In Tunisia, the most likely scenario now is that of a sovereign default by 2024, further reducing the country’s budgetary room for manoeuvre and accentuating its impoverishment, which will then be able to seek ephemeral assistance from regional allies, who are increasingly fewer in number and whose motives are uncertain. The Tunisia of Kais Said towards bankruptcy.
From one political order to another
Nearly two years after the coup de force of July 25, 2021, Tunisia is completing its regime transition this week with the opening, on March 12, of the work of the new assembly of people’s representatives, elected this winter.
The credibility of this new legislature has already been largely undermined by the failure of a ballot that barely exceeded 10% participation at the end of a campaign made meaningless by the suspension of parties and the anonymity enjoyed by most candidates.
In July 2021, the suspension of the government and the assembly and the authoritarian takeover of the country, which has since been ruled by decree-law, began a constitutional transition process that culminated in the adoption of a new constitution on July 25, 2022. The new constitution is as varied in its adoption process (70% abstention, text modified after the referendum, lack of consideration for election methods, etc.) as it is dangerous in its provisions (lack of an independent election organization body, hyper-presidentialism, questioning of parity in the assembly and strict limitation of partisan political life).
The Tunisia of Kais Said towards bankruptcy
However, this political process has received little real criticism from European countries, which were deluded by the appointment of the first female head of government in the Arab world and the abandonment of the nomenclature of “state religion” (دين الدولة), which is contrary to the profound philosophy of the new regime: conservative and pan-Islamic.
This transition period has been characterized by a gradual restriction of political freedoms using the now tried and tested tactic of the salami – slice by slice: mounting political-financial scandals; limiting freedom of expression online (through Decree 54 officially on “cybercrime”); taking control of the independent election organization body; banning demonstrations; summoning journalists and finally political arrests of left-wing leaders, former government members as well as Nourredine Bhiri, president of the powerful Islamo-conservative party Ennahdha.
This policy was made possible by a “securitization” of democratic debate, criminalizing any dissent in the name of national security, as well as by the staging in presidential rhetoric of the fight against supposed “enemies from within,” in the pay of the “Foreign” (بِالـخارِج) and operating, in all areas, against the interests of the state: political parties, speculators, businessmen, trade unions, NGOs etc.
The climate of despair, the personal integrity of Kaïs Saïed and this hysterization of the political debate were enough to rally to his cause a part – decreasing however – of the Tunisian people, worn out by the degradation of public services, corruption and political inaction characteristic of the period 2011-2021.
A brief history of violence
This policy is part of a more global dynamic of increasing violence in public discourse, catalyzed by the rigidity of Kaïs Saïed’s character, who has multiplied the use of nationalist and conspiracy rhetoric.
The latest was the alleged denunciation of a diffuse project of “great replacement” of the population by the substitution of an African and Christian population for the indigenous Arab and Muslim majority. This is a new illustration of the verbal violence and sad passions that inhabit public discourse and which take the form of the regular designation of scapegoats. This designation has now become an authorization for physical violence directed, for the moment, at the sub-Saharan community.
Beyond the worrying popularity of xenophobic and racist rhetoric within Tunisian public opinion, it is above all this dimension of cathartic violence that should attract the attention of the informed observer. In particular, the conspiracy, anti-immigration and pan-Islamic indictment is completely unfounded, even though the sub-Saharan immigrant population is quantitatively small, mainly students and predominantly Muslim.
This political violence, which includes arbitrary arrests and the regular dismissal of ministers – the victims of a policy that has reached a dead end – has now become systemic in Tunisia, beyond the presidential exits.
Thus, following the example of what has been observed in other populist regimes, these outbursts are prepared (upstream) and then multiplied (downstream) on social networks and radio waves by the affidavits of the regime. The latter, organized within a nebulous “coordination of defense of the project of President Said”, relayed the statements of their best tribunes, like Kais Karoui, which have constituted for two years the bulk of the material of the debate of ideas: repeated, commented, supported or criticized envy on the TV sets and in daily conversations.
This was once again the case with regard to the racist-complotist statements of Kaïs Saïed, which echoed similar statements that have been proliferating for several months on certain social media from supporters of the leader’s figure. But if, as René Girard wrote in Violence and the Sacred, it is “unfulfilled violence that seeks and always ends up finding an alternative victim,” the primary cause of this dynamic is elsewhere. It is to be found in the diffuse resentment against the rapid deterioration over the last 15 years of the socio-economic conditions of a country hit by inflation, shortages, the informalization of the economy, mass unemployment – whose prevalence among young people reaches 40% – the absence of entrepreneurial opportunities and the strengthening of protected rents and dominant positions.
The Tunisia of Kais Said towards bankruptcy
More than that, it is to be found in the decrease in social protection provided by the state, which has rapidly deteriorated over the past two years, against a backdrop of failing public services and an economic context massively constrained by the burden of debt (which will reach 89% of GDP in 2023 according to the IMF) and the absence of real growth (which should be 1.6% in 2023 according to the same source).
This economic context, which the current regime has partially inherited, calls for an ambitious reform policy that is negotiated with social forces and that focuses on the management of bankrupt public enterprises, the simplification of the regulatory framework, the deployment of a more redistributive tax system, the improvement of the effectiveness of social policy and the fight against corruption and clientelism. Only such an inclusive approach would be able to simultaneously reassure and offer hope.
Instead, the government – lacking a clearly identifiable line of its own – has settled into an arm wrestling match and a double denunciation, on the one hand of the demands of international donors and on the other of the claims of the UGTT (the historic and almost unique union of independent Tunisia), which is now negotiating from a position of strength with a government whose representativeness is less than its own.
This double denunciation, which takes the pretext of defending the “interests of the Nation against Western imperialism and the enemies of the interior”, is part of an effectively violent and short-termist social policy made up of penny-pinching savings through the promotion of shortages (which reduce the weight of tariff compensation), the reduction of subsidies as well as a certain laissez-faire attitude towards the galloping inflation that is eroding the purchasing power of Tunisians.
The permanent show
Since 2019, Tunisian political life has gradually turned into a permanent spectacle, deleterious to the confidence of international partners and incompatible with the requirements of a fertile and inclusive democratic debate. The recent presidential outbursts make unlikely what appeared to be the only potential way out of the crisis: the approval by the IMF board of the generous but already insufficient program negotiated last October, for which the adoption process had already stalled. The calls from the Saidist nebula for the dismissal of the governor of the Central Bank – considered the only credible and reliable interlocutor – only reinforcing the Fund’s distrust of the credibility of the Tunisian signature.
The most likely scenario now is that of a sovereign default by 2024, further reducing the country’s budgetary room for manoeuvre and accentuating its impoverishment, which will then be able to seek ephemeral assistance from regional allies, who are increasingly fewer in number and whose motives are uncertain.
The complexity of qualifying Kaïs Saïed’s regime is thus apparent, as it seems far from the typical example of an authoritarian regime: structured around a strong repressive apparatus, a dominant coalition of political, economic and social interests, a hegemonic party, and a strengthening of the state capable of providing social protection and security – as in Sissi’s Egypt or Erdogan’s Turkey, to take regional examples.
In Tunisia, the counter-revolution has instead created a circus with an increasingly frightening spectacle, from which all that will soon remain is a sad clown and a frightened and apathetic public, which has withdrawn from all forms of collective action and is retreating into the private sphere.
Unless this new outing is so absurd and rancid that it constitutes, along with the latest anti-social measures – political arrests and bans on demonstrations – a point of no return capable of eventually sparking a new Tunisian spring.
Perhaps this is the bet that Western partners should now make in their approach to the Tunisian experience. The Tunisia of Kais Said towards bankruptcy.