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Will Kais Saied Kill Tunisia’s Democracy?

The country that sparked the Arab Spring could be headed back to permanent authoritarian rule.

Gbadamosi-Nosmot-foreign-policy-columnist10
Gbadamosi-Nosmot-foreign-policy-columnist10
Nosmot Gbadamosi
By , a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
Members of Tunisia’s security forces stand outside the closed entrance to the headquarters of Tunisia's Supreme Judicial Council in Tunis, Tunisia, on Feb. 6.
Members of Tunisia’s security forces stand outside the closed entrance to the headquarters of Tunisia's Supreme Judicial Council in Tunis, Tunisia, on Feb. 6.
Members of Tunisia’s security forces stand outside the closed entrance to the headquarters of Tunisia's Supreme Judicial Council in Tunis, Tunisia, on Feb. 6. FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: Tunisia’s president dissolves judicial watchdog, African Union delays vote on Israel’s observer member status, and U.N. report says Darfur rebels profit from civil war in Libya.

If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: Tunisia’s president dissolves judicial watchdog, African Union delays vote on Israel’s observer member status, and U.N. report says Darfur rebels profit from civil war in Libya.

If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


Tunisia Faces National Bankruptcy

Tunisia, hailed as the last bastion of Arab Spring democracy, is teetering toward national bankruptcy. State salaries were delayed in January against the backdrop of slow negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a bailout. Tunisia’s debts have soared to nearly 100 percent of the country’s GDP.

Amid high unemployment and a worsening economic situation, Tunisians in 2021 topped the list of nationals arriving in Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Some 51 percent of people ages 18 to 29 say they are constantly thinking about migration, according to research by International Alert Tunisia.

Those who are leaving are not politically motivated. But Tunisian President Kais Saied is one symptom of a larger problem. The violent arrests of Saied’s critics have been widely regarded as reminiscent of the tactics of former Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted after the 2011 revolution.

Judges in Tunisia had their offices locked by police on Monday, a day after Saied dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council, the body ensuring judicial independence, in a move described by detractors as an attempt to weaponize the courts. Tunisia’s International Commission of Jurists warned in December 2021 that Saied’s intervention amounted to an attack on “the last remaining line of defence against the President’s power grab.”

On July 25, 2021, Saied plunged the country into crisis by dissolving parliament and granting himself executive powers on the grounds of “imminent peril”—an exceptional measure in the country’s 2014 constitution. He extended those powers indefinitely on Aug. 25, in what critics called a “presidential coup.” Opinion polls showed Saied’s intervention was largely supported by Tunisians who saw it as a means of ending corruption.

“The rejection of parliament, above all, reflects the rejection of all those who controlled this body and who have only reproduced, or even aggravated by their policies, mass unemployment, social inequalities, and regional disparities,” Olfa Lamloum, country director for International Alert Tunisia, told Foreign Policy.

In recent months, as tensions between Saied and Tunisia’s political ranks escalated, a number of opponents from the biggest group in parliament, the Islamist Ennahda Movement, have been accused of wrongdoing and placed under house arrest.

Last month, an anti-Saied protester, Ridha Bouziane, died and many others were violently arrested by police during demonstrations that defied a COVID-19 ban on public gatherings. The ban was extended on Jan. 26, a move decried by critics as an effort to stifle dissent.

Under pressure from the IMF, Saied announced a political road map in December 2021 and vowed to organize a national dialogue. The election of a new parliament would not come until the end of the year. Only 6 percent of Saied’s election promises had been fulfilled, according to a Oct. 25 review by I Watch.

“In a way, the country has slid back into some form of authoritarianism,” Youssef Cherif, a political analyst and director of the Columbia Global Centers in Tunis, Tunisia, told Foreign Policy. Tunisia could continue on that path or go the way of countries that have experienced outright military coups elsewhere in Africa.

Advocates of democracy have urged foreign diplomats to rein in the influence of external actors such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Those countries “use a lot of their influence on at least the media and on social media to push Tunisians away from democracy and to portray democracy as something completely useless,” Cherif said. If Tunisia’s democracy fails and authoritarian rule returns permanently, it would be a symbolic end to the Arab Spring revolution.


Upcoming Events

Thursday, Feb 10: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his state of the nation address.

The United Nations Security Council meets to discuss Sudan sanctions.

Thursday, Feb. 17, to Friday, Feb. 18: Brussels hosts regional leaders at the European Union-African Union summit.

Sunday, Feb. 20, to Wednesday, Feb. 23: German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visits Senegal.

Tuesday, Feb. 22: The U.N. Security Council discusses the Central African Republic and the activities of Minusca, the U.N. stabilization mission in the country.


What We’re Watching

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses the audience during a gala dinner offered by the government of Ethiopia for the participants of the 35th ordinary session of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Feb. 5.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses the audience during a gala dinner offered by the government of Ethiopia for the participants of the 35th ordinary session of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Feb. 5.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses the audience during a gala dinner offered by the government of Ethiopia for the participants of the 35th ordinary session of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Feb. 5.EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

AU summit. Regional leaders at the African Union’s weekend summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, suspended a debate on whether to withdraw Israel’s observer member status. Israel’s accreditation has been divisive with member states South Africa and Algeria, which protested that they were not consulted by Moussa Faki Mahamat, chair of the African Union Commission, over the decision last July to grant accreditation. A committee will instead review the inclusion.

Meanwhile, an unprecedented number of member states have been suspended from the bloc following military power grabs. Leaders “condemned unequivocally” the wave of coups across the continent, said Bankole Adeoye, head of the AU’s Peace and Security Council, adding this was the first time such action had been taken against so many countries in a one-year period.

DRC bomb attack. At least four people were killed after a bomb exploded at a busy market in the eastern city of Beni in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Saturday, days after the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Kinshasa, warned of a planned terrorist attack.

Beni has experienced several bombings in recent years, which Congolese authorities have blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan militia linked to the Islamic State. The latest explosion came days after around 60 people were killed during an attack on a camp for displaced people in the eastern province of Ituri, which the Congolese government attributed to the armed group the Cooperative for Development of the Congo, as part of wider farmer-herder conflicts in the region.

Libya conflict. Rebel groups from Sudan’s Darfur region continue to profit from Libya’s civil war in deals facilitated by the United Arab Emirates, a report circulated last Friday at the U.N. Security Council said. Despite the cease-fire agreement signed with the Sudanese government in 2020, sending mercenaries to Libya provided the armed groups with income and logistical support.

The payments “were provided by the United Arab Emirates and channeled to the movements” by the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army, controlled by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, “which took a cut,” the report said. “Mercenary activities in Libya had been the major source of financing for most Darfurian movements” in 2021. The rebel groups told U.N. experts they had no intention of completely withdrawing from Libya because they get most of their financing and supplies, including food and fuel, from engagements there.

Zambia’s debt. Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema, who took office in August 2021, has vowed to secure an IMF bailout that is transparent and fair as he seeks to resolve the country’s debt crisis.

Zambia became the first sovereign default during the pandemic in 2020 and is in the process of finalizing a restructuring deal of around $17 billion worth of external debt to secure a $1.4 billion IMF loan by April. Lusaka’s creditors, including Chinese entities, would have to cancel two-thirds of its debt for the country to meet IMF requirements. Last week, Hichilema promised not to favor Chinese creditors over Western creditor nations. (Zambia owes 40 percent of its external debt to Chinese lenders.)

Hichilema won a landslide victory over incumbent Edgar Lungu in Zambia’s presidential election last year. In an election marred by sporadic violence, turnout exceeded 70 percent even in the capital, Lusaka, where Lungu had deployed the military, according to an analysis by Journal of Democracy.

A number of factors led to his win—including Hichilema’s personal wealth as Zambia’s richest man, which enabled him to campaign on a populist platform in places where opposition parties typically struggle to maintain momentum.


This Week in Tech

Africa’s homegrown mRNA jab. South African scientists have developed the continent’s own version of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine without the U.S. company’s involvement. Researchers at Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, which developed the vaccine under the technology transfer hub of the World Health Organization (WHO), hope to start clinical trials in November.

Moderna previously said it would not enforce patent rights on its vaccine during the pandemic but has not facilitated the process by working with South African scientists or sharing intellectual property (IP). South Africa’s vaccine could take up to three years to get approved if companies do not share their technology and data, according to a WHO official. Moderna declined the WHO’s request to share its expertise.

“If we had the active involvement of Moderna, it would have been easier,” Petro Terblanche, director of Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, told me earlier this month. “The waiver just says you can take a vaccine to market during the time that there’s a pandemic, but when the pandemic is over, you cannot sell it anymore, so we need more than that.” The World Trade Organization is examining the best model “to ensure that the IP becomes available for lower-income countries to use.”


Chart of the Week

Kais Saied, during his two years in office, has led a successful campaign among his supporters, largely disillusioned young Tunisians, that he can transform the country’s beleaguered economy by dismantling the current system. The unemployment rate for Tunisians under age 24 is above 40 percent. Those crossing to Europe no longer see a viable future for themselves in the country.


What We’re Reading

U.K.-trained troops. Documents obtained by Declassified UK reveal that Britain has been involved in training Cameroonian troops in an effort to tackle Boko Haram and Islamic State groups. However, rights groups accuse Cameroonian soldiers of massive human rights violations, showing a “disregard for human life” in the killing of civilians and burning down of homes.

The documents show that Britain conducted six secret counterterrorism operations, including training at barracks in Salak, a northern Cameroonian village where Amnesty International said hundreds of people accused of supporting Boko Haram were brutally tortured.

DRC-China kickbacks. A cut of toll revenues from highways connecting some of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s richest mines appears to have flowed to the family of former Congolese President Joseph Kabila, reveals a trove of 3.5 million financial documents obtained by the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa.

The state-controlled China Railway Group was contracted by Kabila’s government to rebuild and maintain the highway. Two management companies contracted to collect the tolls that would pay for the highways to transport cobalt and copper, one of which was co-founded by a Kabila family investment firm, have allegedly misappropriated $238 million since 2015. By striking such deals with Kabila’s regime, Chinese companies came to dominate Congo’s mining industry.

Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg

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