On Sunday, July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saied temporarily suspended the democratically elected Parliament and imposed a national curfew, using the military to enforce these decisions. To justify these extraordinary steps, Saied cited an article of Tunisia’s constitution that allows the president to take “exceptional measures” in the event of imminent threats to national institutions, independence or the functioning of public powers.
Saied’s controversial actions come amid great economic and social turmoil in this small North African state, an important partner of the United States in a critical region and one that has been designated as a “major non-NATO ally.”
Millions of Tunisians hold a negative view of parliament and the country’s current political establishment. They applauded Saied’s moves. But millions of others condemned the actions, calling it a coup. Critics cite Saied’s use of the military for political purposes and note this is the first such occurrence in Tunisia’s modern history. Bitterly divided, the Republic of Tunisia now faces its most critical test since its Arab Spring rebirth a decade ago.
There is no shortage of reasons for Tunisians to be disaffected with their government. Deadlocked politicians have utterly failed to address the pandemic: Only 7% of Tunisians are vaccinated. COVID-19 cases peaked at nearly 10,000 a day earlier this month, prompting a health ministry spokesman to say the health system had collapsed and the country was facing a catastrophic situation.
The unemployment rate hovers around 18%, with youth unemployment at 35%. Tourism has been decimated. The economy is shrinking dramatically, and government debt stands at over 85% of GDP.
It’s a perfect recipe for social and economic unrest, and not surprisingly, many Tunisians took to the streets to celebrate the president’s break in the governmental gridlock that condemned them to sickness, poverty and hopelessness.
Make no mistake, though. This does not mean that Tunisians are giving up on democracy, or that they would welcome a dictatorship. What they want is government accountability. This is why the international community must use its influence — economic and otherwise — to help this promising but fragile young democracy stay the course.
Since the Arab Spring, Tunisia has passed a constitution and implemented free and fair elections — but there is much more work to be done. Saied’s move is a wake-up call: Democratic institutions must be re-established and reinforced if Tunisia’s democracy is to withstand the tests of governance.
Hopefully, recent events have taught Tunisia’s politicians and political elite a very valuable lesson: In a democracy, unpopularity cannot be dismissed. The electorate’s large support for Saied’s abrupt move can also be directly attributed to politicians’ failure to meet the needs of the people and their continued support of an unpopular prime minister long after the 2011 uprising. Those who support democracy will find this turn of events alarming indeed, and the international community can help to channel that fear into positive action.
The good news is that Tunisia is closer to the finish line than it is to the starting point, and the international community has economic levers it can pull to encourage Tunisia to notch up its reform process. The International Monetary Fund currently plans to send $745 million in emergency assistance to support Tunisia’s response to the pandemic and is in the process of negotiating an additional $4 billion loan, as requested in April. The IMF’s support must condition the receipt of funds on the establishment of a functioning free market system in Tunisia that upholds the rule of law, transparency, and accountably – critical ingredients for any meaningful democracy.
The crisis will not be easy to resolve, but Tunisia must find a way forward. First and foremost, the Tunisian military has to remain outside of the political scene to avoid indirect intimidation of the political and civil society stakeholders as Tunisia works out its problems.
Saied, who was a constitutional scholar before becoming president, cannot be the sole interpreter of the constitution. He should work with a group of people who represent civil society and the broad political landscape in Tunisian democracy to reform election law, amend the constitution, and strengthen democratic institutions. Meanwhile, a more technocratic government should drive the country’s much-needed reform process and lay the groundwork for free and fair elections to be held in due course.
A fractured and fragile Tunisian democracy is not in anybody’s best interest, least of all the Tunisian people themselves. The international community, led by the United States and European countries that have critical stakes in Tunisia’s ongoing transition, must step up to support this young democracy now, before Tunisia’s democratic progress is lost. More important, Tunisians must not let the principles of their nascent democracy—the fruit of a long, hard fight for freedom—fail at this critical juncture.
Olfa Hamdi is a Tunisian-born global entrepreneur and founder of the Center for Strategic Studies on Tunisia. Anthony B. Kim is research manager and editor of The Heritage Foundation’s annual Index of Economic Freedom. The views expressed are the authors' own.