On March 13, 2023, Tunisia’s recently elected parliament held its first session. Just a few days before, President Kais Saied made a last-minute dash to benefit his political agenda by dissolving municipal councils and amending the electoral law, adding local and regional councils instead that would eventually elect the second chamber of parliament. With these last decrees, Saied has dismantled the entirety of the political institution-building of the 2014 Constitution.
At the same time, while Saied consolidates his hold on Tunisian political life, a bigger issue persists in the background. Despite the opposition currently suffering targeted attacks as arrests and prosecutions abound, it remains fragmented in the face of these abuses, with no viable prospects for rapprochement in the near future. Parallel to all this is the national salvation initiative spearheaded by the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and other organizations, and whose contours remain unknown and will be addressed to Saied. In light of these developments, or lack thereof, a breakdown of the variables in play is necessary as Tunisia enters a new phase of Saied’s rule.
As things currently stand, the bulk of the parties opposing Saied can be categorized into three groups. The first is the National Salvation Front: its main components are the Ennahdha party, previous figures of Nidaa Tounes (a former ruling coalition party and that of late President Caid Essebsi), and other independent political figures who have rallied in the Citizens against the coup movement since the early days of Saied’s power grab. The second is a quartet of social democratic parties, composed of the Democratic Current, which had a decent number of MPs in the 2019 parliament, and former 2011-2013 ruling coalition member Ettakatol. The third and last group is Abir Moussi’s Free Dostourian Party (PDL), a Ben Ali apologist and revolution-negationist party that was already isolated in the last parliament.
Since Saied’s self-coup on July 25, 2021, the opposition actors sought to distinguish themselves from one another, and most parties did not strongly—or fully—oppose Saied’s measures, with the exception of members of the National Salvation Front. Parties and actors who were initially on the fence called for a clear roadmap and a participatory approach toward a transitional phase before quickly voicing their opposition following the promulgation of Decree 117 in September 2022, with which Saied monopolized all power and ruled by decree. PDL even tried to capitalize on July 25, 2021 as a victory of their own anti-Ennahdha and political Islam campaign. For reference, PDL deputies and Abir Moussi have played a major role in paralyzing the 2019 parliament proceedings before its suspension in 2021 and subsequent dissolution in 2022.
Both parties ran on criticizing one another, only to rule together and then blame one another for failing to achieve their promises.
It is also noteworthy that most political parties, including the components of the Democratic Current, continue to distance themselves from an open alliance with the National Salvation Front. This comes as no surprise, as there are still many Tunisians and political actors who hold Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha responsible for the unaddressed socioeconomic grievances after 2011 and the politicking that enabled and empowered Saied to seize such limitless power. Both parties ran on criticizing one another, only to rule together and then blame one another for failing to achieve their promises. This premise was at the center of the initial wait-and-see approach that was adopted by many in July 2021 regarding Saied’s power grab, and while it has receded in favor of directing the bulk of criticism toward Saied, it is still present. The current wariness of any rapprochement with the National Salvation Front and Ennahdha is rooted in this view.
A mirage of a rallying flag
In the face of such fragmentation, the only political initiative that may, at face value, have a chance to influence the current political deadlock is the initiative by the UGTT, the Tunisian Bar Association, the Tunisian League for Human Rights, and the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights. Launched around the runoff parliamentary elections in January 2023, this new initiative seeks to play a similar role to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning quartet that brokered a dialogue amid the 2013 crisis. Despite the critical role each of the four organizations played in Tunisia’s recent history, the bulk of its political weight lies with the UGTT, and little is known regarding what this initiative will propose or when its elements will become public information. Despite initial hopes, this long-in-the-making initiative continues to lose its relevance as time passes, and it seems unwilling to break with the path that the country is on. From various statements from its leadership, following an initial lack of clarity on the role of parties, UGTT has expressed that it will not engage with parties which consider the events of July 2021 a coup. This means that, in addition to the unlikelihood of a rapprochement between the major opposition factions, UGTT will probably maintain its distance from opposition parties as well. Perhaps the only possible scenario where UGTT might overlap with opposition parties is a protracted clash with Saied, especially through trials targeting the union’s middle leadership, which is currently the case.
The [UGTT] seems to be more interested in partaking in and influencing the current political trajectory of the country rather than in putting an end to it.
Another important variable that persists is the delayed IMF program and its unpopular reform package, which UGTT rejects. Even so, the union seems to be more interested in partaking in and influencing the current political trajectory of the country rather than in putting an end to it.
More of the same
Indifferent to all this is Saied, who refuses any dialogue with those which he dubs “traitors” and “corrupt.” The president also ignores calls for a dialogue and deliberations with various actors, including unions and other civil society organizations, interjecting with “Why did we just have elections then?” in one of his recent statements.
The president continues to be adamant in his belief that no intermediary body—in other words, any media outlet, union, organization, or party—is absolved from the “crimes” committed against the people, and that he is here to remedy the revolutionary path and “purify” the country. His attacks on the media and accusations against any and all entities that criticize his measures fall within this logic, and so do his attempts to alienate parties from recent elections by enforcing an individual-based ballot to presumably weaken parties’ influence. Most, if all, of the presidential statements include talk of treason or conspiracies, which appeal to Tunisians’ grievances and widespread conspirationist theories and stories.
Another element that bolsters Saied’s position is the absence of any public self-evaluation or a genuine mea culpa across the political spectrum for the failures in consolidating a democracy post revolution.
Another element that bolsters Saied’s position is the absence of any public self-evaluation or a genuine mea culpa across the political spectrum for the failures in consolidating a democracy post revolution. In the absence of an internal assessment by each party—especially those who were part of ruling coalitions—of their share of the political burden and the emergence of new party leaderships, Tunisia is bound to continue on this path.
More importantly, Saied’s position is currently also strengthened by the new parliament and the expected announcement of elections of local authorities following the introduction of his local councils through amendments to the electoral law. These councils would in turn compose the second chamber of parliament. Saied will now have two buffers: the government bearing the blame for the deteriorating economy, and the newly-minted parliament which will act as a political and legal buffer as it passes the new laws despite most parties’ boycott of the elections and the 11 percent turnout. It is yet to be known to what extent this parliament would be a straightforward ally to the president as its composition has not been confirmed yet. Many statements have been made on the landslide win of pro-Saied parties and coalitions, yet an investigative report by Al Qatiba claims that 125 of the elected 154 MPs are independent. Nevertheless, in addition to parliament having no real power to remove Saied, the president enjoys legislative powers beyond Decree 117, as he can have legislative referenda and bypass parliament.
Once elections for local councils are announced, public debates will focus on the role of these councils within these new institutions in addition to current debates on shrinking civic space and political freedoms. Meanwhile, it is yet unclear what the legislative priorities of the upcoming parliament would be. This new legislative “function,” as the president likes to call it, acting as a political buffer for Saied, could even pass restrictive laws and amendments such as one restricting civil society for instance. More importantly, parliament would also be a perfect substitute for Saied to keep pressing the government against the required IMF reform package as they might object to reforms that would affect subsidies and state-owned enterprises.
2023 is only a quarter through and Tunisia is continuing its economic decline; the powerless parliament is in session, more elections are likely to come, and meanwhile, key organizations are crafting a roadmap which sidelines opposition parties in the hopes of clearing a path for rapprochement with Saied. Given all this, no change is coming any time soon and dialogue between citizens, not just political actors, seems further and further away.
Aymen Bessalah is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on governance and the rule of law in Tunisia.