Last week, Tunisian President Kais Saied fired 57 judges, accusing them of corruption and other charges – without proof or substantiation. This is just one of the latest actions by President Saied that erodes the rule of law in the country and the deterioration of democracy as Saied intensifies his one-man-rule and guts anti-corruption protections.
Initial signs of progress
Tunisia initially emerged as the success story of the Arab Spring, overthrowing the 24-year dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. The country quickly developed a multi-party democracy and held multiple cycles of free and fair elections. Invaluably, Tunisians immediately incorporated anti-corruption efforts into their new government, setting up an anti-corruption agency right away.
In 2014, the people ratified a progressive constitution, and continued to centre anti-corruption efforts. They established a full independent anti-corruption authority, approved a whistleblower protection law in 2017 and passed additional legislation codifying access to information for all and establishing a special court to review complex financial crimes. The country continued to progress over the following years, holding multiple cycles of legislative executive and municipal elections.
Still, things were not perfect. The country had an overabundance of parties, with nearly 200 in total competing in the four elections held over the decade since the new government was established. This impeded progress with fragmentation and significant infighting. Efforts to set up an independent constitutional court to provide checks and balances to the legislative and executive branches also failed.
Backtracking on corruption and democracy
As parties fractured and fought, the people became frustrated and chose an “outsider” as president in the 2019 election. Kais Saied, a law professor with no ties to any of the myriad political parties, won a landslide victory running on an anti-establishment and anti-corruption platform. This held sway especially because his opponent exemplified corruption – he ultimately landed in prison for money-laundering and tax fraud after a case brought by Transparency International’s chapter I WATCH.
Yet Saied’s presidency has not resulted in better governance for Tunisians.
The government's response to COVID-19 failed to provide basic care, especially to the most vulnerable citizens, and precipitated the worst economic crisis since the country’s independence in 1956. Tunisians suffered the consequences: in 2021, the country hit the world’s second highest per capita daily death rate.
Last July, protests broke out on both sides. Some demanded the government step down while others called on the Islamist Ennahda party as the largest opposition in parliament to take power. Saied used the tumult to take control. He invoked Article 80 of Tunisia’s constitution, which allowed him to dismiss Prime Minister Hicham Mechichi, freeze parliament for 30 days, abolish immunity for ministers and appoint himself as the head of the executive.
With this power, Saied quickly reversed anti-corruption measures and policies at the time when Tunisia needs them the most. Immediately after the protests, he closed the anti-corruption agency and placed the former agency’s head under house arrest. Whistleblowers reporting on corruption now have little recourse and fear speaking out without accountability mechanisms. I WATCH has noted that ministries are now more hesitant to respond to access for information requests since the crackdown began. Saied even offered businessman involved in corruption cases amnesty if they invest in state projects.
In April, the president dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council and seized control of the electoral commission, undermining the integrity of elections and citizens’ trust in the political and electoral processes. Saied also threatened to suspend the country’s membership from the organisation of constitutional law experts the Venice Commission. He threatened to expel its representatives from the country after it published a report criticising his plan to hold a referendum on a new constitution.
The way forward
Today Tunisia is in need of dialogue, accountability and a transparent and inclusive political process to overcome the current crisis and restore its democracy. As it seeks help from the IMF to navigate the crippling economic situation, it also needs a clear anti-corruption policy to ensure resources go to the Tunisians in need and aren’t taken by shady actors taking advantage of the situation. At a time when the government seems to be backtracking on its democratic and anti-corruption commitments, political parties, civil society and activists must come together in a participatory process to develop a collective vision for the future of Tunisia.