After a visit to Tunisia at the end of April, the image of a country in limbo emerges. The country is partly in a political crisis, partly in an economic crisis and the crises reinforce each other. Rising food prices and declining supply of wheat, which is a staple food in Tunisia, are therefore creating a very unstable situation ahead of the referendum on a new constitution announced by the president. It writes Carin Norberg, former head of the Nordic Africa Institute and board member of Civil Rights Defenders.
Tunisia has been in a serious political crisis since President Kaïs Saïed dismissed the country's prime minister in July 2021, dissolving the government and closed the elected parliament. Since then, the president has taken further steps to strengthen his power. In February 2022 abolished the Supreme Judicial Council, set up to guarantee the independence of the judiciary, and in March the President dissolved Parliament for good. He has announced that he intends to establish a completely new political system in the country.
In July 2022, on the anniversary of his takeover - which some call a coup - a referendum will be held on a new constitution and in December elections for a new parliament will take place. Political parties will be abolished and elections will take place through local councils that nominate candidates for parliament, according to representatives of various civic organizations we met in Tunisia in April.
At the same time, the country is in a serious economic crisis. The corona pandemic has hit the country hard with many infected and dead. The tourism industry, which accounts for much of Tunisia's economy, is largely dead and widespread corruption. Yes, according to the information we receive, the situation today is worse than it was in 2011. Negotiations are underway for a new loan from the IMF, without which the country is on the verge of bankruptcy. But the conditions presented by the IMF, many believe, are tough. It has demanded a reduction in the number of government employees, which has doubled since the 2011 revolution. The IMF also wants to see wage levels reduced, as well as government subsidies. Hardly popular in an election year when food prices have already risen dramatically. And here the war in Ukraine can play a fateful way. Bread is a staple food in Tunisia and to date, 80 percent of wheat has been imported from Ukraine.
How has Tunisia ended up in this situation? For a long time, the country seemed to be the only country that survived the Arab Spring, which symbolically began with a Tunisian setting himself on fire in 2011, which led to the so-called Jasmine Revolution. Even then, the background was rising food prices and widespread dissatisfaction with a powerful political leadership under President Ben Ali.
A confirmation that they had succeeded was the Nobel Peace Prize to four Tunisian organizations in 2015 for their efforts for democracy. But when we talk to representatives of civil society today, we realize that developments over the last ten years have given the word 'democracy' a bad sound. What many have experienced is a political elite that has benefited themselves and a number of families who have enriched themselves through the state. We even hear that people long for a time back with Presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali when at least the economy grew and people had food for the day.
Who is President Kaïs Saïed? He comes from Sfax in southern Tunisia, is a professor of constitutional law and ran in the 2019 presidential election as an independent candidate. He promised major economic and social improvements and the fight against corruption. The fact that he was independent of the political parties increased his popularity, not least among the younger part of the population, about 50 percent of Tunisia's are under 30 years of age. Since July 2021, however, his popularity has declined. But the election reflects a disappointment among the population and the inability of political parties to change the old structures.
Tunisia still has a very active civil society with many organizations that are following with concern the current developments in the country with an increasingly powerful president and a growing lawlessness for the citizens. As early as July 2021, a day after the president's dismissal of the Prime Minister, police raided Al Jazeera's office in Tunis and seized keys, computers and work materials, according to documents by Civil Rights Defenders. There are many testimonies of similar abuses against other independent media and journalists. Social media still plays an important role, but access to information has been limited since the closure of Parliament. Everyone we talk to wonders how the referendum will be conducted. There is no information about the content or how it will be done in practice. According to the civil society organizations we met, the president is believed to intend to make a decision on a law that prohibits non-governmental organizations from receiving grants from abroad. The pattern is recognizable from Russia.
When we leave Tunisia after a few days visit, we do so with a picture of a country in limbo. The various crises intervene and reinforce each other. The most pessimistic statements suggest unrest in the coming months. In this situation, we should continue to support the forces working for a free and open society in Tunisia. A society with economic and social justice, in accordance with the Constitution adopted in 2014.