Tunisia’s indefinite state of emergency, by Kieran Baker

Tunisia’s indefinite state of emergency, by Kieran Baker
Photo by Chermiti Mohamed / Unsplash

Tunisian President Kais Saied has extended the country's state of emergency, which has been in place since November 2015, until the end of 2024, making it the longest in the nation's history. It is not uncommon for North African countries such as Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt to declare a state of emergency on a few occasions during times of popular unrest, natural disasters or a health crisis such as the Covid pandemic

However, unlike in Tunisia, these did not exceed more than a period of a few months, and since the 2011 uprising, the state of emergency has been lifted only from 2013-2015, resuming after a surge of terrorist attacks on the country.

On the face of it maybe the continual state of emergency is warranted? However, some argue that its threatening Tunisia’s fledgling democracy, and that Saied is using it as an excuse to dismantle democratic checks and balances.

So, what’s the view from Tunis? Kaes, a waiter in the capital of Tunisia, told Global Voices:

“Tunisia is like a sinking boat. As it is collectively capsizing, people are looking for individual solutions to secure their future. They are trying to run away so they don’t sink with the boat.”

In an excellent piece by Saoussen Ben Cheikh for Global Voices, she describes the ongoing brain drain caused by “high inflation, rising unemployment, stark regional inequalities, and widespread corruption are just some of the daunting challenges that have plagued the North African nation. These difficulties have made everyday life increasingly difficult for Tunisians, who are now confronted with soaring prices, rising insecurity and shortages of some essential commodities such as coffee, milk, bread, and more. With no clear pathway forward, Tunisians are voting with their feet and leaving the country.” 

But what of the democratic and political challenges – Saied came to power in 2019 on the back of a popular vote and a degree of hope. According to Saoussen Ben Cheikh “he presented himself as a virtuous candidate, above the fray of political parties, and especially above the Islamic Ennahda which Tunisians had grown so weary of. He also said he would wage war against corruption and to redistribute wealth and power to the poor.” However in 2021, still riding high on significant popularity in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and political turmoil, he declared that Tunisia was on the brink of “imminent peril”.

This then justified his next move- the granting of full constitutional powers, dissolving the government and parliament. While it was viewed this as a “coup d’etat” by analysts and writers, many Tunisians apparently seemed relieved and saw it as a necessary step to “restore order to a country with a long history of strongmen in power”. Yet here we are – years in and the same democratic principles are being eroded by a perpetual state of emergency. Is this Tunisia’s future?

Kieran Baker is an Emmy award winning journalist who has started up various networks including Al Jazeera English, Bloomberg TV Africa and TRT World. 

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