Tunisians are taking to the streets—rather than voting—as the economy collapses, but they remain deeply divided. Where is Tunisia heading?
Author: Simon SPEAKMAN CORDALL
Second round of legislative elections in Tunisia failed to mark any increase in turnout over the first round
Sunday’s second round of legislative elections in Tunisia failed to mark any increase in turnout over the first round, with all but 11.3 percent of voters staying away in a poll that carried none of the passion that first launched the regional revolutions of 2011.
With only a fraction of the country coming out to vote for a new parliament, its teeth already pulled by a revised constitution, what legitimacy the new body might have is unclear and what influence it may exert over the actions of its architect, President Kais Saied, are unknown.
After years of political turmoil and economic decline, Saied’s two years in largely sole control of the country have done little to arrest either. Moreover, as proven by Sunday’s dismal numbers, he has not sustained the enthusiasm that first greeted his dismissal of the prime minister and shuttering of the fractious parliament in July 2021.
Certainly, the thousands of demonstrators who turned out on Jan. 14 in Tunis to demonstrate against the president were quick to claim the appalling first-round turnout as a rejection of Saied’s autocratic rule. However, while numerically impressive, after a long period of social quiet, the opposition and supporters of the country’s former parties achieved little beyond gaining headlines overseas and underscoring their own preexisting divisions.
In the city center, under the banner of the National Salvation Front, supporters of the self-styled “Muslim democrats,” the Ennahda party, merged with their more hard-line fellow travelers in the Dignity Coalition, members of the group Citizens Against the Coup, and many of the remnants of the old parliament. Around them, a smattering of smaller protests took place, none mixing with the other. Around a mile from the city center, Abir Moussi and her Free Destourian Party, devoted to restoring the pre-2011 ancien régime, protested on another main street, unwilling, it seemed, to share space with their Islamist and political rivals.
However, for much of Tunisia’s public, wearied by food shortages, the withering economy, and wages that now struggle to carry them through the month, the Jan. 14 protest offered little but a reminder of the past political divisions that had long ago led many to turn their backs on the main political parties.
“It’s difficult to assess the reach and constituencies of the groups demonstrating on January 14,” Aymen Bessalah of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy told FLA from Tunis. “So far, that’s the best they could do in terms of mobilization. They’ll protest, they’ll make a lot of noise, but that’s largely it,” he said, pointing out that the opposition’s popularity does not necessarily stretch to the marginalized suburbs of the main cities and hardscrabble reaches of the country’s interior.
Where is Tunisia heading?
Saied is still “the least hated political leader in the country
Despite the best efforts of the formal opposition groups and the old parties, Saied is still “the least hated political leader in the country. His popularity depends on how low that of the opposition is,” Bessalah said.
However, according to Bessalah, despite the sound and the fury of the opposition’s protest, a genuine sense of anger and frustration simmers across the country. While holding back on drawing direct parallels between the present and conditions prior to the country’s 2011 revolution, he cautioned that “people have less now than they had then, and that includes hope. That means the threat is more significant.”
With inflation expected to average 10.5 percent this year, Tunisia’s prospects for 2023 remain grim. Across the country, life is getting more expensive, especially for those who have the least.
According to this year’s budget, taxes are to be increased across the board in a bid to stem the shortfall in funds, yet it would still leave the country billions of dollars short of reaching its projected expenditure.
Nevertheless, despite such income-generating measures, growth is not expected to pass 2.2 percent, leaving a gap between Tunisia’s income and the payments on its own internal and external debt. Given this, the need for some kind of bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) becomes unavoidable, whatever strings come attached, said Aram Belhadj, an economist at the University of Carthage in Tunis.
The history of Tunisia and the IMF is a long one. This latest tranche, estimated at $1.9 billion to be disbursed over four years, was expected, perhaps a little optimistically, by Tunisian planners in the early months of last year, which goes some way to explaining the current shortfalls in government payments on salaries and subsidies. However, despite initial agreement over the terms of the bailout, the final decision remains elusive, with concerns over widespread social unrest rumored to be among the IMF’s concerns.
Where is Tunisia heading?
“I think that we need to have a dialogue as quickly as possible with all the social partners, principally the UGTT [the Tunisian General Labour Union], to draw up a clear and consensual road map for the future,” Belhadj said, arguing that an agreement with the IMF would also likely free up funds held overseas that Tunisia could then use to help balance its books.
As it has done previously, the UGTT finds itself in a decisive role. Far larger than most unions, with a tradition of linking social struggles to political and national demands, the UGTT remains one of the few political powers in Tunisia capable of rallying the support to check or at least steer the direction of government reform. With cuts to the food subsidies relied on by the country’s poorest, as well as widespread reform to the state and state-owned employment sectors at stake, negotiations with the IMF speak directly to the union’s traditional base.
The UGTT’s willingness to place the national good above its own ends won it, along with three others, the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. However, the expectation that it will ultimately support the status quo is far from guaranteed, as it demonstrated in 2010 and 2011, when it served as a lightning rod of popular anger against the rule of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, after having previously cooperated with the regime.
In the meantime, with Sunday’s vote raising fundamental questions about the country’s future, the economy continues to run on fumes, with Saied unchallenged and the former political class perceived as having chosen political squabbling and infighting over halting the country’s decline. In the poorer suburbs and across the country, hunger is becoming a reality for many. Violence, for those without access to power, risks becoming an increasingly common response.
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