Tunisia, the Arab winter

(To Gino Lanzara)

Since the onset of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has assumed a significant role in the search for consensus between Islamist forces and secular components, initially consisting of a dialogue capable of avoiding the spirals which, in other countries, have led to civil conflicts or dictatorships military. Hence the formation of coalition governments which were hoped to be able to balance and satisfy the demands of the various social partners; a constitution approved almost unanimously, and the extensive political coalitions that until 2019 attempted to govern the country, however, have raised the doubt that an oversized political consensus is an anomaly.

It was probably the continuous search for consensus that led to neglecting the issues related to justice, the review of the security sector, structural and institutional economic reforms. In fact, the constant presence of governments of National unity it has led to the absence of an effective opposition, co-opted by the majority, according to a paradigm that has kept alive social disillusionment with regard to difficult democratization.

The rise in inflation, the growth of the deficit and public debt, the high level of unemployment and the decline in GDP have contributed to the loss of confidence in the democratic government. The parties have therefore remained weak, expressions of a political activity incapable of consolidating the relationship with the electorate. Even Ennahda, a dominating formation in the post-revolutionary period, has failed to establish itself with solid governments capable of implementing the necessary reforms.

According to Yussef Cherif, a Tunisian analyst, democracy has turned into synonymous with the collapse of the state. In fact, governments of the consent they postponed indefinitely the resolution of secular-Islamist tensions, which led to the rise of new formations. Paradoxically, consensus has made it difficult to form valid executives, the lack of which has become an expression of a profound institutional weakness, linked to the difficulties of dialectically expressing and guiding a real opposition. The return to authoritarianism is therefore the result of a process that lasted years, culminating in the election, in 2019, of the populist Kais Saied, who implemented a gradual and constant elimination of the freedoms obtained after the Arab Spring.

At the time, even the Free Destouriano Party, secular and inspired by Bourghiba, demanded that Ennahda be included, with its leadership, in the list of terrorist organizations. It is no coincidence that the Tunisian electoral consultations have recently been characterized by marked abstention, as is indicative of the fact that the coalition of opposition to President Saied, the so-called Salvation Front which includes the Islamist movement Ennahda, failed to reopen the game despite last December being the first legislative elections since parliament was suspended.

Given that the new regulations set aside the parties, most of the political formations, having retreated into a sort of Aventine, boycotted the elections qualifying Saied's work as a coup d'etat. And it is in this context that today's arrest of Rached Ghannouchi takes place, on which the judiciary, leader of Ennahda, the Islamic party, will have to express its opinion, a provision that defines even more markedly Saied's presidential turn, legitimized by the new Constitution, which definitively cancels any form of opposition, which makes the country even more unstable.

In the background, the dramatic negotiation underway with the IMF to obtain almost 2 billion dollars in aid, a negotiation in any case made more bitter by the statements of Saied himself, who openly spoke of foreign dictates, effectively denying the reforms requested, i.e. the reduction of energy and food subsidies, the restructuring of public companies and the reduction of the public wage bill, as guarantees and conditions for obtaining the loan.

According to Mosaique FM radio, Ghannouchi will be questioned about a video in which, together with some members of the Salvation Front, he feared an internal conflict caused by the absence of Ennahda and political Islam, because "any attempt to eliminate one of the political components can only lead to civil war", statements that have triggered reactions such as to persuade the judiciary to act, on the basis of the antifake news law, which provides for prisons of up to 5 years for those who spread false news for the purpose of “undermine … public order, national defense or sow panic among the population”. Ghannouchi, had long been the subject of investigations that began after Saied's takeover; repeatedly investigated for suspected illicit financing in favor of Ennahda, and for having facilitated the sending of Tunisian jihadists to Syria, Libya and Iraq, the 82-year-old leader has always so far emerged unscathed from judicial storms, a feat failed by Ali Laarayed, number two from the Islamic party, and numerous other leaders.

In fact, after the Spring, one could say that the Arab winter has arrived, given that Tunisia was the country that seemed to offer the best chances of democratization. But we said it: not everything has worked out as planned, especially now that the Ukrainian conflict has reverberated as far as the northern African shores, and while Sudan, having forgotten Abraham and his accords, has recently resumed the path of civil war, having in the background the diplomatic rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The USA, long reluctant to exert direct pressure on Saied, probably perceived the weariness of a society in full revulsion due to internal power struggles and the inconsistency of a Parliament incapable of solving economic problems, even though it is beginning to exert pressure why financial aid does not facilitate an increasingly closed and rigid regime. It would therefore be appropriate to interrupt the process of consolidating power, but the alternative alternatives do not seem to be either many or immediately effective. In any case, US Secretary of State Blinken clarified that no American aid will be restored unless Saied retraces his steps, also relying on European political support for this.

US spending plan for Tunisia for 2024 calls for $68,3 million versus $106 million requested for 2023. However, if on the one hand one cannot fail to point out the condemnation expressed following the statements xenophobic released by the president in relation to the alleged conspiracy by sub-Saharan migrants intending, according to him, to change the Tunisian demographics, on the other hand we cannot even forget the importance attributed by the USA to the Tunisian army both in its contrast to fundamentalism Islamic, at a time when intelligence and the Pentagon are trying to contain the expansion of Wagner in Africa, both in attributing to it a precious and impartial apoliticality.

Overall, it would be desirable for the USA to succeed in adopting a well-considered policy capable of contextualisation, ie without making hasty decisions capable of opening further fronts in an area that is in itself unstable. In addition to negotiations with the IMF, it would be desirable to integrate financial action with decisive political initiatives that lead at least to a democratic semblance; the US and European countries, as IMF shareholders, can force fund officials to pause talks given that, with the economy in free fall, Tunisia desperately needs its Western partners, despite the nods to the BRICS which, beyond the benevolent facade expressions, would very hardly seat at its table a player so insolvent and so in need of West; Algeria and Egypt, long eager to access non-Western financial possibilities, are still waiting to withdraw their chips.

Proposing for another such articulated and complex match against the BRICS therefore seems to turn out to be only an attempt to pressure the controllers of the purse strings, especially since the official nature of the request does not even seem to be so clear and confirmable; the fact that the Chinese ambassador has announced that Beijing supports Tunisia's IMF negotiations, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, should make us think.

But in such an extensive and complex political game, is Ghannouchi, who has always declared himself innocent, politically completely devoid of responsibility before Saied's rise to power, who must surely be responsible for an unprecedented centralizing action? In this regard it is useful to go back to 2013, to the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a leftist leader, hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the consequent implications involving Ennahda.

The fear of an irreversible economic collapse has also shaken several EU leaders, fearful that a further uncontrolled flow of migrants could be generated; it is no coincidence that foreign minister Tajani has promised that Italy will collaborate with the IMF in anticipation of more significant and desirable investments.

In summary, no political involution of an authoritarian nature can be justified, also in the light of the consequences which it already heralds, both within the country and towards the international context; however, there is no doubt that the roots of institutional disruption lie in time and in the inability to offer solutions and proposals by the political expressions from time to time on the stage.

If the autocracy of a law professor, based on anti-colonialist rhetoric, cannot be the answer, over time neither has the post-Spring policy adopted by the parties in vogue.

The state of extreme social need, a state of imminent economic default, a state of invoked institutional necessity, accompanied by popular disappointment with politics, can lead to a balance typical of the period characterized by the presidency of Ben Ali.

Gannouchi's arrest can only be one of the last stages of a dramatic political process, once again all too close, after the Libyan one, to our shores.