The government led by Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, which was approved in a parliamentary vote of confidence on September 2, 2020, has not yet succeeded in passing any laws that it has proposed to parliament. Nearly 100 days in, the government’s proposed bills have been withdrawn following opposition either in parliament or civil society. Now, as it faces the task of passing a budget, the government’s challenges stem from tensions within and between the coalitions and constituencies holding it up, analysts and political commentators say.
“There will be a collapse of this government without this budget law,” Hamza Meddeb, a political scientist and nonresident scholar at Carnegie Middle East Center, told Meshkal/Nawaat. “All will depend on the adoption of the budget law…we can see a reshuffle but Mechichi will stay for the next six months for sure if he passes the budget laws.”
One reason the budget is so important to the stability of the government may be that Tunisia’s creditors are watching. The largest single budget item each year for at least the past five years has been allocated to paying public debt, according to visualizations of the annual budget available on Al Bawsala’s Marsad Budget website. On November 23, Fitch Ratings, a credit ratings agency, issued what it called a revision of its outlook on Tunisia from “Stable” to “Negative,” commenting that “a fragmented political landscape and entrenched social tensions raise material downside risks to progress on crucial fiscal reforms.” While credit ratings agencies were fiercely criticized following their role in the subprime crisis that led to the 2008 global financial crash, they still have significant influence over financial markets, particularly in Africa and Global South countries that have been stuck in a debt trap since the 1980s and whose sovereign bond issuances depend largely on positive ratings from these agencies.
Another reason the government might collapse if it fails to pass a budget is that—according to article 66 of the constitution—should parliament fail to pass a budget by December 31, the President would become responsible for the budget. If this were to occur, this would “weaken and delegitimize the government,” Meddeb told Meshkal/Nawaat.
Reshuffle “Crisis” Between Parties and President Looms
Several media outlets have published rumors and speculation about a possible split between Ennahda and Qalb Tounes, possibly stemming from reported internal disagreement within Ennahdha over the alliance. Journalists brought up questions over this rumored split again during a recent Ennahdha online press conference on November 19. However, the analysts that Meshkal/Nawaat spoke with were skeptical there is such a breakdown in the “alliance” between the two and instead pointed to a more important divide: the one between the two political parties on one side and President Kais Saied on the other.
“This alliance is pushing not simply to replace Kais Saied’s ministers but to have an actual political government…they’re going to bring up this question again after the end of the year after passing the budget law,” said Tarek Kahlaoui, a historian and political analyst. Kahlaoui, formerly a political bureau member of the former Congress for the Republic Party (CPR), campaigned for Mohamed Abbou of the CPR-splinter-party the Democratic Current during his presidential election campaign in 2019. The Democratic Current, which currently has 22 seats in Parliament, is the largest party in the opposition.
“They’re going to ask Mechichi to change his ministers…but Kais Saied already warned Mechichi informally that he would not actually have the new ministers sworn in in front of him [the president] because each new minister has to be sworn in in front of the president,” Kahlaoui told Meshkal/Nawaat.
There has been no public statement from Saied or the President’s office suggesting that he would not swear in ministers should there be a reshuffle attempt, but Kahlaoui said that this intention has been expressed privately and has sparked debate over whether the President has the authority to do this.
“So we’re going to have a crisis,” Kahlaoui added.
Meddeb also sees a potential looming clash between the President and the Ennahdha-Qalb alliance.
“If they put aside the ministers of the president, the president will be so aggressive and will interpret this, will understand this, as an act of war, as they are attacking the president,” Meddeb said. “And the president has an important power when it comes to validating laws. Laws cannot be adopted without the validation of the president, so they [Ennahdha and Qalb] cannot even exclude or put aside the ministers because they are afraid of this. That’s why Kais Saied called this ‘my nuclear power’…his ‘constitutional rockets.’”
In a July 2020 meeting with speaker of parliament and Ennahdha head Rached Ghannouchi, President Kais Saied said, as he criticized parliament: “I have the legal tools afforded to me by the constitution today. Indeed like they are like rockets on their launching platforms.”
Why no New Laws? At Least Three Hypotheses
One reason the current government has been unable to pass new laws on its agenda is that parliament has been backlogged reviewing the decrees made by the previous government led by then Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh, according to Nessryne Jelalia, executive director of the government watchdog group Al Bawsala. In April, parliament gave Fakhfakh special powers to rule by decree for two months, however those decrees would need to be reviewed and approved later on by parliament. 34 decrees now need to be examined and so far only one of those has been approved, according to Jelalia.
But apart from this backlog, a second reason the government has struggled to pass its legislative agenda is that the current government was built on a diverse coalition that lacks ideological cohesion. The parties that voted to approve Mechichi’s government were Ennahdha, Qalb Tounes, and the remnants of Tahya Tounes and Nidaa Tounes. Despite this party support, Mechichi was not the first choice of either the two biggest parties, Ennahdha and Qalb. Instead of accepting their PM nominations, President Kais Saied decided back in July to make his own nomination of Hichem Mechichi, leading some to describe the new government as a “president’s government.”
Whether the president really did support the current government is unclear, since there were unconfirmed rumors in the media that President Saied urged some in Parliament at the last minute to vote against the government.
Since both President Saied and most of the current government ministers were not members of political parties prior to taking office, mapping the political influences and identities of the current government has proved challenging. Most media choose to describe the current government as “technocratic.” Yet this hasn’t stopped observers from trying to discern the political identity of the current government. Several analysts compare the level of influence the President has over the government to the influence political parties have over it by tracking which of the current ministers were chosen by whom. Although negotiations over minister choices were largely conducted behind closed doors, some conclusions can be drawn by inference. For example the current Minister of Interior, Taoufik Charfeddine, is widely seen as being President Saied’s pick since he was formerly a coordinator for his electoral campaign in Sousse.
“It’s a really strange government. It’s a government where everyone is represented: Kais Saied appointed six or seven ministers; Ennahda supported some ministers; Qalb Tounes has some ministers—of course independent etc.; UGTT had Mohamed Trabelsi the Minister of Social Affairs,” Meddeb told Meshkal/Nawaat. “So this is a problem. We ended up with a government of—ok, technocrats, independent etc., ok they are not affiliated—but they are appointed at some point by different parties.”
A third potential reason the government has been unable to pass new laws is that the laws it has proposed have drawn strong criticism from civil society groups. A draft law granting security officers special immunity sparked protests in October, while 23 organizations including Al Bawsala and Nawaat issued a letter in early October which denounced the government’s reintroduction of a draft law on a state of emergency. According to Amnesty International, the state of emergency law could “grant Tunisian authorities sweeping powers to ban demonstrations and strikes, suspend activities of NGOs, impose arbitrary restrictions on movement of individuals and carry out unwarranted searches of properties based on vague national security grounds.”
Government Priorities Neglect Social Issues
What laws the government has chosen to put forward to Parliament indicate a set of priorities that are at odds with the needs of every day citizens, according to Jelalia of Bawsala.
“We are working on laws: the “rebuke of assaults” [law on police i.e. police immunity law], the state of emergency [law], decree 116 [on media]…[But] laws that really improve the quality of life of citizen, we’re not seeing them,” Jelalia recently said in an interview on Express FM.
Meddeb explained the priorities of the current government as reflecting the particular special interests of the political parties rather than any public interest issues.
“Qalb Tounes is not interested really in transforming the country. They are interested in the benefits of power. Positions, appointing people…on clientelism, on patronage etc., on getting resources from the state and from the government. And Ennahdha at some point they are interested in this also,” Meddeb said.
While the government coalition may be responding to their own private constituencies through the bills they put forward, members of parliament (MPs) are directly introducing more bills to parliament than in previous parliaments, according to Jelalia. Many of these bills introduced by MPs are not passed or even tabled for discussion. Yet they do appear to be a mechanism by which parties show their voting base that they are acting on their behalf, especially when it comes to what Jelalia calls populist parties like the Karama Coalition led by Seifeddine Makhlouf and the old regime-supporting Parti Destourian Libre (PDL) led by Abir Moussi.
“We have to acknowledge that there is a sense of accountability to their constituents,” Jelalia said, while criticizing these parties’ positions on civil rights and liberties.
While the government hasn’t had its legislative initiatives passed, the Prime Minister has taken steps to try and mitigate or manage growing social protest movements through other means. On November 7, 2020, Mechichi announced a new agreement with sit-in demonstrators in Tataouine governorate who have shut down the Kamour hydrocarbon pumping station in recent years calling for state investment and development. This apparent conciliatory approach differed starkly with the approach of late President Beji Caid Essebsi, who in May 2017 announced the deployment of the army to Tataouine to respond to similar social protests at the time.
Yet the government’s deal with sit-in protesters in Kamour was apparently undermined and new protests were held when the head of Kamour sit-in, Dhaou Ghoul, was arrested one week after the agreement on November 17, 2020. One person that Meshkal/Nawaat spoke to off the record suggested that this may have been a move by security forces operating independently and at-odds with the government in an effort to undermine the agreement, the government, or both. Numerous studies have indicated that Tunisia’s security forces are not fully under civilian control, particularly apparent during moments of crisis.
Deteriorating Parliamentary Discourse
While some observers are closely watching how the political parties and the executive branch are positioning themselves or trying to enact their political visions, others are more concerned with the violent speech that they see proliferating within the Parliament.
“We consider racist, homophobic, sexist discourse as violent discourse. So Iyadh Elloumi [of Qalb Tounes] has on many occasions said sexist comments about his colleagues in commission, in the plenary [full session] and in the corridors of the parliament. It is violent. There were racist comments as well, there were homophobic comments as well. There is Nabil Hajji from Ettayar [Democratic Current] who had sexist comments about Abir Moussi,” Jelalia of Bawsala said.
Jelalia notes that while all parties in Parliament are guilty of such violent speech, Karama and PDL stand out as particularly exceptional examples of “fundamentally…violent” parties.
“There is Karama and Abir Moussi who together took the whole thing to a new level of insult and a will, or pushing, to criminalize political difference. When Abir Moussi says Ennahdha should be put back in jail. When…she says they are terrorists or criminals etc.—without having much evidence or while the judiciary is still looking at it—this is not normal,” Jelalia said.
“One of the turning points of all of this was when Seifeddine Makhlouf called for hanging, for applying the death penalty for Abir Moussi…So ten years after the revolution we are calling for the hanging of our political opponents in Parliament.”
This article was produced as part of a reporting partnership between Meshkal and Nawaat.