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Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party
In the world of demagogues, Tunisia’s Qais Saied is an oddity. He’s not a self-made entrepreneur, promising (and failing) to run his country like a business. Nor is he a veteran political rabble-rouser, skilled at turning the narrowest of political majorities into overwhelming political dominance. He’s certainly not a former soldier or leader of a peasant insurrection. He’s not even, as Makarios of Cyprus was, an Archbishop.
Perhaps uniquely, he’s a professor of constitutional law. It’s as though Cicero and not Octavian had brought about the fall of the Roman Republic, or as if Barack Obama, not Donald Trump, had summoned a mob to prevent a victorious Mitt Romney moving into the White House.
Saied has taken over the last surviving hope of the 2011 Arab Spring. Egypt’s revolution was crushed after the Muslim Brotherhood overreached, and the army exploited their mistake to recapture power. Libya descended into civil war. Syria became a charnel-house, with Russia and Iran giving Assad all he needed to exterminate his own people.
Only Tunisia stood out. Its Islamists, Ennahda, understood that they had to share power with secular forces and had more or less reconciled themselves to becoming a “Muslim democrat” party on the Christian democratic model. The army stayed in its barracks, and institutions lasted through peaceful changes of power, if not quite periods of stable government.
Yet, despite large amounts of foreign aid, Tunisia’s democratic governments failed get enough right to put its economy on a sound footing. The country suffers from the familiar ills of Arab dictatorships: a bloated public sector that attracts the country’s graduates, and diverts them from more productive work as well as costing too much money; low skills in the rest of the population; inefficient state-owned enterprises and rampant corruption. The pandemic hit Tunisia hard, slashing tourism revenue while increasing health spending.
Saied’s 2019 presidential victory (he won with 72 per cent) could have given him a mandate to exploit the backlash against the revolutionaries’ squandering of hope. He could have rooted out the corrupt patronage networks left over from the old regime and forced loss-making state-owned enterprises to shape up, or begun to strengthen the independence of the judiciary. He could have designed reforms to education (though the pandemic would have made them hard to implement), and taken full advantage of the trade preferences Tunisia’s association agreement with the EU provides.
Instead, he took on the country’s institutions, using a state of emergency to shut the parliament and dissolve bodies supposed to protect judicial independence. He promulgated a new ultra-presidential constitution of his own devising. A new parliament, elected in two rounds on December and January on an 11 per cent turnout in each round amid an opposition boycott met on Monday to choose its speaker – in secret. His security forces have begun rounding up opposition politicians, and city councils, set up during the revolution, have been abolished. In case the message isn’t clear enough, Saied now plans to restore diplomatic relations with Syria.
There’s not much Tunisians can do now to overthrow him. They’re paying for their factionalism in the 2010s and naivety in trusting him in 2019. Yet Saied’s regime is vulnerable abroad on the issue that matters most in Tunisia: the economy.
Tunisia is insolvent. It plans to run a budget deficit of five per cent of GDP this year, with interest rates on government debt at 11 per cent. It will have to find $2.3 billion (£9 billion), which it hopes to achieve through tax rises and an IMF loan. This is on top of another €540 million (£473 million) in grants it obtained from the EU, even though signs of its democratic decline were already apparent.
If the EU’s money has already been sent (the signs of democratic decline must have escaped the EU’s Neighbourhood & Enlargement commissioner, who used to be Viktor Orbán’s ambassador in Brussels), the IMF’s has not. Tunisia needs the IMF loan to avoid a financial crisis.
The UK, working with the rest of the G7, should make it clear to Saied – and the bond markets – that funds will only be provided if democracy is restored, through a freely elected constituent assembly which would prepare a new constitution to replace the Napoleonic one Saied himself introduced. Sunak, who knows a thing or two about how markets can topple leaders, is not badly placed to deliver the message.
If Saied doesn’t heed it, let him face the bond markets, just as he faces his own people, alone.