Tunisia, the North African country from which the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ first erupted, has been plunged back into political and economic chaos with the sacking in July of the Prime Minister, Hichem Mechichi, by the President, Kais Saied. Parliament has been suspended, MPs have been stripped of immunity and there have been multiple arrests of political opponents on corruption charges. Saied imposed a month’s curfew, since extended indefinitely, and banned meetings in public of more than three people.
The immediate trigger for the current crisis was the government’s shambolic handling of the Covid pandemic. There have been over one hundred thousand cases of infections and nearly four thousand deaths in the country, whilst only 11% have been vaccinated. The belated launch of twenty nine vaccination sites descended into chaos as frustrated crowds stampeded. The Prime Minister blamed the Health Minister for the botched roll-out and sacked him, and then the President in turn blamed the Prime Minister. Days later the Prime Minister was himself sacked and Parliament shut down. The army is now in charge of dealing with Covid.
In the aftermath of the ousting in 2011 of the former dictator, Ben Ali, there followed a period of major upheavals as different factions vied for power. There was a rash of protests and assassinations sparked off in part by tensions between the governing Islamist Ennahda party and the mostly secular protesters. In 2014 a new Constitution was approved by referendum which established a power-sharing agreement resting on a ruling troika comprising President, Prime Minister and Parliament. It is the collapse of that troika, with the President sacking the Prime Minister and suspending Parliament, that has upset the applecart.
The pandemic has hit Tunisia hard, and it comes after earlier blows, notably the devastating terrorist attacks on tourist locations in 2015 and 2016. The position of the governing Ennadha party is ambiguous. Ennadha, led by the Parliamentary Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, began life as an Islamist movement, but has latterly rebranded itself as a ‘Muslim Democracy’.
In government Ennadha belatedly took measures to curb the rise of jihadi terrorism, but was too late to prevent 1,500 Tunisians going to Libya and 3,000 going to Iraq and Syria to train with Islamic State. In 2015 and 2016 there were three big terrorist attacks, against the Bardo Museum, a beach resort in Sousse and the city of Ben Gardane on the border with Libya.
The once-booming tourist industry, still reeling from the terrorist attacks and now enduring a freeze on travel imposed by the pandemic, itself speaks volumes about how Tunisia’s economy is out of kilter. The hugely disproportionate role played by tourism in the economy, whilst other sectors are left to wither on the vine, leads to a grotesque situation where water supplies are diverted from parched fields in order to fill hotel pools and water golf courses.
Underlying all of Tunisia’s serial crises are the perennial issues of poverty, unemployment, debt, corruption and an economy skewed to serve imperialism and its comprador leeches – that is to say, all the problems which led to the downfall of Ben Ali and which are no nearer resolution ten years later. The economy shrank by 8% last year, unemployment rose to 17% and the supposed ‘cure’ for this state of affairs is to extend borrowing from the IMF, thereby getting deeper into a debt trap. A current bone of contention is the possibility of a further IMF loan of $4bn, variously seen as a lifeline or a poisoned chalice.
Whilst the country is still on the rack of the pandemic, the IMF is already looking beyond the health emergency to sing the virtues of ‘supporting private sector-led growth’, reducing energy subsidies ‘in a socially conscious way’ and containing ‘the civil service wage bill’, whilst confessing that ‘progress on structural reforms necessary to make a dent in high unemployment and poverty has remained elusive’.
In the ten years that have elapsed since Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself, that ‘dent in high unemployment and poverty’ has grown ever more ‘elusive’. Bouazizi killed himself because the local council banned him from selling his fruit and vegetables, his sole source of income, and the police confiscated his merchandise. With starvation staring him in the face, he took his own life in an act of utter desperation. As news of this young man’s tragic death spread, it ignited the anger of the masses, sparking the huge demonstrations which forced Ben Ali out.
This time it is the pandemic that has brought matters to a head. It remains to be seen how the Tunisian masses respond this time around.