Tunisia

The reoccurring theme in analyzing the results of Tunisia’s municipal elections is the endless glass half-full or half-empty debate. The country’s first municipal-level elections since the 2011 Arab Spring were carried out in a free, fair, and safe manner, but produced mixed results: some promising and some disappointing.

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Tunisians will go to the polls to vote in the country’s first municipal elections on May 6. The vote is an important milestone in the country’s democratic transition and decentralization process; which aims to bridge the gap between the central government in Tunis and the Tunisian people.

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Disappointment surrounding Tunisia’s democratic transition abounds in the country, and the volatile economy adds a degree of difficulty to politicians’ agendas. Economic development is always a long and arduous process, but the current strategy is clearly inadequate. Tunisians call on the government to do more to pull the economy out of stagnation by increasing public investment, providing jobs, and undertaking infrastructure projects. At the same time, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union (EU) insist the Tunisian government pull back government subsidies and increase taxes. Tunisia must balance the need to provide economic opportunity and governmental services against the demands of the IMF. The solution is not in pursuing economic reforms alone, but also political reforms that supplement and support a healthy economy. Increased transparency, accountability, and good governance are essential in improving the economy and satisfying the population’s desire for jobs, technology, and opportunities.

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While women in the Middle East and North Africa still face critical challenges, it is worth noting recent progress on the occasion of international women’s day. Many countries across the Middle East have taken recent steps to codify certain rights for their female citizens. With the introduction of quotas for their legislative bodies, female representation in parliament in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia has jumped since 2011. Last year, lawmakers in Tunisia, Jordan, and Lebanon repealed provisions in their penal codes allowing rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims. Even Saudi Arabia has taken a progressive step and issued a royal decree in September 2017 allowing women to drive.

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Normally, the beaches of southern Tunisia are quiet in November. It is the start of the lean months, when few tourists arrive and the jobs which depend on them vanish. This year is different. Tunisia’s beaches have a new customer: Tunisians trying to go to Europe

Between October 1st and November 8th, more Tunisians took to the seas than in 2015 and 2016 combined, with Italy and Tunisia detaining 4,709. In total, more than 8,700 Tunisian migrants have been caught by Italy and Tunisia in 2017. There are suspicions this represents only a fraction of those who have left.

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As it enters its sixth year, the crisis in Libya shows no signs of abating. The UN-backed unity government seems to be teetering on the edge of collapse, and clashes threaten to escalate between eastern and western forces. Withdrawal from Libya could have negative consequences for western interests, and the United States—under the Trump administration—could take the lead in engaging with Libya to achieve stability. This engagement is key, not only for Libya’s stability, but for the stability of neighboring Egypt and Tunisia as well as US and European interests in the region.

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On December 10, following weeks of negotiations, Tunisia’s parliament approved a $14 billion budget for 2017. The budget includes a number of provisions aimed at cutting the country’s deficit in line with the economic reform plan of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who was appointed in August of this year. However, the controversy surrounding the budget and rejection of certain measures raise questions regarding Chahed’s ability to push through difficult but needed reforms. While the 2017 budget was presented by Chahed as one of consensus, it is clear that the country remains divided over reforms aimed at reviving the economy.  

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Youssef Chahed, the Arab world's youngest head of government and a 41-year-old PhD holder in agricultural economics, led the decentralisation program as Tunisia’s Minister of Local Affairs under the government of his predecessor, Habib Essid. This experience arms him in his new role as prime minister with an understanding of Tunisia's deep bureaucracy and uneven resource distribution among the country's regions. This is one of the areas where his newly formed government has to make major reforms to respond to increasingly urgent local demands.

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In a context of economic woes, Youssef Chahed’s proposed cabinet received overwhelming support in a vote of confidence on August 26, with 167 of Tunisia’s members of parliament voting in its favor. The early vote, which took place prior to the September 1 legal deadline to form a new government, allowed the newly appointed 26 ministers and 14 Secretaries of State to begin their functions as of August 30. Chahed’s cabinet, the seventh government to take office since the 2011 revolution, claims that it will be setting itself apart from its predecessors, most notably from toppled head of government Habib Essid. Essid, who was gradually sidelined from the political game, was eventually ousted in a vote of no confidence in July, partly because of Tunisia’s poor economic performance during his 18 months in office.

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Much has been made of the recent resignation by Tunisia’s former prime minister Habib Essid and the appointment and parliamentary approval of his replacement Youssef Chahed as damaging to Tunisia’s political stability. In the aftermath of these changes, one former member of Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly wrote, “Within the last 18 months, the parliament has been asked to vote on their confidence in the government four times, which does not bode well for the necessity of stable governance in Tunisia.” And Chahed himself exclaimed after taking office that Tunisia "can no longer afford a rapid succession of governments; the worst thing for this country is to see a change of government every year or year and a half.” However, Essid’s resignation and Chahed’s appointment, as well as all of the other changes in government that have happened in Tunisia since 2011, do not necessarily reflect any sort of political instability. Rather, they could be viewed as proof of the robust nature of Tunisia’s nascent political democracy.

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