Domestic power dynamics in Tunisia threaten to destabilize the country by weakening governance within North Africa’s fledgling democracy.
The political crisis in Tunisia that began earlier this year over whether Prime Minister Youssef Chahed should resign has revealed a deep fissure in the Nidaa Tounes party, one of the two parties of the ruling coalition. The crisis now threatens to destabilize the country. The gridlock is due mainly to a power struggle within the party for control in the run up to the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, compounded by public pressure in reaction to government austerity measures.
A recent report by the International Crisis Group explains that the domestic power struggle has paralyzed the Tunisian government, divided the political class, and compromised the public’s confidence in state institutions. Chahed leaving office would likely do little to relieve Tunisia’s political and economic problems and would probably weaken governance in the country, rendering it vulnerable to external shocks and domestic pressures.
Calls for the prime minister to step down began last year as his government struggled to fulfill its economic and social commitments and faced a growing number of protests in 2017. His popularity within his party and Ennahda soured, especially during late May 2017, when he launched an anti-corruption campaign that targeted senior members of both parties. In response, President Essebsi and leaders of the ruling coalition reached an agreement to try and remove him from power.
Chahed dismissed several of his ministers and reshuffled his cabinet in September 2017 in an effort to address growing popular discontent, but his efforts proved ineffective. In January 2018, protests erupted in response to the newly passed Finance Act that increased taxes on gasoline, fruits and vegetables, phone cards, hotel rooms, housing, and internet as well as other goods. It also raised the value added tax (VAT) by one percent. The alliance of leftist opposition parties, known as the Popular Front, called for continued opposition to the regime’s “unfair” austerity measures. Again, in March, protests broke out over theregime’s implementation of unpopular austerity measures, and members of government and civil society reopened negotiations to attempt to establish a roadmap to form a new national unity government, which resulted in the Carthage II agreement in May.
In April, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), a Carthage Declaration signatory, accused Chahed’s government of falling short of its commitments under the agreement and demanded a reshuffling of the cabinet. In early May, several political parties and a labor union agreed to the revised Carthage Declaration (“Carthage II”), which laid out a series of economic and social reforms. However, conflict among the signatories broke out shortly thereafter, coming to a head on May 22, when in a meeting at Carthage Palace, Hafez Caid Essebsi, the son of President Essebsi and executive director of Nidaa Tounes, openly called for Chahed’s removal as prime minister saying he had not adequately addressed Tunisia’s economic problems. The following day, he wrote on Facebook that Chahed’s government had failed utterly at its duties and that change was needed.
Meanwhile, Chahed and his supporters have deflected blame, claiming that Hafez Essebsi is in fact responsible for the current political crisis. On May 28, 2018, Rached Ghannouchi, head of Ennahda, expressed support for the prime minister remaining in office in opposition to President Essebsi, the Nidaa Tounes leadership, and the UGTT. In July, he again asserted that “making the government fall is not in the interest of the country,” according to Almaghrebiya. He added, “the government must stay in place because that is in the interest of Tunisia.” In July, Essebsi reasserted his position that Chahed should resign. In an interview with television channel Nessma, President Essebsi reiterated his stance that Chahed should resign or request a vote of confidence from parliament.
The political dispute between the two camps ultimately led to the suspension of the Carthage II agreements from May until present, resulting in the current political impasse in the parliament and government at large. According to Burhan Besis, political affairs chief for Nidas Tounes, “This dispute puts Tunisia’s future in jeopardy,” as reported by Andalou Agency.
Attempts to remove the Chahed government stem from two factors: a political power struggle over who will run in the 2019 elections and a need to blame Tunisia’s economic woes on someone. The first factor contributing to the crisis is the power struggle brewing within Nidaa Tounes. The secular party was founded in 2012 with the primary aim of posing a challenge to Ennahda. In doing so, it united a diverse array of members with little in common other than opposing the Islamists. As such, since 2012, Nidaa Tounes has been plagued with internal turmoil. Chahed was originally backed by President Essebsi and his son, but the relationship deteriorated as Chahed gained popularity.
In particular, Chahed’s war on corruption in 2017 was viewed by many in his party as an indirect attack on Nidaa Tounes and its interests. As Chahed’s popularity rose, he began to form political alliances in preparation for the 2019 elections. His growing strength undoubtedly threatened party leadership, namelyHafez Essebsi, who took over the party’s leadership in January 2016 with the help of his father. Essebsi is expected to run in the elections.
Nidaa Tounes felt its power slipping further in the May 2018 municipal elections in which it lost more ground than expected to Ennahda. The party captured 27.5 percent of municipal councilor seats in the local elections – only five percent more than Nidaa Tounes – and 36 percent of municipalities. The victory significantly strengthening Ennahda’s position by making it the party with the most seats in parliament and giving it control of the majority of municipal councils.
The second cause of the political crisis stems from Nidaa Tounes’ need for a scape goat to deflect blame for the poor economic situation as it retains the austerity measures needed to generate the income to balance its budget and pay back its IMF loan. Popular discontent with the economy has manifested itself in protests throughout Chahed’s term in office. Prior to the Arab Spring, economic growth was around 5.4 percent, but it has since slowed to a mere 1 percent. Slow growth coupled with an expanding youth population has dampened the supply of jobs and aggravated unemployment, which stands around 15 percent and is more than double that among youth. Moreover, inflation and inequality in Tunisia are rising, according to an article by the Washington Institute. The Tunisian economy is further impeded by external factors such as its neighbor to the east, Libya — essentially a failed state despite the fact that it sits on massive oil reserves — and President Trump’s attempts to slash economic and security aid to the country.
While the political crisis could have a further destabilizing effect on the country, it is unlikely that the main threat, for the foreseeable future, will come from popular protests. Protests in Tunisia have risen steadily since 2014, and from January to July 2018, 260 protests have already taken place, according to the ACLED dataset. Yet, protesters are mainly demanding reform rather than revolution this time around in comparison with the 2011 Arab uprisings. The greater risk, however, is that the lack of unified leadership in Tunisia could further aggravate the grim economic situation and leave Tunisia susceptible to those who wish to undermine the democratic process.