Tunisia has had yet another rather tumultuous week since the extension of its transition phase, inaugurated by President Kais Saied’s dismissal of the Islamist-backed prime minister on 25 July, with both the positives and negatives on display.
The week began with Nabil Karoui and his brother, Ghazi Karoui, an MP, being arrested in Algeria after entering the country illegally. Karoui was a candidate in the 2019 election. Karoui, despite being in jail for corruption, had initially done quite well, but lost in a landslide to current President Saied. Nabil Karoui has continued to make his presence felt in Tunisian politics, creating a private television channel, Nessma TV, which is partly owned by Italy’s notorious former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The question now is whether Algiers honours the extradition treaty with Tunisia, which stipulates the transfer “of any person prosecuted or convicted” in either country.
There has been continued media agitation against Tunisia’s chosen path forward, including a particularly tortured argument by a human rights NGO that President Saied had acted unconstitutionally, while acknowledging that the only court that could adjudge such a thing had never been set up during the decade of rule by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Ennahda Party—one of many failures that led to the gridlock Saied is trying to cut through. Even more insidious was the space given in a prominent outlet to a member of Ennahda to agitate against the Tunisian government, which rather studiously failed to mention that the author was a member of Ennahda.
Yet even on the media front, there are contrary trends. In The Washington Post, results of survey work in Tunisia were reported, showing a robust popular support for democracy and noting: “As some leaders of the Islamist party Ennahda concede, many Tunisians blame the party, given its participation in government throughout the transition. In our survey, respondents who perceived the largest increases in gas prices, unemployment and violent crime since the 2010-2011 uprising also harshly assessed Ennahda’s leadership, especially the party’s co-founder Rachid Ghannouchi. … [O]ur evidence suggests that even as Tunisians have grown frustrated with elected institutions, most do not want dictatorship”
More neutral analytical platforms such as The Washington Institute have ratified these findings, noting the popular outrage about Ennahda’s mismanagement, which has meant that “most political blocs and civil society organizations have greeted Saied’s power move with cautious acceptance or even euphoria”, seeing it as a means to an end in restoring the democratic promises of the revolution.
In terms of foreign affairs, this week Tunisia was embroiled in a diplomatic dispute with the Turkish-backed government of neighbouring Libya. Tunis had said that some of the Syrian mercenaries used by Turkey in Libya were infiltrating across the Tunisian border and posed a terrorist danger, an accusation ferociously denied by Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who nonetheless added on Twitter that this disagreement “will not affect the depth of the brotherly relationship and we will remain one people in two countries.”
One of the major crises confronting President Saied is the effect of the coronavirus pandemic, which was grossly mishandled by the Ennahda-backed government. Saudi Arabia has assisted Tunisia with equipment to combat this problem.
A hopeful sign for Tunisia, reported by AFP, is a potential breakthrough in growing indigenous crops from genetically modified stock, which would provide crucial resistance in a country racked by desertification and drought, with possible worsening of some of these issues from the impacts of climate change later in the century.
There are worries about the recession in democracy over the past fifteen years or so, and perhaps it will be that Tunisia goes the same way. But there are enough signs in the other direction that for the time being, the chance remains very much alive that the decision taken on 25 July will renew rather than revoke democracy in Tunisia.