Speakers in AJCS webinar: Tunisians’ pragmatic spirit is capable of ending the political crisis

From top left clockwise: Jaouhar Ben Mbarek, Ahmed Idris, Waad Zakaria, Noureddine Alaoui and Habib Bouajila. [Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera Centre for Studies and Al Jazeera Mubasher hosted a webinar to address the nature and causes of the current crisis of governance in Tunisia and the means of ending it. This crisis is considered one of the most dangerous crises that the country has experienced. Speakers agreed that if actors do not reach a middle ground in which perspectives are brought closer, it could become a disaster that affects the process of democratic transition in Tunisia and takes it back to authoritarianism.

The speakers also indicated that the causes of the crisis are not just constitutional or legal but have political depth relating to the desire of the forces controlling the scene to expand their authority, influence and gains at the expense of one another. They asserted that the conflict – especially between the presidency, the parliament and the government – led to the delay of the cabinet at a time that economic and social conditions in the country were extremely critical.

Although the image that was presented at the beginning of the discussion was bleak, the webinar concluded that with the “pragmatic spirit” that characterises the Tunisian people and political elite, the mediation of the Tunisian General Labour Union, and internal and external constraints, a solution will eventually be found even if it is temporary and only lasts until the next elections in 2024.

The webinar took place on Tuesday, 30 March 2021, under the title, “The Crisis of Governance in Tunisia: Causes, Manifestations and Possible Solutions.” In it, Al Jazeera Centre for Studies and Al Jazeera Mubasher hosted: Ahmed Idris, Director of the Centre of Mediterranean and International Studies, Tunisia; Habib Bouajila, professor of philosophy, writer and journalist; Noureddine Alaoui, professor of sociology at the Tunisian University; and Jaouhar Ben Mbarek, professor of constitutional law and political activist. Moderating the session was Al Jazeera Mubasher presenter Waad Zakaria.

Constitutional crisis

The webinar commenced with a presentation by Ahmed Idris in which he provided a reading of the crisis of governance that Tunisia is experiencing. He said, “There is a transformation in the form of the governance crisis in Tunisia. For the last ten years, we have experienced the aftermath of social and political crises between the political parties. Then, in the Constituent Assembly, there was a disagreement over the form of the constitution and the state we want. This was followed by various recurring crises, the most prominent of which led to the resignation of the Ennahda government. The current crisis, however, is between the institutions and political parties and is a conflict over power and position between the two heads of executive authority – sometimes between the executive authority and the legislative authority. Furthermore, there is a development in the form and nature of the current crisis, causing it to be ‘one of the most dangerous crises Tunisia has witnessed,’ because it paralyses institutions even if they appear to be functioning. The crisis fundamentally disrupts the normal operation of the state’s cabinets which, therefore, are unable to create policies, respond to citizens’ demands, or develop the economy in a way that renders it more productive. The situation is critical and worsening.”

However, there is also a constitutional-legislative cause behind the crisis, Idris maintained, that should be pointed out. Since the establishment of the current Tunisian regime, there has been conflict over power and the desire of the three authorities to expand their powers. In fact, the Tunisian society still believes in the necessity of having a single person at the top of the hierarchy who creates policies and works towards executing them. But this has not been possible since the revolution.

According to Idris, the constitution provides that the president of the republic becomes an arbiter in the case of conflict between the authorities. Those who framed the constitution clearly did not imagine that the president himself would one day become a party to the conflict. Therefore, there are no constitutional solutions to what Tunisia is now witnessing.

The third cause, Idris argued, is legislative. It is that the current electoral system does not enable clear majorities to form governments in a comfortable manner, causing the first winner in the elections to need an alliance with several parties in order to form a government. What we have seen is that the first winner in the elections is unable to form a government at all.

A political crisis with socioeconomic manifestations

On his part, Jaouhar Ben Mbarek shed light on the effect of the absence of the constitutional court on the exacerbation of the governance crisis in Tunisia. “This absence,” he said, “caused the complex, intertwined and crisis-laden political game to be managed without an arbiter and rules, which encouraged the exacerbation of the political crisis.”

However, the crisis, he believes, was a political crisis before it became a constitutional one, and its starting point was the ongoing struggle between the balances of power as well as the existence of a trend that is trying to take the country back to the pre-revolution era and authoritarian rule. The issue of democracy, the peaceful transfer of power, governance and the fight against corruption have caused a rift in the Tunisian public and remain far from a comprehensive societal consensus, which represents the depth of the first crisis.

The other depth of the crisis from his perspective is economic and social. The Tunisian people do not feel that the democratic transition resulted in what they had been waiting for in terms of economic modernisation, social relationships, combating rentierism and economic dependence, the distinction between parties and the elimination of the vast differences between them, fighting poverty and unemployment, and so on. They feel that the democratic system was unable to sort out its economic and social consequences. This is the “heart of the matter.” He also pointed out “that many businessmen with foreign associations are preventing this desired economic and social transformation."

The impact of the presidential delay on the exacerbation of the crisis

“We are looking for logical sentences to analyse an illogical situation,” said Noureddine Alaoui to commence his presentation. In it, he revealed that personal disputes dictate the behaviour of the parties to the crisis. Furthermore, he explained that each party holds on which ever article of the constitution that serves its interests, failing to seek solutions to the crisis in order to get the country of this illogical situation.

According to Alaoui, the cause for crisis does not come from the parliament or the government of Hichem Mechichi, but from the president as he wanted to have an exclusive reading of the constitution and procedural issues related to government validation. The parliament indulged him by adopting a reconciliatory approach. The president’s position, Alaoui said, caused the current disruption whose symptoms include running the country with the minimum number of ministers and assigning the duties of one ministry to another minister to keep the ball rolling even if just barely. The disruption, then “does not come from the executive authority - i.e. the government – or the parliament, which always made positive gestures towards the president…The most recent of these was an attempt to ‘circumvent’ the amendment to the law governing the constitutional court, as there were delays in the first text that prevented a smooth election by the parliament for the four members of the constitutional court. Now, we are witnessing a discussion that indicates that the text was not ratified, which means that the crisis will continue.”

The world’s regional and international role

In his presentation, Habib Bouajila held that the 2011 and 2014 elections were unable to lay the foundations for political stability and facilitate the solution to economic and social problems. Then came the 2019 elections in which Tunisians voted in a manner than revealed their desire to go back to the demands and fundamental issues of the revolution. The results brought about a president from outside the existing political and partisan context and drew attention to parties known for their bias towards the revolution. Even Qalb Tounes, which represents the previous regime, had voters due to its anti-poverty discourse, suggesting that it is no longer “the voice of the old state.” This new disposition should have prompted economic and social achievement, but it did not.

In this framework, he stressed that the role of the regional factor in the obstruction of the Tunisian democratic transition cannot be overlooked, especially with the emergence of populism at the global level, the return of anti-Arab Spring discourses and the interventions of numerous states in the region complicating the Tunisian situation and calling for the dissolution of the parliament and the return to the presidential system based on the rule of an individual. These states’ discourse resulted in ideological polarisation; and conflicts erupted in the heart of the political parties that were supposed to be affiliated with the revolution.

Bouajila added in his reading of the causes of the political crisis that the situation in Libya negatively affected conditions in Tunisia because of the repression and overthrow of the 17 February revolution. Alongside that, he concluded, the economic lobbies that fear the status quo thrive whenever democratic transition in the country is disrupted.

Proposed solutions

Regarding the solutions that the speakers envision, Idris indicated that the solution is in the hands of the president because he is responsible for the problem and should strive to pass the Constitutional Court Act. “I do not see a solution in the short term because a solution passes through the amendment of the constitution, and that is almost impossible. It also requires the amendment of a group of laws, which requires a political consensus that does not exist right now, as well as many concessions, which I do not believe the political parties [to the crisis] are prepared to make,” he said.

Before concluding his vision of the solution, he stated, “perhaps if the mediating parties such as the Tunisian General Labour Union were able to achieve a convergence of views between the actors in the crisis, it could be the last opportunity before [a disaster erupts].”

Ben Mbarek, however, believes the only way out is through dialogue, adding that Tunisia needs a “national salvation government led by a consensual political figure between the president and the parliamentary majority” that comes with a roadmap related to the necessary economic and social reforms.

Ben Mbarek also believes that a political, economic and social “truce” between the actors is needed. In the context of this truce, a “stability pact” that affects the state’s sovereign institutions and curbs calls for the isolation of the president of the republic, the president of the parliament or the prime minister can be accomplished. This truce would last three years until the next elections in 2024. Concurrently, he concluded, Tunisia needs a new government “on the basis of consensus, not defeat.”

Alaoui, on the other hand, likened the solution to a football game, explaining, “we are watching a game in the field that resembles a football game. One of the players caught the ball with his hands and refused to continue playing until the other team loses its goalkeeper so that he can score as many goals as he wants. The way out is for this player to return the ball to the field and continue playing according to the rules of the game with a little bit of sportsmanship (patriotism). The country can no longer tolerate this crisis. Tunisia and its people remain but the politicians do not. If the players want to continue playing, they must do so with sportsmanship and without hurting the country.”

Finally, Bouajila explained that the way out of what the country is currently experiencing is what he called a “pragmatic Tunisia,” i.e. that the Tunisian elite and people are distinguished by a “pragmatic spirit” that does not want to always suffer and that could enable Tunisians to perfectly balance between “gain and redemption.” “If we were to describe ourselves negatively,” he continued, “rather than pragmatic, we would say ‘the balance of weakness cannot enable anyone to destruct democratic transition but pushes Tunisians to sit at the table.’ We will walk down a road with many pitfalls and fog. But in the end we can always find a solution in Tunisia, and reach outcomes that allow it to find its way, move away from the brink of the abyss, have the necessary courage to accomplish the last steps of democratic transition, and consolidate this approach whose value the Tunisians recognise.”