Middle East North Africa Politics & Diplomacy
MENASource November 22, 2021

Tunisia has a new government. How will challenges be addressed?

By Alissa Pavia, Karim Mezran, and Yaseen Rashed

Tunisian President Kais Saied has been ruling by decree since July 25, when he froze parliament and sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi. Much has been said about the president’s moves. Opponents call it a coup d’état and have asked the international community to sanction Saied, while those close to the president claim his moves are long overdue and a necessary measure to rid the country of a corrupt parliament. Since then, President Saied has nominated a new Prime Minister, Najla Bouden Romdhane, who formed a new government in October. A former geology professor with little to no policy expertise and no political affiliation, Bouden’s appointment has raised eyebrows among experts who suspect that Saied is simply attempting to distract the international community by nominating Tunisia’s first female prime minister.

The country is facing a plethora of challenges that need immediate attention. An economic crisis is looming as the coronavirus pandemic has strained public finances. Meanwhile, unemployment is skyrocketing to 18 percent. Additionally, on November 9, protestors took to the streets to oppose the reopening of a hazardous waste dump near the southeastern city of Sfax, which resulted in a man dying by asphyxiation from teargas fired by the police. A future increase of irregular migration is also cause for concern for many European countries, given the current high number of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa trying to cross the Mediterranean. In 2021 alone, almost twenty thousand migrants were intercepted off the Tunisian coast.

The Atlantic Council’s North Africa Initiative asked several experts a series of questions on Tunisia’s situation. Here is how they answered:

QUESTION: Do you think the appointment of a new prime minister will restore negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF)?

The appointment of Tunisia’s new prime minister was overdue and is good news. Restoring negotiations with the IMF will need firm commitments to reforms to restore the confidence of international investors and financial institutions. Such reforms, however, can’t be implemented without popular support, which depends on cushioning potential negative effects on poverty, marginalization, and political trust. Confidence in the political system and its players, therefore, needs to be urgently restored.

In the current setting where an “us” versus “them” rhetoric—referring to pro- and anti- Islamist party Ennahda—dominates internal Tunisian discourse and often commentary by foreign observers and international institutions, Tunisia urgently needs a joint vision and new social contract. The re-installation of the elected parliament as a basis for developing such a social contract would be a fundamentally important first step in restoring confidence in the political system and, thereby, in Tunisia’s economy, including its negotiations with the IMF.

Annabelle Houdret, senior researcher at the German Development Institute.

QUESTION: How can President Kais Saied and new Prime Minister Najla Bouden Romdhane improve social conditions in Tunisia, a country where unemployment is almost at 18 percent, according to the World Bank? Moreover, does Saied’s latest moves hinder or help Tunisians?

Improving the economic and social conditions in Tunisia takes much more than a new government or legislature. If it’s true that the post-2011 political system did more harm than good to the economy and, therefore, led to a further deterioration of the social conditions, it remains that Tunisia’s problems stem from the failed economic model set up sixty years ago compounded by public distrust of state institutions.

Prime Minister Bouden’s priority must be to set up a national socio-economic dialogue involving all segments of society, such as women, youth, persons with disabilities, professional sectors, and civil society. Such a dialogue should also be geographically inclusive so as not to further the rift between the more developed coastal areas and the marginalized interior regions of the country. A dialogue would allow the new government to first rebuild public trust, as well as secure buy-in for the painful reforms that are indispensable to any recovery plan.

Dr. Elie Abouaoun, director of Middle East and North Africa Programs at the United States Institute of Peace.

QUESTION: Do you think democracy in Tunisia is at risk?

Yes. In recent years, ordinary Tunisians have chafed under a freely elected but feckless ruling elite that failed to use democracy to improve their lives. Unfortunately, “outsider” President Kais Saied’s response to this crisis has been to shut down parliament, grant himself unchecked powers, and demonize his critics. After trampling on the 2014 constitution, Saied wants to impose his own system, likely with a supercharged presidency, subservient legislature, and curtailed pluralism. That, so far, Saied enjoys popular support and has refrained from widespread repression, must not obscure this clear assault on democracy.

With his esoteric ideas, disdain for other actors, and possibly unrealistic economic and anti-corruption promises—and without a political structure behind him—Saied’s attempt at emperorship might fall apart. But democracy would still be in deep trouble. Many Tunisians have soured on politics, parties are discredited, civil society is fragmented, and the abusive Interior Ministry is unreformed. As Saied has brought back one-man rule and otherwise severely eroded democratic norms, the international community has largely been silent. All this could open the door for a more experienced and ruthless autocrat to replace Saied and successfully resurrect the police state.

Amy Hawthorne, deputy director for research at Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED).

QUESTION: As Tunisia’s debt burden increases due to the COVID-19 shock, what role can President Saied play in stabilizing the economy and promoting private sector growth in the backdrop of an unprecedented power grab?

Although President Saied recognizes the need to stabilize the economy and address the high unemployment rate exacerbated by the pandemic, he is not well-positioned to address Tunisia’s economic challenges. While he committed to fighting the endemic corruption that continues to plague the country a decade after the revolution, so far, Saied’s approach to addressing corruption has largely been to accuse his political opponents of corruption and to arrest those who disagree with him. He doesn’t appear to have a clear plan on how to deal with the economy and his authoritarian tendencies are doing little to bring the stability Tunisia needs to encourage private sector growth. Furthermore, his appointment of Bouden as prime minister—a geologist without an economics background and little government experience—doesn’t suggest that Saied is surrounding himself with the sort of expertise that would help him craft a way out of the current economic crisis.

Sarah Yerkes, senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

This piece was edited by Alissa Pavia, assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s North Africa Initiative; Karim Mezran, director of the North Africa Initiative; and Yaseen Rashed, Young Global Professional with the Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council. 

Further reading

Related Experts: Alissa Pavia and Karim Mezran

Image: France, Paris, 2021-11-11. Photograph by Xose Bouzas / Hans Lucas. Opening ceremony of the 4th Paris Peace Forum at the Grande Halle de la Villette. Arrival of Tunisian Prime Minister Najla Bouden Romdhan. France, Paris, 2021-11-11. Photographie par Xose Bouzas / Hans Lucas. Ceremonie d ouverture du 4e Forum de Paris sur la Paix a la Grande Halle de la Villette. Arrivee du Premier ministre tunisien Najla Bouden Romdhan.