Tunisia is stuck in a permanent state of emergency

Avenue Habib Bourguiba, a clock tower in main square in central Tunis. December 26, 2022. Photo by  Saoussen Ben Cheikh. Used with permission.

Tunisia has again extended the state of national emergency for another year until the end of 2023. The country, known for its tourism, has been under a state of emergency almost continuously since the Tunisian revolution in 2011. Unfortunately, the exception appears to be becoming permanent, especially with the Tunisian president Kaïs Saïed recent dismantling of democratic checks and balances

Political blockage 

Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, is currently grappling with a deep-seated political crisis characterized by a revolving door of 10 different governments in 12 years. Worsening economic woes have compounded this political crisis. High inflation, rising unemployment, stark regional inequalities, and widespread corruption are just some of the daunting challenges that have plagued the North African nation. These difficulties have made everyday life increasingly difficult for Tunisians, who are now confronted with soaring prices, rising insecurity, and shortages of some essential commodities such as coffee, milk, bread, and more. With no clear pathway forward, Tunisians are voting with their feet and leaving the country, resulting in brain drain. This downward spiral is leading a growing number of people to cross into Europe illegally. Kaes, a waiter in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, bitterly told Global Voices:

Tunisia is like a sinking boat. As it is collectively capsizing, people are looking for individual solutions to secure their future. They are trying to run away so they don’t sink with the boat.

Illegal migration and the search for legal pathways to more prosperous shores have become common, affecting people of all backgrounds and ages.    

President Saïed, saving the country from “imminent peril”

When Tunisians elected President Kaïs Saïed in 2019, they did so with a great deal of hope. He presented himself as a virtuous candidate, above the fray of political parties, and especially above the Islamic Ennahda, which Tunisians had grown so weary of. He promised to wage war against corruption and to redistribute wealth and power to the poor. In 2021, still riding high on significant popularity in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and political turmoil, he declared that Tunisia was on the brink of “imminent peril.”  

He granted himself full constitutional powers, dissolving the government and parliament. While many opponents and analysts viewed this as a “coup d’etat,” many Tunisians were relieved and saw it as a necessary step to restore order to a country with a long history of strongmen in power. Khadija, a retired civil servant, told Global Voices:

We reached a stalemate with a parliamentary democracy. The country had become ungovernable, with a parliament resembling a circus in which fights and even assaults were commonplace. Granting full power to Kaïs Saïed is not ideal, but for the time being, it is what we need. The disappointment is that we haven't seen anything improve since, in fact, things are falling apart more every day. 

A permanent state of emergency

Chronology of the state of Emergency in Tunisia. Infographic by Saoussen Ben Cheikh

At the outset of the Tunisian revolution in January 2011, the authorities declared a state of emergency. Although a state of emergency is intended to be a temporary, exceptional measure in response to an exceptional situation that threatens the very existence of a nation — be it a natural disaster, civil unrest, war, or a pandemic that cannot be addressed through ordinary means — in Tunisia, it has become a permanent feature of governance. This has granted sweeping powers to the executive, transforming the state of emergency into a tool of perpetual rule. 

In its current form, the bill is incredibly far-reaching. Under the state of emergency, individual freedoms such as the right to assemble, express oneself, or travel can be suspended at the executive’s discretion, without prior judicial authorization. There is no limit to the number of times the state of emergency can be declared or renewed, and there is no set duration for it. Shockingly, the state of emergency has been extended 51 times since 2011, with each extension typically lasting two to three months. However, in 2021, Kaïs Saïed extended the state of emergency for an unprecedented 11 consecutive months, from January 31 to December 31 2023, the longest period ever applied. The decision to invoke or renew the state of emergency rests exclusively in the hands of the executive power, without requiring parliamentary approval or scrutiny from a Constitutional Court, which has yet to be established.

Since its declaration in 2011, the state of emergency has granted security forces unchecked powers to restrict people’s movement and impose house arrests, often using excessive and unjustified force with no just cause. Under the guise of “maintaining security,” the state of emergency has targeted a wide spectrum of citizens, particularly political figures, activists, lawyers, journalists, businesspeople, and other dissenting voices. 

The Tunisian authorities’ practices have sparked a wave of criticism both nationally and internationally. An opposition party, The Republican People’s Union, declared that:

We don’t see any reason for the continuation of the state of emergency. It is meant for an imminent danger. It can’t even be used for terrorism as it exists also elsewhere and other countries haven’t used it to confiscate people’s freedom… The state of emergency has only been extended to give free hands to the interior minister to settle political scores without accountability or oversight. 

A UN report urges the Tunisian authorities to “take immediate steps to end the abusive and illegal practice under international law of systematically extending the exceptional powers granted to law enforcement under the state of emergency, which de facto normalize what should be a legal regime of exception.”

In the midst of economic and political fatigue, Kaïs Saïed’s recent power grab through constitutional amendments, the formation of a puppet parliament, and his taking control over the judiciary signal yet another attempt to hinder the political transition. As a constitutional law professor turned president, Saïed has now enshrined extensive executive powers into law. This normalization of the abnormal state of emergency places the president at the pinnacle of power, leading a university student to tell DW that “Kais Saied has transported Tunisia back to pre-revolution era.”   

Beneath the surface, two antagonistic currents were running in parallel. While the country was adopting progressive ideals, such as a free press, fair elections, and a new constitution in 2014, it was also, with the extension of the state of emergency, continuing to operate like in the old Ben Ali's authoritarian regime. With the difference that there is now a vibrant  civil society and free press. Though fragile and  under pressure to maintain a counter power, they are also heavily dependent on western agenda and funding. 

The international community’s response will be critical to Tunisia’s democratic trajectory. As the lone success story of the Arab Spring, most international players do not want to see it fail. International powers can play an important role in calling out democratic backsliding, providing financial incentives to return to a democratic path (such as an IMF loan), and assisting democratic forces in pushing back and keeping Tunisia on its democratic track. 

But nothing is certain. The actions of Western powers, driven largely by geopolitical concerns, may lean toward accommodating Arab strongmen out of cold strategic necessity. With the news front in the continent in Ukraine, priorities and resources are shifting toward combating Russian influence within and outside Europe. The priority may be short-term stability, even if it means closing eyes to dictatorship.

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