Most commentators would argue that Tunisia has been the only success story of the so-called Arab spring. The validity of such a statement would depend on the definition of success.
The success that most people might have in mind could mean transition to representative governance without civil war and violence. To some extent, that is true; however, there are other countries in the region who managed to make critical political change without armed rebellion and violence. In every other aspect that matters, however, Tunisia is less of a success story. By most measures, the social and economic conditions of the country have not improved and declined. Importantly, most of the difficult conditions experienced by ordinary Tunisians are direct results of the political gridlock enabled by the “success story” aspect.
More than ten years ago, the political order in Tunisia was transformed after a fruit seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire to protest poverty, corruption, and abuse of power by a political regime that relied on nepotism and cronyism to control the people it governed. Bouazizi’s drastic action brought many Tunisian young men and women who had similar grievances to the streets, forcing the long serving president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali into exile. The political void was quickly filled by social groups who opposed the two men who consolidated power and created constitutions and institutions that enabled them to dominate their opponents–Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Among these social groups that stepped into the open political arena was the Islamist organization that went by a number of names, most recently, Ennahda. Its leader, Rached Ghannouchi, who exiled himself to London when Ben Ali started to go after his opponents in the 1990’s, returned triumphantly. He found a different country, prompting him to declare his intention to step aside and pass the torch to the young women and men who succeeded where his movement failed–removing a corrupt regime. Then, at 69 years of age, he promised to help stabilize the country and then retire. Yet, here he is, at 79 years of age, battling to stay relevant and keep the movement he founded more than 40 years ago in power. The clinging to power is proving to be so enticing, blinding even those who fought against it most of their lives.
Since the fall of the regime of Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia had more presidents than it had since independence. Ennahda movement, however, won a majority in every representative body that was elected since 2011, albeit a steadily declining majority. During the last round of elections, Ennahda preferred candidates for the office of the president lost to the independent constitutional law professor, Kais Saied. As expected, however, its candidates performed well competing for seats in the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (parliament), winning 52 out of the 217 seats. However, although the win allowed it to form the largest block in the parliament, which allowed it to have a say in the selection of the prime minister, the result underscored its declining popularity. When it competed in the 2011 elections for the Constituent Assembly, Ennahda won 89/217 seats (41%, 1st); it won only 69/217 seats (31%, 2nd) in the 2014 Assembly of the Representatives of the People, and, in the 2019 elections, captured just 52 seats (23%, 1st).
Being the largest or the second largest block in every legislative body since 2011 allowed Ennahda to have a definitive say in who would be prime minister, the most powerful executive office in the country. Ennahda’s ability to win regional and local elections is the driving force behind its insistence on a constitution that reduces the power of the president, limiting the authority of the office holder to control over the armed forces and foreign policy. But choosing such a system of power, limited the power of the executive branch, made it beholden to the legislative branch (not the people), slowed its reaction to national emergency, and made it more focused on appeasing parliamentarians instead of solving problems faced by the people.
The governing system in Tunisia was created through negotiations among the powerful political groups that emerged after 2011. Ennahda was the dominant force during this period, and it should take credit and blame for the outcomes. The problem is, as public sentiment and economic conditions seem to suggest, there are more blame than credit to be claimed.
Ennahda’s leaders knew that they are popular in certain provinces and regions but lacked the support that would allow them to win national open contests. That knowledge led them to limit the power of office holders who could win national elections. Their preferences were worked out in the constitution and resulted in an elected president without real executive power and an elected legislature with immense power over the executive branch. In other words, the balance of power under the new constitution shifted dramatically in favor of the legislative branch. With failure of politicians to establish a powerful independent constitutional court, the third branch of government, the current crisis was unavoidable, and, importantly, created a path towards abuse of power.
The constitution gives the president power to declare a national emergency and suspend the activities of the parliament for 30 days, renewable, but reviewable only by the constitutional court, which does not exist. This path, potentially, allows the president to appoint cabinet members, including the prime minister, to the executive branch without a say from the legislature. That seems to be the path taken by the current president under the emergency created by the pandemic and the poor economic conditions that went unaddressed since 2011.
What is the path forward?
There is no doubt that the current system of governance in Tunisia is not working. A constitutional change might be a necessary step. The executive branch should be answerable directly to the people, not to the legislature. That means, the functions and power of the elected president must be revised to convert the institution into an executive presidency, making it more efficient and agile to meet the needs of a fast-changing world.
The legislative body can be strengthened by making it more focused on setting policies, enacting laws, and managing resources long term. Moreover, an elected executive president and a newly elected legislature should agree on a formula for appointing judges to staff the critically needed independent constitutional court. Once all these pieces are in place, Tunisia would have three co-equal independent branches of government designed to produce specific outcomes in different areas, minimizing gridlock, conflict, and redundancy.