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Maybe Tunisia’s New President Has a Plan?

December 10, 2019

du the tunisien

Maybe Tunisia’s New President Has a Plan? published in Inside Arabia


A month after Tunisia’s presidential election, there are a number of worrying indications that, despite Kais Saïed’s personal integrity, his policies will continue Tunisia’s swing in a more religiously conservative direction with the support of the Ennahdha Party and do no more to address the country’s socio-economic crisis than past post-2011 administrations.


They come as soon as the cafes open in the morning and don’t leave until they close late in the evening. All day, day after day. Many are young men, unemployed with no hope of work in the foreseeable future. It is from such cafes—among other places—that the country’s youth decide to risk the dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean in flimsy rubber boats or worn out fishing vessels, many of which sink, sending their desperate passengers to their death below.

It is also from such cafes—as well as the mosques—both in the country’s rural areas and poorer neighborhoods of Tunis, Sousse, Sfax, and Bizerte that ISIS-like mercenary recruiters work the tables, recruiting for this and that militia funded by outside sources.

It has been going on for years non-stop and continues.

Thousands of young Tunisians have signed up, been squirreled off to Libya for training and then to points beyond: Syria, in particular, but Iraq as well, and now dozens of other countries. The men become ISIS or al Nusra foot soldiers while the young girls provide “support services” some of them sexual.

Some return back into Tunisia in sleeper cells, to commit the kind of terrorist atrocities that shook the country in 2015 in Tunis and Sousse, or are sent to the country’s mountainous western regions near the Algerian border to join Salafist mercenary bands engaged in armed struggle against the government.

This description only scratches the surface.

It doesn’t include deteriorating public services, the endemic corruption of the post-Ben Ali ruling elite, the continued epidemic of privatization of the country’s economic assets, the flood of money from abroad influencing the country’s political landscape, all of which come together to erode that great fruit of Tunisia’s Arab Spring: hope.

The only institution that has benefited from the “Jasmine Revolution” is the security apparatus. The rationale for this increase has been the need to “fight terrorism.”

The only institution that has benefited from the “Jasmine Revolution” is the security apparatus, whose numbers have swelled since 2011 by 90,000 recruits. The rationale for this increase, of course, has been the need to “fight terrorism.”

A Weakened Presidency and Strengthened Parliament wherein Ennahdha Plays a Pivotal Role

These are but some of the “challenges,” and deep-seated problems, that Tunisia’s new president, Kais Saïed, will have to face. Although having won a decisive victory, suggesting a popular mandate, he begins his presidency in a country where presidential prerogatives have been curtailed by the country’s new constitution, approved in 2014. It is the Tunisian parliament, the National Assembly, that holds more of the genuine power.

Saïed played his economic policy cards close to his chest during the campaign. He either had no policy or, as I suspect, preferred to keep the electorate in the dark. In his campaign he constantly deferred to “le peuple veut” (the wish of the people) without elaborating.

As for his promise of cleaning up corruption—all well and good since the country needs it—again, no details. It remains to be seen if such statements are little more than old-fashion demagoguery or if they have any teeth.

Throughout the campaign few were the times when the main candidates discussed concrete plans to restore the country’s lost economic dynamism.

Throughout the campaign few were the times when the main candidates discussed concrete plans to restore the country’s lost economic dynamism, which has only deteriorated that much more these past eight years. Although the “Tunisian street” has repeatedly called on successive governments to freeze IMF imposed budget cuts, neither Saïed nor his main challenger, Nabil Karoui, had addressed the issue beyond vague generalities.

Halfouine – Mixed Muslim-Christian-Jewish neighborhood of Tunis

The Ennahdha Influence

Saïed disavowed any connection with the Ennahdha Party, essentially Tunisia’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhoods, whose political influence has dominated the post-Ben Ali era up till now. His disavowal aside, Ennahdha’s endorsement and active support was a key factor in his victory.

Despite Ennahdha’s current difficulties in putting together a government —and the fact that it has lost some of its early popularity and legitimacy— the party retains a hold on power and remains a decisive force in the country’s political life.

Mentoring, at least in part, by an American public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller, (among others) has helped the party navigate successfully through Tunisia’s political waters for the past five years both in Tunis and Washington, DC.

For all its considerable influence, after eight years as the country’s leading political force, Ennahdha offers nothing  new nor a socio-economic program to address Tunisia’s mounting woes.

Sadly, for all its considerable influence, even after eight years as the country’s leading political force, Ennahdha offers nothing original or new, nor a socio-economic program to address Tunisia’s mounting woes.

In this past election campaign—responding to increased criticism, if not angerover Ennahdha’s fixation with the Islamification of Tunisian society over addressing the country’s deepening socio-economic crisis—Ennahdha played, or tried to play, a more subdued role than in the past.  It publicly distanced itself from Saïed, while quietly supporting him financially and opening many media and other doors for him.

This worked well.

Yet the speed with which Ennahdha has re-emerged as the country’s leading political force once again, suggests a shrewd electoral approach. No need for political power to be “up front” if it can manage affairs from backstage especially during an election campaign. Once the election was over, Ennahdha emerged from the shadows to declare victory. How so?

Ennahdha remains the key political force both in the Parliament and in the country as a whole.

Although Ennahdha did lose some seats in the National Assembly (it has 52 seats out of 217) no party holds more than a quarter of the seats making it somewhat more difficult to form a coalition government. It remains the key political force both in the Parliament and in the country as a whole.

On the heels of Saïed’s victory, in another sign of Ennahdha’s effort to maintain its solid grip on power, long-term Ennahdha founder and leader, Rachid Ghannouchi was elected speaker of the National Assembly.

Following Ghannouchi’s election, through its leadership role in the parliament, Ennahdha nominated Habib Jemli as the country’s new prime minister. Although describing himself as “an independent,” Habib Jemli has close ties with Ennahdha having served as a junior minister in the country’s first Ennahdha-led government formed after 2011.

Finally, with Saied’s victory, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also wins as its controversial austerity program appears safe from any parliamentary challenges. Ennahdha will ensure its passage through the National Assembly in support for structural adjustment cuts required for the next IMF loan.

The still open question is how will Kais Saïed’s administration respond to the predictable protests that will undoubtedly follow? With guns or with butter?


Part One


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