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Tunisia: President's power grab undermines democracy

June 3, 2022

As Tunisia’s president continues on his autocratic path while the economy is on its knees, can international aid return the country to a democratic track?

Tunisians at a demonstration waving a bill
International aid could become the pathway to democracy in TunisiaImage: Hans Lucas/IMAGO

According to Tunisia's President Kais Saied, this week's dismissal of 57 judges has been a "necessary step" to purge the country's judiciary system of corruption.

Critics, however, fear that the former Arab democracy is at a crossroads — it may turn into a fully autocratically ruled country, and possibly a failed state in the near future.

"The idea of ​​the rule of law and fair trials collapsed. The president is evaluating the work of judges. If they pass judgments that do not fit the authority, their fate is exemption and professional death," Mohammed Afif Kchok, Judge Counselor at Tunisia's Capital Court of Cassation, told DW. 

One of the most prominent judges among the dismissed group is Youssef Bouzakher, the former head of the Supreme Judicial Council. The council had served as guarantor of judicial independence since Tunisia's 2011 revolution until Saied replaced the members in February this year. 

According to the news agency Reuters, Bachir Akremi is no longer wearing the judge's robe either. He has been accused of being too close to the Islamist party Ennahda, which is a fierce opponent of Saied — an accusation he has denied. 

"In fact, there are indications that at least some of the judges, who have been dismissed, have attracted Saied's anger by publicly opposing his earlier measures, and others are linked to an intensely political case concerning the assassination of two leftist politicians in 2013 [Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi].

"But to dismiss such a broad swath of judges without any due process is unjustifiable within a democratic system and incompatible with the rule of law," Anthony Dworkin, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW.

Judges protest President Saied's Decision To dissolve Supreme Judicial Council in Tunis
In February, Kais Saied dissolved the Supreme Judicial CouncilImage: Chedly Ben Ibrahim /NurPhoto/IMAGO

Another reason for Saied to dismiss these judges were verdicts he didn't approve of, Sami Hamdi, managing director of the London-based analysis firm The International Interest, told DW.

"In the past months, the courts have generally refused to deliver guilty verdicts on grounds of insufficient evidence on political opponents that Saied has dragged before them," he said. Therefore, Hamdi sees that the decision is about "threatening the judiciary."

Saied, however, has been insisting that he follows a strictly democratic path and that all these steps are necessary to guide the country towards its state as "new republic" — a name Saied chose for the time after the new constitution will be come into force.

However, before that, a public referendum will decide on the constitution on July 25, with parliamentary elections to be held later in December.

Meanwhile, international observers have lost hope that Saied is willing to maintain the country's democratic structure which followed the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, ever since the former law professor started a widespread power grab in July 2021 — called a coup by his critics.

Those fears were most recently reinforced by the president's announcement that international election observers won't be welcome for the referendum nor the parliamentary elections.

"As of now, we can say that Saied is running the country in a completely undemocratic manner. He has got rid of all independent checks and balances on his own authority, and is operating outside the constitution that was agreed in 2014," Dworkin said.

Youngsters protest in Tunis' poor neighborhood
Rising unemployment and inflation make life hard for Tunisia's 12 million peopleImage: Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Dangerous power game

"One thing is for sure: If Saied pushes through the referendum, which is to be expected, it will be difficult to get rid of the newly introduced and probably highly authoritarian system," Isabelle Werenfels, senior fellow for Africa and the Middle East at the Berlin-based think tank SWP, wrote this week.

The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, of which Tunisia is a member, came to an even more worrisome conclusion.

"The commission warned that important legal requirements for the constitutional process and especially for the referendum have not been met," Werenfels told DW.

However, after the Venice Commission suggested to postpone the referendum in "the interest of greater democratic legitimacy", Saied threated to suspend Tunisia's membership.

For Werenfels it is therefore "becoming apparent that Saied's 'grassroots democracy' is going to be a predominantly presidential and authoritarian system."

And yet, while the initial wave of public enthusiasm among the 12 million Tunisians is waning slowly but surely, it hasn't broken yet. The majority is still convinced that public institutions and the judiciary are thoroughly corrupt.

"Me, like many others, wish to eradicate bribery and corruption. And in my opinion, Saied has done a good job so far. It was necessary to start with the authorities, which have long been subject to accusations of dishonesty," Shaima ben Saad, an employee at a call center in Tunis, told DW. She hopes that the purging process will continue so that the country "can grow again."

Also, bank employee Akram Chehdi sees the dismissals as necessary. "Every new political wave is accompanied by a process of judicial immunity and having a hand on the judiciary is pushing you forward," he told DW. Furthermore, he remembers that in 2012 "Noureddine Bhiri [from the Islamist Ennahda Movement], was Minister of Justice, and 81 judges were dismissed."

UGTT Secretary-General Nourreddine Taboubi
The influential UGTT union and their secretary-general, Nourreddine Taboubi, could have a decisive role in the country's future.Image: Yassine Mahjoub/IMAGO

Cash matters

And yet, Kais Saied's rise to power could soon be limited by the country's finances. "It seems that it will be the economy rather than political or constitutional questions that determines the fate of Saied's leadership," Dworkin said.

Even before COVID-19, which heavily affected tourism, Tunisia’s capacity for economic resilience had been drained by years of indecisive public policymaking and growing protectionism.

Therefore, the requested $4 billion (€3.73 billion) loan could turn into Saied's biggest incentive for a democratic push.

However, for this he will need to get the country's influential General Labour Union (UGTT) with its one million strike-prone members on his side.

"The UGTT not only has mobilization potential, but also veto power. And the IMF has made the granting of a new loan conditional on the UGTT and the employers' association UTICA agreement to the government's reform agenda," Werenfels said. 

But so far, the UGTT is far from following Saied's roadmap without seeing their own demands met. At present, their main demand is a pay rise to counter the country's high inflation. And in case this won't be approved, the UGTT has called for a general strike, starting on June 16.

So far, however, Saied hasn't shown much interest in economic issues, other than being outspoken against austerity measures.

Tunisia analyst Mariam Salehi speaks to DW

Tarak Guizani in Tunis contributed to this article.

Edited by: Nicole Goebel

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and political analyst specializing in the Middle East and North Africa.