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Tunisia between Islamism and the ‘Delta variant’

On Sunday 25 July, on a day dedicated to celebrating the country’s independence, in a move that surprised observers and diplomats alike, Tunisian President Kais Sayed relieved Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who had been in office since September 2020, of his duties. He suspended Parliament’s works and dismissed the Interior and Defence Ministers.

Mechichi, as well as the Speaker of Parliament Rachid Gannouchi, are members of the Islamist Ennhada party which, with 25% of the votes, holds the majority of Parliamentary seats and since 2011, when it returned to legality, has become a powerful political force that has attempted – without resorting to violence – to give secular Tunisia a progressive turn towards the most militant Islamism.

As is well known, Tunisia was the first Muslim country to be crossed by the stormy wind of the “Arab Springs” when, in December 2010, a young fruit and vegetable street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in a square in the centre of Tunis to protest against the corruption of President Ben Ali’s government, in power for 23 years.

The demonstrations that followed the young street vendor’s death led to the ousting of President Ben Ali in January 2011, who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia with his entire family, as well as to the fall of Mohamed Gannouchi’s government and, in October of the same year,  to new elections which saw the success of the religious party, Ennhada, which had been banned by Ben Ali. This triggered a series of political innovations that led – in January 2014 – to the approval of a new constitution that, despite strong Parliamentary pressure from the most radical Islamists, can be considered one of the most progressive in the whole North Africa.

In the five years that followed, Tunisia – amid political and economic ups and downs – maintained a degree of internal stability that enabled it to dampen those Islamist pressures that, in other countries of the region, had turned the so-called “springs” into nightmares marked by unrest and bloody civil conflicts.

Ennhada was gradually integrated into a sort of ‘constitutional arc’, despite the protests of its most radical militants, and its most charismatic leader, Rachid Gannouchi, was even appointed Speaker of Tunis Parliament.

In recent years, however, the country has been afflicted by the problem of corruption of its entire ruling class, including Islamists. It is on a programme platform to fight this phenomenon resolutely and relentlessly that in October 2019 an eminent Law Professor, Kais Sayed, was elected President of the Republic.

In August 2020, President Sayed appointed Mechhichi, a moderate who had already been his political advisor, to form a technocratic government, “free from parties’ influence”.

The situation has seen the establishment of what the Tunisian media call the ‘government of the three Presidents’, namely Sayed (President of the Republic), Mechichi (President of the Council) and Gannouchi who, as Speaker of Parliament, tries to make the majority presence of the Ennhada Islamists in the legislative branch count.

The equilibria are fragile and are made even more precarious by the heavy social and economic consequences of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country.

Since the beginning of this year, Tunisia has been in a state of creeping crisis: the political uncertainty caused by the perennial search for a difficult political and governmental has been compounded by ideological and personal tensions between the “three Presidents”, whose positions on the instruments with which to tackle the pandemic and the economic crisis have gradually exacerbated to the point of producing a situation of political and legislative paralysis that is completely unsustainable.

In recent weeks, the ‘Delta variant’ of the pandemic has caused a spike in infections, causing further damage not only to the population and the health system, but also and above all to the economy of a country that is seeing the possibility of boosting its gross domestic product with tourism disappear for the second year running. For decades tourism has been an irreplaceable source of livelihood and enrichment for large sections of the population. The pandemic crisis has acted as a multiplier of the economic crisis, with the progressive and seemingly unstoppable loss of dinar value and the increasingly acute disparity between the increasingly poor and the increasingly rich people.

The government’s approach to the pandemic has been nothing short of disastrous. While the World Health Organisation declared Tunisia ‘the most infected country in Africa’, the government saw the change of five Health Ministers in succession, each of whom proposed confusing and uncoordinated emergency measures (lockdown, curfew), which were completely ineffective in containing the spread of the virus and the high levels of mortality.

The often improvised and contradictory confinement rules have exasperated the population, who has taken sides with the two parts of the political front: on the one hand, Ennhada’s supporters, who are convinced that the technocratic part of the government is to blame for the health and economic crisis; on the other hand, the secularists, who accuse the Islamists of being the cause of everything and of playing the “so much the worse, so much the better” game to permanently destabilise the institutions and turn Tunisia into an Islamic State.

Ennhada itself has not remained unscathed by internal quarrels and divisions, between the ‘hardliners’ who want the party to return to its militant origins and those who prefer to ‘stay in power and rule’ who – as is currently happening in Italy – prefer to seek stability in the situation and maintain their power positions.

Last May, Abdellhamid Jelassi, the Head of the Ennhada “Council of Doctrine”, resigned accusing the party leader and Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Gannouchi, of delaying the date of the Congress in order to avoid his defenestration and the appointment of a successor closer to the original ideas of the movement and to the most radical tenets of Islamic doctrine which, according to the orthodox members, have been betrayed by “those who want to rule” for the sake of power.

It was in that situation of economic, political and social crisis that, invoking Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, President Sayed dismissed the Prime Minister along with other Cabinet members and suspended Parliament’s works for thirty days.

Many people within the country and abroad, starting with Erdogan’s Turkey, shouted the coup.

In Ankara, the spokesman of the AKP, President Erdogan’s party, defined President Sayed’s actions as “illegitimate” and threatened sanctions against those who “inflict this evil on our brothers and sisters in Tunisia”, while the Turkish Foreign Minister more cautiously confined himself to expressing his “deep concern” over the suspension of Parliamentary activities.

It is significant, however, that on the national front, after the first street protests by Islamists and Ennhada supporters, which were immediately harshly repressed by the police, and after the closure of the offices of the Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has always fomented Islamist demands, as well as the dismissal of the top management of the state TV, the “crowd” in the streets was dominated by demonstrators who favourably viewed the President’s initiative which, in their opinion, put an end to the activities of that part of the national government that proved totally unable of tackling the pandemic emergency and its negative social and economic consequences.

According to those who claim that what happened on July 25 was not a coup, President Sayed did not dissolve the Tunisian government: he confined himself to dismissing incapable Ministers and leaving those of the ‘technocratic’ wing in place, in the hope of producing a government turn while waiting for Parliament to reopen at the end of August.

The situation is in flux, but it seems to be moving towards stabilisation, which will be speeded up if the Mediterranean countries and the European Union move quickly to help Tunisia get out of the doldrums of the pandemic and economic crisis.

Helping the Tunisian authorities pragmatically to resolve the political crisis is also in the interest of all the countries bordering the Mediterranean, starting with Italy, not only for reasons of good political neighbourhood, but also to prevent a possible Tunisian chaos from triggering a new and uncontrolled migration push. This is what is currently happening in Afghanistan, where, following the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the United States and NATO allies, the Taliban are coming back, with the first consequence of a mass exodus of Afghans to Turkey via Iran.

According to the UNRHC, the United Nations refugee agency, thousands of refugees from Afghanistan are moving towards Turkey at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 people a day: a phenomenon which could soon affect Italy, too.

Giancarlo Elia Valori