The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
Less than two years after its first democratic parliamentary elections, Tunisia has a new prime minister. On August 3, President Beji Caid Essebsi appointed Youssef Chahed to that post, after Tunisia’s parliament voted Prime Minister Habib Essid out on July 30.
In an overwhelming expression of dissatisfaction, only three members of parliament voted in favor of retaining the prime minister. The 118 members who voted against him largely cited Essid’s failures since February 2015 to revive Tunisia’s economy or make the country more secure against terrorist attacks. In particular, Essid was unable to get parliament to pass a much-needed economic reform package that aimed to improve Tunisia’s investment climate, address rising unemployment, and tackle corruption. According to the parliamentarians, Essid failed to adequately address political infighting, which ground the reform process to a halt. As social protests increased across Tunisia, Essid was viewed by some in government as being too cautious, failing to take the bold steps necessary to push the reform package through. Furthermore, as a technocrat, Essid was brought to power to get things done: address Tunisia’s rising unemployment, attract foreign investment, and stabilize the economy. But under his watch, economic growth fell to 0.8 percent last year and unemployment grew to over 15 percent, with youth unemployment twice that high.
However the government frames it, Essid is not all to blame for his government’s poor performance. A report by the Tunisian government watchdog I Watch found that while Essid achieved 20 out of 72 promises he made as prime minister, he had made progress on an additional 40. There are a number of political and structural factors outside of the former prime minister’s control that contributed to government stagnation. Unlike U.S. politicians, who have dozens of staff in Washington, D.C., and in their home state, many Tunisian legislators have no staff and are saddled with both legislative and administrative work. Government committees receive so little support that they must share a few staff members between them. On top of this, since democracy came to Tunisia only five years ago, many parliamentarians, who received no training upon assuming office, are essentially learning how to legislate on the job. This has led to a legislative backlog, with inexperienced parliamentarians spending far too long on process rather than on substance.
In fact, if one person could be blamed for the slow pace of reforms, it would be Essebsi. His long-standing relationship with the country’s powerful labor unions made it politically untenable for him and many in his party to support reforms that would negatively impact the unions. For example, efforts to raise the retirement age by five years have failed due to harsh criticism from the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT). Last year, Essebsi agreed to raise public and private sector wages following pressure from the labor and trade unions. Furthermore, the 89-year-old head of state has close ties to the regime of the ousted Tunisian leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and has shown little interest in enacting measures that could damage the financial interests of his elite constituency. This is most apparent in the current fight over the Economic Reconciliation bill, proposed by the president’s office and which civil society groups have criticized for providing amnesty to former public officials guilty of committing financial crimes.
Another explanation for the Tunisian government’s failed progress is, paradoxically, too much unity. Essebsi’s attempt to establish a national unity government by providing all members equal representation, including a role for the labor unions, has left the government without a real opposition. During a trip to Tunis in June, I spoke with individuals both within and outside of government who expressed great skepticism toward Essebsi’s motives and the benefits of a unity government. They explained that rather than providing a greater voice for marginalized parties, the unity government is seen as a way to co-opt the UGTT, which is the most powerful faction in the opposition today.
On top of this, as the previous coalitions governments have shown, it is extremely challenging and time-consuming to reach a consensus with multiple parties of differing ideologies. Frustration rises when neither side gets what it wants and nothing gets decided. The individuals I spoke with explained that the compromises required to join the unity government further water down the ideologies of the various parties that join. This ideological compromise is the reason why many of the Tunisians whom I spoke with have chosen to disengage from politics. Many secularists believe that by joining a government with Islamists they are compromising their secular principles, while many Islamists believe by allying with non-Islamist parties they are diluting their message. One group that has chosen to remain outside the unity government is the Popular Front, a coalition of leftist parties that refused to participate in Essid’s no-confidence vote.
Although there seems to be optimism within Tunisia that Essid’s departure will usher in significant changes to Tunisia’s stagnant legislature, it will likely not change much. Still, there are two signs that show Tunisia is on the right track. First, the process of removing Essid, even if it was political, was a democratic one. In the country’s first ever no-confidence vote, parliamentarians debated for hours before deciding to unseat Essid, who calmly agreed to step aside. Contrast this with the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July or the events in Egypt in 2013 that brought Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power. Even with Essebsi’s questionable alliances, he has so far adhered to constitutional procedures, such as appointing Chahed well before the deadline.
Chahed, himself, is the other reason for hope in Tunisia’s future. At 41, he is a relatively young politician who has sought to address one of the Tunisian government’s greatest challenges—appealing to the younger generations of Tunisians who feel increasingly isolated from and ignored by their elected officials. Younger citizens fear a return of the old regime, which they see as embodied by the president and his inner circle. Chahed, on the other hand, has promised to prioritize youth issues and bring more women into the cabinet.
Chahed is also a top choice to tackle Tunisia’s deteriorating economic situation. As the former Minister of Local Affairs and an agricultural specialist, he has political experience, but he is not tainted by ties to the Ben Ali regime. Having spent much of his career consulting with international organizations such as the United Nations and with Western nations, such as the United States, he is comfortable engaging with both international donors and financial organizations. Thus, he should be well positioned to address some of Tunisia’s most pressing concerns. Unlike Essid, an independent technocrat, Chahed is a member of the secular Nidaa Tounes party and is well connected to Essebsi and the ruling party elite. Essid was eventually undone by his independence. With no party to protect him, he was an easy scapegoat. Although Chahed has promised to remain independent and represent the unity government above a single party, he will likely benefit from support and protection by the Nidaa Tounes infrastructure, as well as by Essebsi himself.
However, if the country does not want to face yet another no-confidence vote in two years’ time, the government must also fix its own structural problems, which threaten to undermine economic and political development. This begins with increased international support for parliament. Legislative training programs and additional funding for staff and supplies would help parliamentarians focus on the task of legislating. Second, Chahed should push parliament toward a culture of action and decision-making rather than one of passive compromise and unending debate. Recognizing that any real economic gains will take years, not weeks, to materialize, Chahed should, nevertheless, refrain from allowing his government to get mired in the endless back-and-forth that has plagued Tunisia’s postrevolutionary governance. In addition, opposition parties should play a constructive role by working with civil society to monitor the unity government and ensure that its decisions are representative of the interests of all Tunisians.