Notes from Tunis: A Recent Trip Report

May 10, 2017

Amy Hawthorne

The following are notes and impressions from my recent visit to Tunis, where I talked with many politically engaged younger Tunisians about how they see the situation in the country.

Anti-democratic danger signs?

  • The political mood felt jittery and vaguely foreboding, but was hard to read precisely.  Many people are anxious that influential authoritarian figures from the Ben Ali era are on the ascendancy.  They worry that these people are gaining traction in pushing the government to take measures that would secure or expand their power, at the expense of democratization.
  • A major concern is the presidency’s April 26 introduction to Parliament of an amended version of the controversial economic reconciliation bill.  The legislation would allow businessmen and officials accused of corruption during the Ben Ali regime to pay a negotiated restitution to the state, instead of going through judicial proceedings or public hearings (additional details below).  Similar bills were introduced in 2015 and 2016 but stalled in the face of a public backlash.  The legislation is being pushed again by 90-year-old President Beji Caid Essebsi, whose Nidaa Tounes party is dominated by Ben Ali-era elites who want to close the files on these cases as soon as possible.  Tunisians opposed to the bill see it as designed to rehabilitate those responsible for corrupt deeds without a transparent process, fair punishment, or adequate deterrence value.
  • Tensions building over rumored anti-democratic pressures behind the scenes burst into the open on May 9 when the president of the independent electoral commission (ISIE), Chafik Sarsar, resigned abruptly.  The ISIE is in the midst of organizing important local elections scheduled for December.  The reasons for Sarsar’s sudden resignation are not yet clear.  Reports suggest that Nidaa Tounes and other political forces have been putting pressure on Sarsar behind the scenes at the ISIE, created (and heretofore functioning) as a strictly nonpartisan body.  Some observers point to Sarsar’s anger over a May 9 statement by ISIE member Nabil Bafoun, who some view as close to Essebsi, that the commission was ready to organize a referendum on the economic reconciliation bill.  Such a vote would bypass the role of the democratically elected parliament, where support for the bill is uncertain, and in any event it was not Bafoun’s decision to make.  Sarsar’s resignation leaves the fate of the ISIE, one of Tunisia’s leading post-revolution success stories, hanging in the balance at a crucial moment.
  • Another concerning incident was the six-hour interrogation on May 9 of activist Sami Ben Gharbiya, founder of the independent website Nawaat, for publishing documents about the reconciliation bill.  The incident signaled that Ben Ali-era practices of intimidation are alive and well.
  • President Essebsi’s law-and-order speech on May 10 only compounded fears of hardening anti-democratic attitudes at the top of Tunisia’s power structure. In a stern and stiff tone Essebsi seemed to criticize civil society and political parties for raising corruption, and called for working with elected officials instead of “looking backwards.” He dismissed street protests as unnecessary and even in some cases illegitimate and harmful.  Essebsi announced that the military would be deployed to secure gas fields in southern Tunisia where demonstrators have gathered (more detail below). “The state is required to protect the nation’s resources,” Essebsi warned, adding that “military intervention, despite its danger, is needed.”  

 

Views of Chahed’s government

  • Many people dismissed the government led by Nidaa Tounes’s Youssef Chahed, Tunisia’s sixth prime minister since 2011, as weak and lacking direction.  One person complained, “No one running our government knows what he is doing.  Ministers are figureheads, just there to attend ribbon-cutting ceremonies.  Most don’t know the issues they are supposed to be in charge of or how to get things done.”  My interlocutors stressed that no post-2011 government, not only Chahed’s, has been especially competent.
  • Another person was more sympathetic: “Chahed is well-intentioned and there are some good people in government.  They just seem overwhelmed in the face of all the economic, social, political and security challenges piling up.”

 

Economic slump

  • As Tunisia’s economic slump continues into its sixth year, frustration is mounting. The bleak situation may even get worse before it can get better, as there is no quick fix available and looming IMF-mandated austerity reforms will cause more hardship. “Many educated, ambitious young Tunisians just want to find a good job in Europe,” one person said.  “Lots of young people from deprived backgrounds want to migrate to Europe illegally.”
  • The Tunisian Dinar is increasingly fragile. A confusing statement by Finance Minister Lamia Zribi on April 18 possibly referring to a coming devaluation sent the currency sliding.  Zribi was sacked on April 30.
  • Looming in the background of all my conversations was a potential wave of significant popular discontent over deteriorating economic conditions. Tunisia faces the dilemma of needing to enact economic and administrative reforms that could bring significant economic benefit down the road, and that will please international creditors like the IMF immediately, but that represent a huge risk to the country’s fragile social peace and whose economic payoffs are uncertain.  “We are already in a recession, is this really the best time to take apart our social safety net and provoke widespread dislocation?” One person worried.  
  • Many people view the economic reform agenda backed by the IMF, the World Bank, and Western governments as a continuation of the failed Ben Ali policies against which Tunisians rebelled in 2011.  As one person observed, however, “politicians are good at saying ‘no’, but they have no coherent alternative plan to fix the economy.”

 

Civil society activism

  • Some people cited the continued efforts of civil society groups to react strongly and mobilize quickly against anti-democratic moves as cause for optimism.
  • One example is the recent activism by the transparency NGO I Watch.  Many Tunisians were taken aback by a recording, leaked in April, in which Nessma TV co-owner Nabil Karoui allegedly is heard plotting a smear campaign against I Watch staff and their families and friends, in order to discredit the group’s advocacy work against alleged corruption at the company.  Karoui is a media mogul and old-regime power broker who runs one of the most popular channels in Tunisia.  I Watch went on the offensive as soon as news of the leak broke and garnered considerable media coverage and public sympathy.  The group also succeeded in getting the authorities to order an investigation into the leaked recording. While the support for I Watch was encouraging, the leaked recording was a disturbing reminder of what can happen to Tunisians who lead public battles against corruption.  

 

Economic reconciliation bill

  • As noted, the major political news during my visit was Essebsi’s reintroduction to Parliament of this controversial legislation.
  • The economic reconciliation bill would seek to resolve economic corruption cases from the Ben Ali regime by taking these cases out of the post-revolution transitional justice process that is already underway, the Truth and Dignity Commission (usually called by its French acronym, IVD), and out of the courts, and deal with them instead in a separate process.
  • The bill offers amnesty from criminal prosecution for some 450-500 businessmen and state officials implicated in public sector financial crimes, instead requiring them to pay back the amount they are estimated to have gained illicitly, plus interest.
  • President Essebsi and Nidaa Tounes tried in 2015 and 2016 to get the bill through Parliament but had to withdraw it in the face of a public backlash against perceived leniency for major past wrongdoing, and over concerns about whether the bill conformed with the Constitution.
  • To many of my interlocutors, Essebsi’s promotion of this bill, among all the urgent issues facing Tunisia right now, sends a discouraging message about the priorities of his presidency.  As one person said, “Essebsi is doing little to nothing on the reform front but is eager to pass this bill.  This gives the impression that what matters to the palace in Carthage is saving the corrupt among its friends; the Tunisian people’s struggles do not matter as much.”
  • Proponents of the bill argue that the IVD process is unacceptably slow and cumbersome and that resolving these cases quickly is essential for economic progress, to allow these wealthy and experienced businessmen to start investing again.  They also contend that the restitution payments would boost state coffers at a time of great fiscal need. (The government has not provided to the public an estimate of how the payments would be calculated or how much revenue would be collected.)
  • Opponents of the legislation described it as a “knife in the heart of the revolution,” which was made against just this sort of corruption. They acknowledge that while the IVD process is far from perfect, it is the transitional justice process mandated by the Constitution and that it would be wrong and shortsighted to create a parallel system for certain privileged people close to the center of power. They say the legislation would let known corrupt figures off the hook in a nontransparent process with minor fines (effectively with impunity, they say), without even a requirement for public acknowledgement of wrongdoing, such as the IVD compels.  They also argue that the bill does not conform with the Constitution.
  • Some observers speculate that the timing of the bill’s reintroduction is linked to Nidaa Tounes’ hope to resolve these cases in time to allow top businessmen to fund its campaigns generously in the upcoming local elections, as they supposedly did in 2014. (Some people also claim that these same businessmen also funded its rival, the Islamist Ennahda party.)
  • Ennahda’s support for the bill is crucial because it has the most deputies in Parliament (69, to Nidaa’s current 62).  It is not clear which deputies from other parties would support the legislation, which needs 109 votes to pass.  The position of Ennahda, part of the National Unity Government led by Nidaa, is so far unclear.  On April 30 the party’s Shura Council announced it could not support the bill in its current form. In a radio interview, Ennahda MP Yamina Zoghlemi stated that after a discussion of political, economic, and legal aspects of the new bill, the Shura Council refuses to vote on it in its current format and called for unspecified “modifications” to comply with the Constitution.  Some interpret this conditional and somewhat vague position as a compromise between Ennahda President Rachid Ghannouchi, who reportedly supports the bill, and other members of the Shura Council who do not.  (Ennahda had backed the two previous versions of the bill, with conditions.)  Some predict that Ennahda will eventually cut a deal with Nidaa to pass the legislation. They argue that justice for repression and other political crimes against its members during the Ben Ali regime is Ennahda’s priority, not economic crimes; that Ennahda perhaps may seek  financing from some of the affected businessmen for its own local election candidates; and that Ennahda can use its support as a bargaining chip on another issue of greater importance to the party.

 

Protests and discontent

  • The last month has seen renewed economic and social protests in different parts of Tunisia.  “The country is boiling,” one person said.
  • The protests in Tataouine, in the south where many of Tunisia’s oil and gas fields are located, are the largest and most sustained. The protests started on March 17 in a nearby village and on March 21 moved in the city center.  A group of demonstrators recently decamped to the gas fields about 100 kilometers away.
  • It is to these gas field that Essebsi has now ordered the military to deploy to make sure that the demonstrators do not disrupt companies’ production.
  • The peaceful demonstrations began as a spontaneous local social movement that subsequently drew support from several national political parties and the main labor union, the UGTT.  The demands are for transparency in the revenue earned from the extraction of oil and gas in Tataouine; the allocation of a percentage of the revenue to development projects in the region; and immediate employment of at least one local person per family in the oil and gas companies.  Some of my interlocutors, while sympathetic to the demonstrations, see these demands as politically unrealistic in the current circumstances.
  • Prime Minister Chahed visited Tataouine on April 27 and met with protesters, who booed him (“this is not news, this is normal in post-2011 Tunisia,” one person noted).  His offers to the demonstrators were rejected.  Rached Ghannouchi also failed to broker a solution.  (Ennahda has support in conservative southern Tunisia.)
  • So far, Tunisian security forces have managed the protests well, not using force or confronting the protesters.   
  • Despite this, there have been some recent episodes of excessive force by police and lack of cohesion among security forces.  “There is an interior ministry inside the interior ministry that is the real, yet opaque, power and it does not necessarily always respond to directives from the Minister or even the Prime Minister,” one person noted.  Another person told me, “We don’t really know who controls the security forces in Tunisia right now. It does not seem to be the President or the Prime Minister but honestly, who knows.”

 

Current political balance in advance of the upcoming nationwide test, the December 17 local elections

  • Ennahda is the best-organized and most popular political party in Tunisia.  Its strength is relative, not absolute—in the 2014 elections, it got only 1 million votes out of 3.5 million. But Ennahda clearly is ahead of all competitors.
  • The other major influential force is the UGTT labor union which can wield significant influence over certain government policies.  UGTT can mobilize masses of Tunisian civil servants against reforms it sees as harmful to its constituencies and otherwise disrupt social peace—or it can help keep the streets calm.  
  • Secular forces remain in disarray following the 2015-2016 fracturing of Nidaa Tounes, which was formed for the 2014 elections.  Breakaway parties such as Machrouaa’ Tounes have not yet gained popular traction. There are two opposition coalitions, one on the right calling for the replacement of the Chahed government with a technocratic government, and one on the left calling for new parliamentary elections.  Their influence is uncertain.  Some interlocutors complained that Tunisia’s smaller parties are not making any real effort to build grassroots support before the local elections, effectively ceding the terrain to Nidaa and Ennahda.  One person explained that smaller parties composed of non-Islamist, centrist opponents of the Ben Ali regime that describe themselves as a “democratic opposition” still have some influence on public opinion.  But they have minor representation in Parliament and are struggling to reorganize themselves in the face of the dominance of their longtime leaders: Ettakatol (Ben Jaafar), Attayar (Abbou), Al Harak/CPR (Marzouki), Ettahalof (Hamdi), and Al Jomhouri (Chebbi).
  • Ennahda would be expected to use the local elections as a major opportunity to expand its voting constituency.  But it is treading carefully so as not to overreach and risk disturbing the current power-sharing arrangement with Nidaa, which has established a “national political equilibrium” that has brought a measure of stability.  Some cynical observers predict that Ennahda and Nidaa will cut some kind of deal for the local elections, agreeing to divvy up constituencies or seats on certain local councils before the voting.  Some Nidaa figures have suggested that if the result of the local elections do not conform with this “national equilibrium,” the parliament should be dissolved and new elections held.
  • In order to legitimize the alliance with Nidaa Tounes with its base, Ennahda talks about needing to avoid the risk of chaotic scenarios, including a coup as in Egypt, civil war as in Libya, or a new uncontrollable revolution in Tunisia. It is unclear if Ennahda’s leaders truly fear such disturbing scenarios or if they are using them as a part of a “politics of fear.”
  • One person darkly mentioned that this secular-Islamist power-sharing is in reality not exactly a consensus but a balance through “a political system based on blackmail.” It is based on mutual suspicion and “black files” that each party has on each other and has agreed not to reveal. This is the real core of our political stability, she said: “Ennahda and Nidaa know each other’s deep secrets and agree to keep them quiet so each can survive.”

Photo credit: Dennis S. Hurd/Flickr