Tunisia - 2021 - Crisis
A willingness to compromise rescued Tunisia from the unrest and violence seen in other Arab Spring countries like Egypt and Libya. Tunisia was the epicenter of the 2011 Arab Spring protest movement that swept through North Africa and led to the ouster of President Ben Ali and later to the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The military in Tunisia is professional and does not play a role in politics. While former president Ben Ali had a military background, he had risen through the security bureaucracy and interior ministry, and did not obtain the Presidence through a military coup. Unlike other North African countries, such as Algeria, where independence came as a result of armed struggle, Tunisian indepedence was essentially a political process. This left the military with little role in the narrative of national identity, and little influence in politics. Starting from independence, the military was given a defined defensive role, which excluded participation in politics.
Although there was some geographic sectionalism at independence in 1957, the deep tribal or ethnic cleavages with which other North African states had to deal were largely nonexistent. Moreover, Tunisia's independence struggle had been a political maneuver rather than a military encounter, and it had united the country without causing the mass destruction suffered, for example, by neighboring Algeria in its own agonizing war of independence.
Progress toward full democracy has been slow. Over the years, President Bourguiba stood unopposed for re-election several times and was named "President for Life" in 1974 by a constitutional amendment. At the time of independence, the Neo-Destourian Party (later the PSD)--enjoying broad support because of its role at the forefront of the independence movement -- became the sole legal party. Opposition parties were banned until 1981.
The Ministry of Interior holds legal authority and responsibility for law enforcement. The ministry oversees the National Police, which has primary responsibility for law enforcement in the major cities, and the National Guard (gendarmerie), which oversees border security and patrols smaller towns and rural areas. The Ministry of Interior has three Inspectorate General Offices that conduct administrative investigations into the different ministry structures. These offices play a role in both onsite inspections to ensure officers’ appropriate conduct and investigations in response to complaints received by the public. They can hold agents accountable and issue administrative reprimands even before the courts announce a final verdict. Investigations into prisoner abuse lacked transparency and often lasted several months and, in some cases, more than a year.
Civilian authorities maintained control over police, although international organizations, such as Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), reported instances of detainees subjected to harsh physical treatment. The government lacked effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse, corruption, and impunity by police and prison officials, and there was little transparency in internal investigations. On 10 February 2017, AI published a report asserting that violations by security forces fostered a culture of impunity.
On a 20 February 2017 television show, a police captain who represented a national police union, defended torture as a means to get information necessary for police investigations. The AI report contended that only a few security officers were held to account despite repeated commitments by authorities to investigate all allegations of torture and other mistreatment. The Ministry of Interior responded that the National Security General Inspectorate had investigated one allegation of torture in both 2015 and 2016 and found it to be false.
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government mainly respected this right, although there were constraints. An independent press and a functioning democratic political system contributed to an environment generally conducive to this freedom. Some media outlets and civil society expressed concerns over security forces and other actors committing violence against journalists, occasional government interference in media, a perception the government or individual ministries were using negative media stories to discredit the work of civil society organizations, and the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few political parties or families.
Long touted as the Arab Spring's lone success story, Tunisians increasingly sensed that the revolution had failed to deliver on its promises and fix this imbalance. Between juggling the needs of Tunisia's international lenders and allaying local grievances, authorities managed to present a semblance of stability in the Arab world's only democracy.
By the end of 2017 the economy approached crisis point as the trade deficit soars and the currency slides. In October 2019 voters showed dissatisfaction with the major parties, first electing a deeply fractured Parliament and then political outsider Kais Saied as president.
After months of failed attempts to form a government, in January 2020 Elyes Fakhfakh became prime minister but was forced out within months over a corruption scandal. In August 2020 President Saied designated Hichem Mechichi as prime minister. He quickly fell out with the president and his fragile government lurches from crisis to crisis as it struggles to deal with the pandemic and the need for urgent reforms. A decade on from the revolution, in January 2021 new protests engulfed Tunisian cities in response to accusations of police violence and the devastation the COVID pandemic wrought on an already weak economy. In July 2021 President Saied dismissed the government, suspended Parliament and said he would rule alongside a new prime minister, citing an emergency section of the constitution. The move was dismissed by Ennahdha and others in Parliament as a coup.
Because of an inability to compromise, the parliament failed to move forward not only on the appointment of members of the Constitutional Court but also on permanently establishing other constitutionally mandated independent bodies. These include the High Independent Authority for the Elections, the Audiovisual Communication Authority, the National Authority on Good Governance and Fight Against Corruption, the Authority on Human Rights, and the Authority for Sustainable Development and the Rights of Future Generations.
In Tunisia, many who were once optimistic about the Jasmine Revolution’s potential to improve life in the country have become disillusioned and deeply disappointed. Tunisia’s political class has governed in ways that leave many of the citizens feeling much rage, ultimately giving rise to a populist politician.
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