumstances. Setting a clear road map and picking the right people to be in his governing team will be vital in order to deliver.

Published: August 24, 2021, 2:00 AM