North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Tunisia’s revolution under siege: When the IMF calls the shots

The nation’s young democracy is already at a critical junction. What comes next?

Larbi Sadiki
31 March 2021, 12.00am
Tunisia's President Saied (pictured) has for weeks refused to swear in the prime minister's new ministers
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Jdidi Wassim/SOPA Images/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

Tunisia, a ‘quasi-lab’ of Arab democracy, is under siege. The country’s fledgling democracy is in the midst of its biggest trepidation since its adoption of the 2014 democratic constitution.

The North African country is stuck between meeting the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) externally imposed reforms, which contradict the aspirations of the Tunisian people; international meddling in Tunisian politics; and the growing distrust and ineptitude of the country’s rulers.

This is a critical juncture for the nation’s young democracy. It is time to ask what Tunisia’s political parties and leaders can do for the country, away from political expediency, partisan short-term gain, and insipid jockeying for power in elections that are still four years away.

What lies behind Tunisia’s crisis of democratization? Why, instead of working together, do its major parties and politicians engage in a ‘blame game’ of frenzied accusations and insults, directly or by proxy?

Globalization against revolution

Recent history, which, in general, pits the international system against revolution, underpins questions about another struggle: globalization and democratic sovereignty.

The world– the powers that be – does not like revolutions. Responses to the socialist Sandinistas in Nicaragua, or to the Iranian revolution, seem to confirm this. However, brands of West-leaning revolutions, such as those in the post-Soviet states, appear more palatable to international power brokers.

On the other hand, we have the Arab revolutions. Whether or not we admit it, the 2011 failed Egyptian revolution was ‘assassinated’ with massive Western support. Billions of dollars of investments and enormous infrastructural development by the German Siemens or Italian energy giant Turboden are some examples.

Libya and Syria’s revolutions, internationalized and militarized, reflect another brand of external tutelage. In both, it is not investments so much as Western diplomacy that rules crisis management. Western envoys come and go. Military-political interventions from Libya to Syria to Yemen, have American, Russian, French, Iranian and even Arab Gulf fingerprints all over them.

As a new democracy, Tunisia is not shielded from Western tutelage and patronage. Its border wall with Libya, presumably to keep out terrorists, was erected between two countries with incredibly close socio-cultural-economic ties. But Tunisia’s Libya is not the US’s Mexico. Such projects divert donor funds to Tunisia (including a reported $20m for border surveillance from the US and Germany) away from more urgent (e.g. development) needs.

'Capital-izing' Tunisia

Then we come to international capitalism. The market cannot tolerate revolutions. The Bretton Woods system of international monetary management consistently brought the ‘developing world’ to its knees. International capitalism was the biggest supporter of the authoritarianism of former Tunisian president, Ben Ali, who was ousted in 2011 following the country’s revolution. This authoritarianism reproduced peripheral capitalism and is arguably part of Tunisia’s democratization crisis today. This system is demanding reforms, a euphemism for austerity measures.

Loans come at the price of painful ‘reforms’ that leave society reeling. In a report released last month, which revealed Tunisia’s public debt had reached 87% and that national unemployment had spiked 16.2% (double that in some regions), the IMF was outspoken in its assessments. The same body that lends Tunisia money warned that the country’s indebtedness may become “unsustainable”, and stressed the need for more “reforms”, including cuts to the 17% wage bill and increasing tax revenue.

Elsewhere, credit-scoring company Moody’s has just downgraded Tunisia’s rating to B3, meaning the country is considered a high credit risk. The agency seems to have an opinion not only on economics but also on Tunisia's politics (never mind sovereignty). “Weakening governance” is a problem, it said, adding that “social constraints” limit the enactment of fiscal measures. Moody’s recommended reforms include curbing public sector salaries and energy subsidies, as well as straightening out the finances of state-owned companies. As though pressure from civil society assent is an obstacle to the country’s economic health, rendering reform-making a “protracted process”.

Externally dictated ‘reforms’ contradict the mantras of Tunisia’s revolution: freedom, dignity, employment, social justice

Striking are the echoes between the discourse of Tunisia’s political elites and that of the IMF and Moody’s. In this narrative, civil society’s active engagement, and the ‘social unrest’ of protesters, are viewed as standing in the way of necessary neoliberal reforms. Derogatory denunciations of protests as takhrib (destruction) and shaghab (rioting) by Tunisian politicians this past ‘protest season’ (December 2020 to January 2021) seem to dovetail with global international financial institutions' wariness of popular mobilization.

However, externally dictated ‘reforms’ contradict the mantras of Tunisia’s revolution: freedom, dignity, employment, social justice. In addition, multinational corporations in Tunisia are indifferent to local employment or environmental protection. The country seems to be always out-smarted in its negotiations with multinational corporations, the IMF and other guardians of international capitalism.

Yet the Tunisian people, active and enriched by an awareness of inventories at their disposal, have more than once displayed ‘unruliness’ in objection to such reforms (e.g. anti-austerity protests of 2018). Mobilization of disaffected youth is in abundance, as attested by the past few months of protests in cities from Tataouine to Gafsa.

Mobilizing ‘the street’

Tunisia’s unending political paralysis detracts from any leverage the country may wield vis-à-vis global capitalism’s encroachments.

Protest is a consistent (and healthy) feature of Tunisia’s post-2011 political climate. However, political leaders themselves are now trying to mobilize people onto the streets, each for a different purpose. The so-called thawrat al-tanwir ( ‘enlightenment revolution’) is one example, spearheaded by Ben Ali’s political ‘heir’, Abir Moussi. The controversial head of the Free Destour Party was part of the authoritarian apparatus in Tunisia. Now, her trademark issue is anti-Islamism. She has reappropriated Tunisian history, claiming her party as the natural offspring of Bourguiba’s Neo-Destour.

Meanwhile, the Islamists, best represented by the party Ennahda, seem to be embattled and on the defensive. Ennahda’s leadership is dull and its membership divided. In denial, the party, led by Rached Ghannouchi, is suffering from its own polemics and schisms. It is beset by attrition (seen in the exit of major leadership figures: Abdelfattah Morou, Abdelhamid Jlassi, Lotfi Zitoun, etc), while others seem to chafe at the party’s directives and direction. The ‘100 group’ , a pro-democracy faction within Ennahda, challenged Ghannouchi’s leadership last fall but seems to have been contained for the moment. The party contests democratic elections and has more or less perfected the art of democratic participation. Internally, however, it is seemingly not democratic at all.

Against such a backdrop, Ennahda took to the street on 27 February. Its Demonstration for Steadfastness and Defense of Institutions brought out huge crowds in the tens of thousands, perhaps 100,000.

Ghannouchi exhorted his party faithful and Tunisians to express more ‘love’. What exactly the party was hoping to accomplish is not clear. At least some of this muscle-flexing seems to be for the benefit of President Kais Saied. For weeks, the president has refused to swear in new ministers appointed by the prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, putting him at odds with Ennahda as well. Power and political acumen, however, is not populism and mobilization of large crowds. Congregating masses, numbering in the tens or hundreds of thousands, did not rescue Egypt’s former president, Mohamed Morsi. Power is not about gathering huge groups in the street. It is about adhering to the rules of the (democratic) game; playing the political cards correctly.

Perpetual disaffection

The paradox is that the world is dazzled by the North African country’s political system, except for Tunisians themselves who hate it. Dissatisfaction is palpable across the board. Debates center either on how to change the constitution (to be more presidential or more parliamentary) or the electoral law (to solidify party majorities in elections). Tunisia was awash in singularity before 2011: single-rule, single-party, single-everything. Now that Tunisians have constructed a political fusayfisaa (mosaic), they don’t seem to want it!

There is nothing wrong with a political mosaic, however. Returning to even a democratic monopoly would be much worse. What would happen if the Islamists, or Moussi, or the near-dead Left, were to become a monopolizing power? Why the rush to amend the constitution or the election law, barely six years old? Perhaps Tunisians should come to terms with a bit of pluralism-induced chaos.

Rival positions within the machinery of government have ruptured what looks like fragile democratic unity

Three-headed monster?

The real contest today is between the so-called three-headed leadership. Rival positions within the machinery of government have ruptured what looks like fragile democratic unity. The Tunisian electorate likely expected synergy, not the existing antipathy. The zigs and zags of the politics of Saied (elected by more than two million votes in 2019), Ghannouchi (speaker of Parliament), and Mechichi, the president’s choice for prime minister, ring with dissonance.

In the meantime, mud-slinging and dirty politics abound. Saied ambiguously bemoans the country’s democratization as the “transition from one-party [rule] to a single, corrupt group.” Rafik Abdessalem, former foreign minister and son-in-law to Ghannouchi, unabashedly denounces Saied for telling “big lies”. And so on.

Noteworthy in these maneuverings is that Ennahda has astutely turned the office of speaker of Parliament into a de facto site of power. The leadership of Parliament may be a launching pad for Ghannouchi’s 2024 presidential campaign, a platform for exercising some control over the decision-making process

It is not so much ideology that divides the three, but persona. Ghannouchi may be harbouring contempt against Saied; his aim may be to replace him in 2024. Saied is somewhat ‘out-foxed’ by Ennahda. He chose Mechichi, who has kind of ‘crossed the floor’ to support Ghannouchi.

Meanwhile, initiatives for ‘national dialogue’ proliferate, for instance by the labor union, UGTT. But extra-parliamentary dialogue is unlikely to resolve strains within the political class. Dialogue in theory is good. In practice, it requires know-how. The formal political process exists for dialogue, after all: politicians are elected to engage in dialogue, and pass legislation. Taking the dialogue out of Parliament renders it redundant.

Tunisians transformed their political system by ousting Ali. The country now needs changes within its decaying political elite. ‘Reforms’ should apply not only to the state’s balancing books, but also to political parties and their leaders.

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