Tunisians will judge Kais Saied on his economic record

By James Moules

TUNISIAN president Kais Saied’s popularity will rest on his ability to deliver on the economy – in spite of criticism of his suspension of parliament – experts have told Redaction Report.

Amidst numerous crises – from the economy to the Covid pandemic – President Saied suspended his nation’s parliament on July 25, 2021 for 30 days, sacked the prime minister and assumed executive power.

While he stated that the move was a necessary intervention, his political opponents decried the move as a coup.

After later extended the suspension of parliament in August, the president appointed Najla Bouden Romdhane as the country’s new prime minister on October 11, making her the Arab world’s first woman head of government.

However, despite opposition from the Islamic democratic Ennahda – one of the country’s most prominent political parties – many Tunisians supported Saeid’s intervention.

Charles Tripp, professor of Middle Eastern and North African politics at SOAS, University of London, told Redaction Report: “Given the failings of the previous government, the misbehaviour of parliamentarians and the general disillusionment with partisan politics, its corruption and its influence peddling, as well as its ineffectiveness in the face of the ravages of the pandemic and of the collapsing economy, Saied’s move was initially welcomed by many.

“Indeed, his election in 2019 was a result of exactly this feeling of disillusionment with the existing parties and career politicians.

“By calling in the army to put order and efficiency into the roll out of the vaccination programme, he has had some success.

“But the key to whether people continue to support him will depend largely on whether he has the skills – or the authority – to negotiate a deal with the IMF and whether this will address the main economic problems facing Tunisians: unemployment, regional inequality, inflation and low wages.

“It may also be coloured by how well he deals with criticism and opposition, to his economic policies, to his autocratic tendencies and to his intention to alter the constitution in his own favour.”

Saied, a constitutional lawyer, was elected to the presidency in 2019, having never held elected office before. He ran his campaign as an outsider, standing on a law and order platform and promising to root out corruption.

He is the third permanent president since the Tunisian transition to democracy, following Moncef Marzouki and Beji Caid Essebsi – the latter of whom died in office in 2019 just months before his term was due to expire.

President Saied justified his suspension of parliament by invoking Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution, granting himself emergency powers in the face of the nation’s crises and mounting protests.

Robert Stewart, a researcher at the University of Exeter, told Redaction Report: “The suspension of parliament is some ways in line with what many Tunisians feel – a frustration at the politicians.

“I do think people are frustrated that the democratic process has been undermined, and you certainly see that coming from Ennahda, but people in some ways support Saied because he’s an outsider. People hope he’s going to bring chance to the system.

“The politicians haven’t managed it – the politicians haven’t managed it, so they think let’s try an outsider that’s maybe got some different ideas and isn’t so stymied politically.

“I think the economic question is the key one on which he’ll be judged ultimately.

“Even though a lot of people are talking about the democratic question, if he produces economic results, people’s dissatisfaction will be relatively neutered as a result.”

The Tunisian revolution of 2011 that brought down the Ben Ali regime was sparked by the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi – and the country has been described as one of the only successful transitions to democracy to come out of the Arab Spring.

The Ennadha movement has been one of the key players in the opposition to Saied’s actions.

Ennadha is an Islamic democratic party that has played a significant role in Tunisia’s governments since 2011, with two prime ministers coming from the movement between 2011 and 2014.

The party won the most seats in the 2019 legislative election, although it only gained 19.63 per cent of the vote from a 41.7 per cent turnout.

Stewart said: “I see the background to the problem as being a deeply divided country. The secularists on one side, and the more religious constituencies on the other, and the colonial legacy of course, and that translates into the political system in terms of who gets elected.

“People are very divided on that level, but very united on another level, and that’s the economic problems. That’s probably the most important factor that triggered the Arab Spring in 2011 in Tunisia that ultimately brought down the Ben Ali regime – and it’s continued since then.

“No one has had an answer for how to improve the situation for Tunisians. And I think it’s important to remember that it’s across the political spectrum.

“Those that have tended to support Ennahda have tended to be more excluded and more hard up economically, but those that don’t support them and support the other parties are equivalently dissatisfied, and there’s some place they can come together there.”

“At a deeper, more existential level, what is the solution in Tunisia economically? It’s complicated. They’ve got a close relationship with Europe, for example, but that’s not produced results that are satisfying most people.

“So it’s not entirely clear what the path forward is in that regard, even though all the parties are recognising that it’s important.”

Featured Image: Houcemmzoughi @Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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