In April, Tunisians demonstrated against President Saied’s parliamentary dissolution. Given the fragile Mediterranean equilibrium, an analysis of the regional state of play is crucial
In the past month, various demonstrations and strikes involved the Tunisian public sphere. Civil society, supported by the pro-Islamist party Ennahda, took the streets to protest against Tunisian President Kaïs Saied’s decision to dissolve the parliament on the 30th of March. By labelling this seizure of power as a coup, the opposition denounces the authoritarian turnaround that has characterized the country’s political situation in recent times. As the country has been facing a political and institutional freeze for the past eight months, these demonstrations represent the climax of a gradual process involving civil society’s strikes against state power.
In July 2021, less than two years after taking office, Saied suspended the national parliament. Such a decision enabled him to promote exceptional measures to govern by decree without the parliament’s consent. In March 2022, in the light of more than half of the deputies’ attempt to oppose the measures’ extension, he proceeded with the parliament’s dissolution due to what has been labelled as illegal meetings. “In these grave, delicate moments, duty and responsibility require us to protect the country from breaking apart” Saied announced on State TV.
This attempt to stop the divisive crisis has caused a partial social fracture in Tunisia, already crushed by a generalized economic and political turmoil. In a country whose recovery prospects have been deemed timid by the World Bank, such a critical situation will not meet an end soon: elections are expected to be held in December 2022. On the international stage, responses have been critical since the deepening of the political crisis last summer. The EU, as a privileged partner, strongly reacted in dissent, asking for stability restoration. At the UN level, worries about the democratic state of the country in the last weeks have been advanced.
When zooming out from the Tunisian case, the general regional situation has been on the critical verge. In April, Syria experienced rare anti-government protests after Assad’s government imposed social subsidies’ cuts. Such demonstrations also developed in the near Neighbourhood. Given the deep economic crisis aggravated by the August Blast in 2020, Lebanon has regularly witnessed protests in the past two years. These tensions only increased in the past weeks due to the Ukraine Invasion and the Mediterranean country’s dependence on Ukrainian wheat imports.
As the region is currently set to be the first wheat importing macro-actor, North African countries have also been affected by the wheat shortage deriving from the Ukrainian war, particularly non-oil producers. Due also to internal drought and climate change, the prices have become unsustainable leading to social unrest and new regional protests in Morocco. As a consequence, the crisis generated also the first social tensions in Egypt. To summarize its entity, the Prime Minister in Cairo warned of possible future scenarios in which a financial crisis could hit harder than the Covid19 Pandemic one.
In summary, eleven years ago, Tunis was the set of a regional discontent that would have quickly spread to neighbouring areas. Today, the local scenario proposes a similar image. Long-lasting protests, derived from political discontent and the severe economic crisis, have been worsened by the pandemic and the new international developments devouring the region. As the democratised example of the region, Tunis is again assuming the symbolic role when it comes to social and political unrest in the Southern Shores of the Mediterranean. Given this picture, could there be, in a Déjà-vu domino effect, the conditions for a new regional movement in the following months? The answer is far from being straightforward.
To deliver a synthetic but clear analysis, understanding the role played by the Social Contract in the MENA region is crucial. Historically, regional authoritarian regimes have been able to consolidate their status as long as they could guarantee at least two of the conditions between security, economic incentives, and political participation. In this sense, MENA’s civil societies always have privileged social benefits deriving from the first two conditions over political participation. In 2011, when the former went missing, the system failed. At the time of the Arab Spring, the lack of democratic platforms, combined with corruption, as much as the economic crisis which caused the deterioration of the job market, have been two phenomena that escaped political elites’ control, causing the rupture of the governance at the core of the systems.
Today, the factual conditions present similar aspects: security and economic prospects have been far from preserved. The pandemic led the basic needs and services’ provision element, which is the core of the political systems’ survival, to be at stake. Given the broadness of the crisis, Covid19 exasperated inequalities: the economic freeze aggravated the situation of marginalized groups and minimalized the already limited contestation windows. At the same time, as the resilience of the regional healthcare system has collapsed, the human security principle has been challenged. Tunisia has registered the highest Covid19 mortality rate per capita in the whole MENA region and the African Continent.
Therefore, elites have reached a stage in which their providing actor’s power is in jeopardy. In connection, the region has been marked by the political grasp of external actors. Chinese health diplomacy efforts helped regional countries like Morocco fight the medical shortage and invested in the supply chain of vaccines. In such a critical pandemic picture, the remerging food security problem previously highlighted represents a new element that aggravates the state of the social equilibrium of the MENA countries in 2022.
However, what today seems like an already crossed path of social contract’s erosion, collides with a different international scenario. Ten years ago, the EU and the US played an important role in supporting a possible democratic change in the aftermath of the uprisings. Nowadays, far from the Freedom Agenda of the previous decades, the MENA is, on the contrary, less of a geopolitical priority for the US. On the same line, given the perceived threats originating from the southern shores, the EU is hiding its normative power and democracy support by highlighting its principled pragmatism and (strategic) stabilization power in the region. As Western powers have settled on exploring a more realist approach to foreign relations in the region, the colonization past is an accomplice when it comes to the low-profile image some European countries have assumed regarding regional issues.
Parallelly, new emerging actors in the region, from the Turkish presence in Libya to Russia’s one in Syria, have consolidated peculiar links within the region that minimize their support for destabilizing changes. Recent events prove that: the well-established presence of Erdogan’s army in Tripoli has lately been facing a possible setback. In March, General Haftar’s east-based government pushed for the escalation of tensions with the UN-recognised authority in Tripoli. The former talks about a likely parallel government that would be detrimental to the assertive Turkish image in Lybia, where the country plays an essential military role in sustaining and legitimizing the internationally recognized government.
On the other hand, Russia’s military presence in Syria since 2015 to support Assad’s forces, let alone the growing economic ties, is now absolutely crucial to Putin’s quest for international allies. As Syria is becoming a military source that furnishes troops for the Ukrainian campaign, Putin seeks a safe and relatively stable harbour in the country and its neighbourhood.
In summary, if today the internal scenario of the region brings about similar fractures to those that ignited the protests a decade ago, the change of the international presence in the region suggests a detachment from past developments. Indeed, internal bottom-up turmoil is hampered by a new international game in which external powers want to interfere in regional affairs in an opposite top-down approach. In this sense, their collaboration with existing regimes is set to avoid uncontrollable political changes. The Resilient-Stability Paradigm remains the key priority and hints toward the persistence of low-intensity contestation levels in the following months.