The global COVID-19 pandemic has led to exceptional legislative measures in Tunisia, gambling with the “Jasmine Revolution,” which arguably produced the most successful outcome of the “Arab Spring.” On April 6, the country’s parliament voted to apply Article 70 of the Constitution, allowing the government to legislate by decree for a period of two months to intensify national efforts against the pandemic.
The new Prime Minister, Elyes Fakhfakh, acknowledged concerns from members of parliament (MPs) over Article 70’s potential to compromise Tunisia’s budding democracy. He noted that Tunisia’s parliament would withdraw it, should the government abuse its dispensations.
Tunisia’s economy suffers from continued regional disparities and the marginalization of certain sections of society.
Meanwhile, Tunisia’s economy suffers from continued regional disparities and the marginalization of certain sections of society, which sustains the risk of radicalization. Furthermore, as Tunisia’s “foreign fighters” who joined extremist groups in Syria, Iraq, and Libya return home, they add new layers of insecurity while unemployment rises and more fall into poverty.
Nevertheless, complex as the challenges are, the pandemic offers the government in Tunisia the opportunity to build consensus.
Tunisia is small and the number of deaths relative to the contagion is considerable. As of April 27, Tunisia had recorded over 949 coronavirus cases and 38 deaths. Still, the government acted quickly and was diligent about adopting effective measures. Aware of the seriousness of the country’s and the whole world’s COVID-19 crisis, President Sayed decided to close land crossings, airspace, and maritime traffic, plus issue a curfew. Given that tourism generates some 8 percent of Tunisia’s GDP, this decision required some political courage.
In the North African country, mosques as well as shops, cafes, and markets have also been forced to close. The mosques’ minarets call on Tunisians to remain isolated during prayer. Only small shops for essential goods and pharmacies remain open. The virus has spread to all 24 governorates and the Ministry of Health has asked the armed forces to monitor movement, using all available means from drones to robots and roadblocks.
Tunisia’s government lacks the fiscal resources to help the most vulnerable, such as sub-Saharan immigrants.
Tunisia’s government lacks the fiscal resources to help the most vulnerable, such as sub-Saharan immigrants, who hold precarious jobs. They have no health insurance and avoid visiting hospitals. Tunisia has become a major migration destination. Most of the migrant boats leaving from Libya land in Tunisia, adding pressure to an already weak socioeconomic system.
Since 2008, Tunisia has maintained a privileged trade partnership with the European Union (EU), but the pandemic has compromised multilateral relations. Italy has sent € 50 million EUR to Tunisia to help its small and medium enterprises (SME) according to agreements signed in 2017 – as a signal of EU support – but, the possibility that the very countries, such as Italy and Spain, which invest the most in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, will have to endure their own austerity policies, could undermine those agreements.
The measures that Tunisia has adopted to control COVID-19’s spread are as necessary as they are economically corrosive. Although the Tunisian economy was expected to grow by about 2.5 percent in 2020, it suffers from continued regional disparities. There remains a deep unease in the central areas of the country where youth unemployment, remains exorbitant, reaching 50 percent. Economically, the hopes of 2011 have not been fulfilled and this always raises the risk that the political gains could be lost at any given moment. Some 53 percent of young Tunisians want to migrate according to many sources.
The Jasmine Revolution Can Survive
The 2019 parliamentary elections produced an outcome of “un-governability,” as major political formations such as Ennahda lost seats, even while remaining the party with the highest consensus. Prime Minister Fakhfakh was approved in parliament on February 27.
Because he has had to confront the first case of COVID-19, it has diverted his government’s focus away from structural problems to the immediate concerns surrounding this pandemic. President Sayed appointed former finance minister, Elyes Fakhfakh, with a mandate to address the country’s economic development needs, which has suffered years of low growth, high debt, and underfunded services.
The pandemic-related lockdown has left many private-sector employees financially stranded.
The pandemic-related lockdown has left many private-sector employees financially stranded. Commercial and industrial companies have closed, while the government lacks the resources to compensate thousands of workers forced to stay at home (the measures include a $70 USD benefit each month). But, most Tunisians work outside the “company” model, excluding them from receiving the benefit.
Even before the pandemic, Tunisia faced a profound deficit, which, combined with a heavy budget, left it vulnerable to external shocks and dependent on foreign aid. This occurred after the 2013 agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), triggering austerity measures and popular discontent.
Tunisian Democracy Remains Vibrant
COVID-19 has exposed the underlining fragility of Tunisia’s economy. Another phase of austerity seems inevitable, potentially triggering social unrest and further endangering democratic processes. Still, if the government uses its special powers, under Article 70, responsibly, within the scope of combating the coronavirus rather than suppressing opposition, it will uphold the constitutional process that began in 2011 after President Ben Ali’s fall.
If, as expected, the new government can avoid the temptation to resort to authoritarianism while using the coronavirus pandemic as justification, the Tunisian state will show its people, and the world, that it has found a formula to uphold the values of its Jasmine Revolution. This can only serve to boost the confidence of its international partners, facilitating integration into the European economic system, which is essential, since there’s little hope of integration with Arab states, given current levels of discord among them.
If the government avoids resorting to authoritarianism, Tunisia will show that it upholds the values of its Jasmine Revolution.
Such political invigoration could also yield economic gains. A strong government will have more room to execute the structural reforms which the IMF demands. In addition, a stronger government will also be in a position of greater strength to re-negotiate the free trade agreement with the European Union (Accord de Libre-Echange – ALECA) because European counterparts will have greater assurances Tunisia will be able to pursue a more diversified and sustained economic development path.
Ultimately, political stability is Tunisia’s most valuable asset. The country has few oil resources, little strategic weight compared to Egypt, and an economy smaller than Morocco’s or Algeria’s. Remarkably, despite the hardships of containing COVID-19, Tunisia can still boast about being the only Arab state to have experienced a favorable outcome from the “Arab Spring” transitions that jolted the Arab region in 2011.