MS Risk Blog

Democratic backsliding and economic crisis in Tunisia: a new flashpoint in North Africa?

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Tunisia is in the midst of an escalating political and economic crisis. President Kais Saied has continued unraveling what was previously described as the Arab Spring’s only democratic success, while internal and global issues are significantly destabilizing the Tunisian economy. In response to mounting domestic unrest and international criticism, Saied has so far responded with more intransigence and repression, pointing towards increasing turmoil in the North African country, while outside actors seem unwilling to intervene.

The Arab Spring protests that toppled former authoritarian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 failed to resolve fundamental political and economic issues that have long plagued Tunisia. In July 2021, taking advantage of widespread discontent, Saied suspended the parliament and replaced the government, proceeding to rule by decree. A new constitution pushed by the president was approved by referendum in July 2022, shifting Tunisia’s government system from parliamentary to presidential, and concentrating executive, legislative, and judicial powers in Saied’s hands. Although the constitution was approved by 94,6% of the vote, only 30,5% of eligible voters participated. The increasing apathy of ordinary Tunisians was confirmed by the two-round election for a significantly weakened parliament, both rounds of which saw a mere 11% voter turnout in December 2022 and January 2023.

The main cause of this sentiment is likely the fact that Saied’s promises to “purge” Tunisia of corruption and improve the living standards of the population have so far proved a disappointment for most Tunisians, relatively few of whom protested his 2021-2022 constitutional “coup”. The country’s economy has been steadily deteriorating, due to a combination of the lack of reforms, corruption, a bloated public sector, high debt, and the impact of the Ukraine war: inflation has reached 11%, youth unemployment stands at 34,5%, and citizens are facing significant shortages of essential goods. As discontent with his policies increased, Saied moved against his domestic opponents. Starting between 11 and 15 February and continuing through March, authorities launched a wave of arrests of Saied’s critics, having arrested more than 20 influential individuals so far. Those arrested include leaders of opposition parties and movements, journalists, trade unionists, businesspeople, and lawyers. The Tunisian president accused those arrested of being “terrorists” and “traitors” who had been “conspiring against the state”. He also blamed his opponents for causing rising prices and shortages.

Furthermore, in another apparent bid to distract the population from economic issues and democratic backsliding, Saied resorted to racist attacks against minorities. In a speech on 21 February, he asserted that migration from sub-Saharan Africa was a conspiracy aimed at shifting Tunisia’s demographics in order to make it “a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations”. He also ordered security forces to halt illegal immigration and deport illegal migrants. In the days following Saied’s speech, local journalists and international media reported large numbers of racially-motivated abuse and attacks, including by police officers, against African migrants and Black Tunisians, who constitute between 10% to 15% of the country’s population. In response to the increased racial violence, the embassies of African countries such as Ivory Coast, Mali, and Gabon rushed to repatriate hundreds of their nationals from Tunisia.

Saied’s policies, combined with the country’s economic crisis, have triggered reactions both within and outside Tunisia. Opposition movements and activists boycotted parliamentary elections and staged protests against the president. The million-strong Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the country’s largest trade union and an influential factor in Tunisian politics, has also adopted an increasingly confrontational stance towards Saied. The UGTT had largely acquiesced to Saied’s power grab in 2021. But as authorities intensified their crackdown against the president’s critics and mulled over the implementation of unpopular economic reforms in order to secure a $1,9 billion rescue package from the International Monetary Fund, as part of an October 2022 preliminary agreement, the union turned against the president. After a UGTT official was arrested in February for organizing strikes, the organization accused Saied of declaring “war” against it. UGTT organized a large protest against the president in Tunis on 4 March, vowing that it will not accept the “suppression of freedoms” in Tunisia.

International reactions also ensued. US officials said that they were “deeply concerned” about the wave of arrests in Tunisia. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that Washington was “alarmed” by an “escalating pattern” of repression in Tunisia, while Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf also accused Saied of weakening “foundational principles of checks and balances”, expressing the US’ “enormous concerns” about the country’s trajectory. The EU also stated that it is monitoring developments in Tunisia with “great concern”. The African Union expressed its “shock” over Saied’s remarks about migrants, calling them “racialized hate speech” and postponing a Tunis conference scheduled for March.

So far, the Tunisian president has refused to back down, continuing to attack his domestic opponents and labeling them “enemies of democracy”. Responding to international criticism, he also rejected “interference” in Tunisia’s domestic affairs, comparing it to colonization. Protests against the president do not yet seem to have escalated to a point that they will seriously threaten Saied’s position, and opposition movements remain fractious and divided, without having defined a coherent common agenda. Furthermore, the Tunisian military, whose decision not to intervene in support of Ben Ali sealed his ouster in 2011, has so far remained loyal to Saied. As for international reactions, despite verbal criticism, the EU and the US have refrained from imposing serious costs on Saied, fearing that Tunisia’s destabilization will intensify the terrorist threat in North Africa and trigger a large migrant influx toward Europe. Still, the economic and cost-of-living crisis shows no sign of abating, as citizens face increasing hardship and the global economy remains in turmoil. Fearing further backlash, Saied seems unwilling to implement potentially painful reforms necessary to get access to IMF funds, and talks over the $1,9 billion package are stalled. Deprived of other options, the Tunisian government has opted for increased interest rates and higher taxes, which intensify the difficulties facing Tunisians. Combined with the government’s refusal to make any concessions and Saied’s insistence on his one-man rule, it is likely that his popularity will continue fading and popular discontent will keep increasing. Further domestic unrest and destabilization are likely in Tunisia in the following months under current circumstances.

In conclusion, Saied seems determined to continue his policy of consolidating power and extinguishing what remained of Tunisia’s post-2011 democracy. But his authoritarianism is triggering reactions from increasing parts of the population, while the president has limited options for improving the country’s deteriorating economy. With both sides in Tunisia apparently set on a course of confrontation, and Tunis’ main partners unwilling to intervene so far, intensified unrest seems the most likely short-term course, although it is probably too early to tell if a second Arab Spring-type revolution is in the offing.