March 5. 2024. 8:01

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A return to democracy is the only way out for Tunisia

Only an inclusive national dialogue will return Tunisia to a democratic path and save its economy. The historically low turnout at the parliamentary elections is further evidence of the failure of President Kais Saied’s roadmap, which is leading the country to economic and political collapse, writes Rached Ghannouchi.

It has been over 18 months since President Kais Saied altered the course of Tunisian democracy. Since suspending Parliament and grabbing all executive powers in July 2021, Saied has shown utter contempt for democratic institutions, the separation of powers and fundamental rights.

In 2022, Kais Saied busied himself with dissolving the Supreme Judicial Council, sacking 57 judges who refused to do his bidding, dissolving Parliament, putting the independent electoral commission under his control, prosecuting, often before military courts, countless individuals who dared to speak out against his authoritarian rule, including opposition leaders, members of Parliament, artists, comedians, lawyers, journalists, protesters and social media users, and undermining the independence of Tunisia’s civil society, once praised as the most developed in the Arab region – all while the economy nosedived.

Over the last few weeks, Saied sought to turn the screws further on the opposition, using military tribunals to prosecute his democratic opponents and freezing the bank accounts of hundreds of members of the opposition and their families along with businesswomen and businessmen.

Having taken control of all spheres of power, Saied has tried to legitimise his coup by single-handedly drafting a new constitution that swept away the democratic institutions and rights guarantees Tunisians had fought for over decades.

Saied’s constitution relegates the new Parliament to a mere political spectator while giving the president full powers over the executive and the judiciary.

Meanwhile, he has paid barely any attention to the economy, which has declined precipitously since his power grab and is on the brink of collapse. Strikes are growing in various sectors, essential goods are in short supply, thirty-five thousand men and women have illegally crossed into Europe in 2022 and the country is at real risk of bankruptcy.

Lately, one of the country’s leading business federations published a report on the prospects of a collapse not only of the economy but of state institutions.

Meanwhile, Saied and his disciples’ only concern is to wipe out his opponents and restore an authoritarian system that Tunisians thought they had put behind them after the 2011 revolution. Tunisia has shown one of the biggest falls in ranking, according to the Economist Democracy Index.

It comes as no surprise that in this toxic political environment, a paltry 8.8% and 11% of voters turned out to vote in the December 2022 and January 2023 first and second round elections for Saied’s parliament – that is, if you believe official figures given by the election commission, whose members have been handpicked by Saied.

All major Tunisian parties and civil society organisations boycotted the elections. Rather than entering into dialogue with others, Saied has used the judiciary to launch prosecutions against his main opponents on trumped up charges. I myself have been summoned for questioning seven times under different judicial investigations.

Over the last week, a new round of arrests has targeted political leaders from all tendencies, as well as businessmen, the head of the main independent radio channel, as well as many union activists. The charges vary from conspiring against state security to tarnishing the president’s reputation, to accusations of money laundering.

Alongside this, Saied continues to attack and dehumanize his critics, describing them as traitors, criminals, foreign agents, viruses, and insects.

Some within Tunisia and abroad may have initially wanted to give President Saied a chance to tackle Tunisia’s problems.

Despite the clear illegality of his actions, Tunisia’s partners refused to call his emergency measures in July 2021 a coup, hoping that his roadmap would lead back to a democratic path and create a government able to address Tunisia’s serious structural economic problems.

This has clearly failed. A year and a half later, it is clear for all to see that Tunisia’s problems have not only not been solved, but that they have dangerously spiralled into multiple crises on all fronts, threatening to weaken the very foundations of the Tunisian state.

However, hope is not lost. Tunisians have faced similar challenges before, and we managed to overcome them to save our country. In 2013, despite the critical situation Tunisia was facing, political and social forces managed to come together in a National Dialogue and agree a way out of that crisis.

Their decisions saved the country from conflict and put the democratic transition back on track, and Tunisia was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as a result. I believe we can learn from that experience by entering a national dialogue to address the two main challenges facing the country.

The first is how to return to a democratic system that avoids the weaknesses in the post-2014 political system. This could include electoral law reforms, constitutional amendments to the division of power between the presidency and parliament, and the establishment of the constitutional court.

Discussions around these issues have already started between a strong opposition front composed of political parties and civil society organizations.

The second challenge is the economic one. Governments since the revolution succeeded in creating more inclusive political institutions but struggled to implement all the economic reforms needed and faced stiff resistance from those who stood to lose out.

Many Tunisians are rightly disappointed by the failure to meet their aspirations for dignified jobs and living standards. However, history shows that post-revolution periods have always witnessed economic crises and turbulence.

Eastern Europe’s transition from Soviet rule saw economies decline throughout the 1990s before they were able to generate economic growth with significant help from the EU.

Tunisia’s fledgling democracy was able to build inclusive political institutions over a decade but overhauling an economy riddled by monopolistic anti-competitive practices is a long-term endeavour that requires sustained support.

Some might be tempted to think that authoritarian rule could make economic reforms easier to implement. But as experiences around our region and the world have shown, authoritarian rule seldom leads to inclusive growth, dynamic economies, and the tackling of corruption.

After 18 months of increasingly authoritarian rule, Tunisia is now facing a far more difficult economic situation than before the coup. Moreover, after 10 years of enjoying freedom, the Tunisian people have shown that they will not accept a return to authoritarian rule.

The only way out is an inclusive national dialogue to agree and implement the reforms necessary not only to save Tunisia’s economy but also to restore Tunisia to the democratic path and rule of law that alone can achieve its people’s aspirations in the long run.

We are working hard to make that happen and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices to save our country and our democracy. Tunisia’s success matters not only to its own citizens today but also to the rest of the region.

I firmly believe that Tunisians will not give up their democratic dream and that they will be able to find a way out of the current crisis through dialogue and by putting the interests of our people first to safeguard our country from collapse.