For Tunisian President Kais Saied, not everything went according to plan this week. Twelve years to the day after the self-immolation of Tunisian greengrocer Mohamed Bouazizi, which sparked the Tunisian revolution and the Arab Spring, Saied decided to celebrate this "revolutionary explosion", as he now calls the event, in his own way.
On 17 December 2022, the first parliamentary elections since the constitutional reform pushed through by President Saied that summer were held. Tunisians, however, preferred to enjoy the sun on the first day of the winter holidays, while the polling stations remained deserted. With an official turnout of just over eleven percent, the vote was thus a fiasco for Saied's "new republic" and for his electoral authority ISIE, which, incidentally, is no longer as independent as its full name (Independent Supreme Electoral Authority) suggests. Its members are appointed by Saied and follow his orders. The president's campaign slogan - "The people want and know what they want." - no one could escape. Daily text messages to all mobile phone numbers, commercials, appearances in the media, all his efforts, however, were to no avail: the people do not want or know what they want.
However, the fourth parliamentary elections since the Tunisian revolution failed not only because of the opposition's calls for a boycott of Kais Saied or because of the lack of international supervision (the European Parliament decided on 16 December not to send observers), but because of the general lack of interest and dislike on the part of the people towards the entire political class that has disappointed them over the past twelve years. Everyone has failed, without exception. Tunisians no longer have confidence in their elites and are now questioning the democratic transition process that began in 2011.
The spirit of optimism in the country after 2011 could not withstand the repeated political crises, exacerbated by severe economic problems. While the country continues to congratulate itself on the few freedoms won during the revolution, today the revolution is perceived mainly with great disillusionment. Events in Tunisia are followed with excitement by many, while the silent majority increasingly struggle to make a living.
Neither the president's supporters nor the opposition can present a "satisfactory" alternative to overcome the crisis. The former argue that it is exaggerated to speak of a low turnout because it is a new experience for the people (it is the first time that concrete people have been voted on, in an election with two ballots). However, this is a complete denial of reality, which in a second round of voting would lead to a new parliament, certainly legally valid, but not legitimate. The opposition, on the other hand, is demanding the resignation of the president and the government and early parliamentary and presidential elections according to the old electoral model from before the July constitutional reform, which was pushed through against great resistance.
Both alternatives, simply carrying on as before or the resignation of the president, seem premature and ill-considered. Worse, with the collapse of the economy, compounded by the postponement of the IMF loan - the Monetary Fund has just announced that the US$1.9 billion loan will not be on the agenda of its December talks to give Tunisia more time to present itself under more favourable conditions - both scenarios risk plunging the country into bitter chaos. The resulting situation could resemble that of Greece a few years ago or Lebanon today.
Unlike Greece, however, Tunisia is not part of a strong political and economic union like the EU. Neither the neighbouring countries of Algeria and Libya nor the Gulf monarchies are willing or able to save Tunisia from bankruptcy. If the political actors in Tunisia do not come to their senses, the Lebanese scenario is therefore more realistic.
The Tunisian president should take responsibility for this unprecedented political crisis. Firstly, by addressing the people and taking note of their rejection of the process launched on 25 July 2021. Secondly, he should call for talks between the various "warring parties" led by the main national organisations such as the Confederation of Trade Unions and the Confederation of Businessmen, the Bar Association, and the Human Rights League. In this way, a transitional government could be formed to improve the general political climate, manage the day-to-day affairs of the country and prepare and conduct parliamentary and presidential elections according to standards to be set in advance and in line with the 2014 Constitution.
In fact, the current political crisis is somewhat similar to that of 2013, when the climate was very tense and threatened to explode with a wave of violence and two political assassinations that were exceptional for the country. Back then, the two opposing camps - the secular and the Islamist - had brought people out onto the streets in their neck-and-neck race. Those times seem far away at present, however, considering that today only sports clubs and the trade union federation can mobilise the masses.
So it is time to take stock and finish the game to prevent Tunisia from sinking into chaos. That is why it is so incredibly important now to learn the right lessons to save what can be saved. The country cannot cope with another crisis whose effects will no longer be limited to the national level but will affect the entire region in the short and medium term.
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