Posted by Ali Qutmiera on March 30, 2020 in Blog

Tunisian factory workers opted to isolate themselves to better guarantee their ability to keep making protective gear Tunisian factory workers in self-imposed isolation to guarantee
their ability to make more masks (CONSOMED/AFP)

COVID-19 is first and foremost a human tragedy. It has dramatically impacted the lives of millions of people across the globe. Its long-term implications have yet to be seen, but the pandemic has certainly reshaped social norms in an alarming magnitude. In the case of Tunisia, where coronavirus cases have increased by 50 percent in the past week alone, the COVID-19 pandemic will prove to be the first major test for its newly elected president, Kais Saied. 

Following the elections in the fall of 2019, Tunisia has encountered great difficulty in forming a government, as political parties have been engaged in a tug of war trying to preserve the democratic gains of the last decade while creating new parliamentary coalitions to form a new government. To make matters more complex for Tunisia’s nascent democracy, at the helm of this new government is a sixty-one-year-old constitutional law professor, with no prior governmental experience and no political party. These dynamics will certainly test the Tunisian government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has rattled even the most stable of democracies.

The Coronavirus Pandemic and a New President 

To address the challenges of the pandemic, Tunisia announced the allocation of 2.5 billion dinars ($850 million) to combat the social and economic effects resulting from the measures to contain the virus’s spread.This was president Saied’s first opportunity to deliver on the platform and commitment to reforms and social protections that he championed in last year’s presidential elections. Saied won a landslide victory taking a 73 percent win over his rival, Nabil Karoui, who was in custody after being arrested on money laundering charges for much of his presidential campaign. Saied’s anti-corruption platform clearly resonated with the vast majority of Tunisians, but it was the youth who carried him to victory. His low-key, professorial demeanor and his steadfast commitment to an anti-corruption platform resonated with a Tunisian public eager to concretize the goals of the revolution. An alternative to the status quo, Kais Saied personified the anti-establishment and positioned himself as a reformist leader. As far back as 2011, he proposed far-reaching decentralization reforms that aim to empower elected local councils and make the national legislature more representative.

In 2018, the Arab American Institute Foundation (AAIF) spearheaded the U.S. MENA Experiential Partnership, a one-of-a-kind, pioneering initiative supported by the U.S. State Department Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which aims to immerse and provide newly-elected officials with exposure to the types of government entities that engender transparency, good governance, and financial independence. This pioneering experiential program pairs distinguished current and former Arab American public servants and policy practitioners with officials in the Middle East and North Africa region, for an innovative, year-long, hands-on learning and co-mentorship exchange. The program champions three core themes: decentralization, participatory governance, and public-private partnerships, and argues the case for the importance of volunteer and public service. Tunisia’s selection for the inaugural cohort of the Experiential Partnership is a recognition of the country’s progress and commitment to democracy, transparency and an empowered citizenry. 

Despite Tunisia’s great strides towards democratizing its political governance structure, the pace and hopes of Saied’s democratic reforms push have been limited in the absence of strong party backing, and further complicated by the coronavirus crisis. Saied’s electoral victory was clearly symbolic and emblematic of Tunisians’ steadfast commitment to democratic governance. Yet, with difficulty in coalition building amongst political parties and a failure to produce a cohesive government Saied’s ability to lead Tunisia out of economic stagnation and the remnants of the old regime remains unclear.    

“It’s the Economy, Stupid”

Tunisia is one of the world’s youngest democracies and the only Arab country to emerge relatively stable and democratic from the slew of Arab Spring revolutions. Saied’s election marked only the second time in history that Tunisians had the opportunity to vote for a president in democratic elections. The biggest area of concern for most Tunisian voters was the economy. Tunisia currently registers an unemployment rate of more than 15 percent, along with experiencing weak growth of 1.1 percent during the first half of 2019. Tunisians also demanded a more responsive government that prioritizes citizen’s socio-economic needs. As part of the U.S. MENA Experiential Partnership, AAIF has been working with 14 elected officials in 3 different municipalities, who were part of Tunisia’s historic 2018 that ushered-in the first democratically elected municipal officials. These inspiring municipal officials have been working to address some of the most urgent issues facing their communities, from constituent service delivery, cultural preservation of the Madinahs, unemployment, to civic education amongst many other issues. AAIF was delighted to host a congressional briefing last fall where some of these municipal officials had the opportunity to share their success stories and challenges.

President Saied will be combating a plethora of issues, which are now made more complicated, given the inevitable burdens fighting the coronavirus pandemic will entail. This will certainly test just how responsive the Tunisian government can actually be. So far, to ease the adverse impacts of an imminent recession, the Tunisian central bank cut its key interest rate by 100 basis points. The government has also announced plans to delay repayment of low-income employee loans, postpone taxes on small and medium-sized businesses, and delay tax debt collection. The Tunisian government aims to provide 450 million dinars in financial aid to poor families and to citizens who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and has allocated 1.2 billion in loans to help corporations affected.  

The Way Ahead

Tunisia has been able to successfully ward off chaos since the 2011 Jasmine Revolution. Political elders and civil society groups helped bring ease to the restlessness, but the burden of the coronavirus pandemic may exacerbate the existing frustrations and further complicate Saied’s presidency. If it is indeed expedient change that Tunisians seek, specifically economic growth, security, and quicker government response, it sure looks like an uphill battle for Saied and his followers. However, the Tunisian government’s aggressive response to contain the virus and provide much needed social safety nets to struggling Tunisians is a testimony to Tunisia’s spirit.