How Tunisia Can Save Its Economy

It’s all about democracy, stupid.

In December 2010 and January 2011, the Tunisian people inspired the world during a 28-day pro-democracy uprising known as the Jasmine Revolution, which deposed longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The Jasmine Revolution is widely seen as having catalyzed the broader Arab Spring, and for years thereafter, Tunisia stood out as the sole democratic success story to come out of that tumult. The country adopted a progressive and inclusive constitution and then held free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014 and 2019. In 2015, Tunisia’s four leading civil society groups won a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in securing this new constitutional order.

Tunisia’s good news story has since lost its sheen. Just over a decade after the Jasmine Revolution, democracy in the country is struggling to survive. In a series of brazen moves over the past year, Tunisian President Kais Saied—who was democratically elected in 2019—has dismissed parliament; transferred its powers to himself, assuming full executive authority; dissolved a top judicial body that served as a watchdog; and stacked the country’s electoral commission with loyalists. Initially, Tunisians largely backed Saied’s moves. The president claimed he was trying to fix a paralyzed system and, when pressed by critics, pointed to pending electoral reforms and scheduled parliamentary elections in December of this year.

Last month, we led a bipartisan, bicameral U.S. congressional delegation to Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, to see where the country goes from here. We met civil society leaders who conveyed deep frustration over years of political gridlock and corruption in their country. After a decade of democracy, Tunisians’ core demands of “jobs, freedom, and dignity”—a rallying cry of the Jasmine Revolution—have still not been met. Instead, rising unemployment, falling living standards, and food and fuel shortages have undermined public faith in democratic institutions and left many Tunisians desperately seeking a different path forward. In this context, it is easy to understand their support for Saied.

Just weeks before our visit, on July 25, Saied codified his power grab through a referendum on a new constitution that he had personally drafted. This new constitution takes power from the parliament and concentrates authority in the presidency, institutionalizing what Saied has already done. It also allows the president to dismiss parliament at any time, eliminates parliament’s impeachment authority, and includes concerning national security and morality clauses that allow the state to curtail rights. Law professor Sadok Belaid, who oversaw a previous draft of the new constitution but has disavowed the final version, told Tunisian media that the document could “pave the way for a disgraceful dictatorship.”

While the plebiscite succeeded, low voter turnout of 30.5 percent and mass boycotts from civil society show growing opposition to Saied’s attacks on democracy. Perhaps that is because Saied’s reforms have cost Tunisia much of its democratic progress without addressing its economic challenges. This should not come as a surprise. While centralized rule can be appealing to break through a political stalemate, democracy remains the best way to ensure personal liberties, economic growth, sustainable development, and security in any country.

Tunisia now stands on the brink of economic collapse. The country’s currency, the dinar, is in freefall, and its bond rating has plummeted. Food and fuel prices are surging, thanks to shortages in key staples like flour and rice caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Overall unemployment stands at nearly 17 percent, and youth unemployment is almost twice that. Poverty levels also continue to rise, and corruption and cronyism run rampant.

If Tunisia has any hope of addressing its economic crisis, Saied will need to undertake serious structural reforms and secure broad public support. Tunisian economists have long recommended actions, such as the privatization of state-owned enterprises and the deregulation of commercial activity, to boost private sector development and enterprise growth. Instead of listening to them, however, Saied has doubled down on public sector spending and turned to foreign loans to sustain Tunisia’s economy. As of December 2021, public debt comprised 80 percent of the country’s GDP, and default is on the horizon.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is currently negotiating a bailout for Tunisia, contingent on painful austerity measures and subsidy cuts. Implementing these will require the support of Tunisia’s powerful labor unions—including the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT)—as well as other sectors of society. So far, the UGTT has been reluctant to enter the political fray and has largely avoided directly criticizing Saied’s actions. But in June, the UGTT held a one-day national strike against the government—its first during the Saied administration—suggesting it may shed its apolitical stance. 

Ultimately, strengthening Tunisia’s economy requires reviving its democracy. Studies show that democratization can increase a country’s GDP by 20 percent over time. And while it is possible to execute reforms without democracy, leaders are much more likely to do so if driven—and held accountable—by a popular mandate. Saied is a case in point: Though he ran on an anti-corruption, pro-equity platform, the president has made little to no progress in those areas and instead remains fixated on centralizing power. By refusing to develop an economic agenda—and concurrently moving in an undemocratic direction—he is alienating foreign donors who could offer his country critical aid lifelines. In other words, Saied is pushing Tunisia toward failure.

Donors like the United States could be critical to helping Tunisia weather the IMF measures’ immediate impacts—and thus also securing Tunisians’ buy-in. For example, since 2016, the U.S. government has worked with Tunisian authorities on a nearly $500 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact program that invests significantly in Tunisia and supports port and infrastructure development. But that compact, approved in June 2021, is now under review because of Saied’s actions, and the MCC’s board will make a final determination on whether to reallocate the funding this fall. U.S. President Joe Biden has also proposed slashing U.S. economic and security assistance to the Tunisian government. Explaining the suggested cuts, a U.S. State Department spokesperson told Al-Monitor that they “reflect our significant concerns over continuing democratic backsliding.” Congress has endorsed these cuts in forthcoming budget legislation, and these cuts are likely to remain in any final bill unless there are dramatic changes to Tunisia’s democratic institutions. It’s unclear whether these cuts will convince Saied to change course; either way, their impact will be felt by the Tunisian people.

As a former jurist, constitutional law professor, and political independent, Saied brings a sense of legitimacy to Tunisian politics that his predecessors have lacked. He projects an image of incorruptibility and stern moral authority. When we met with him, he justified his actions as necessary to fix political paralysis, fight corruption, and return sovereignty to the people from crooked politicians. It was easy to see how his populist message finds appeal in Tunisia’s dire economic conditions. However, in his efforts to centralize power under a strong executive authority, Saied misses the point. The separation of powers is what holds officials accountable and prevents abuses of power. There is no substitute for institutional checks and balances.

As recent threats to the U.S. electoral system show, democracy can be a difficult and fragile process. But it is the only governance system that reflects the will of the people. The Tunisian people fought for democracy during the Arab Spring because they believed it was the best way to achieve a prosperous and stable future. Recent polls from Arab Barometer suggest Tunisians still feel this way despite frustrations with their political system…

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