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Tunisia: The President's Ill Health Compounds the Woes of a Country on Edge

5 MINS READJun 28, 2019 | 17:30 GMT
Forecast Update

Its vibrant democracy makes Tunisia a country like no other in the Middle East and North Africa. At present, however, its government is trying to navigate the region's newest constitution, improve security and kick-start an economy that never seems to move beyond stagnation. With its president ailing, the government will likely have to confront yet another constitutional crisis, all as it seeks to reassure Tunisians and foreigners alike that it's business as usual in the southern Mediterranean country.

Editor's Note: President Beji Caid Essebsi's office confirmed his death on July 25. This assessment, originally published June 28, examines the challenges the country will face next.

What Happened

Reports emerged June 27 that Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia's 92-year-old president — and former prime minister, foreign minister and president of the chamber of deputies — had been taken to a Tunis hospital in poor health. Adding to the confusion, unconfirmed reports (subsequently denied by the president's office and his family) surfaced that Caid Essebsi had died of natural causes. But even though the presidential communications adviser has confirmed that Caid Essebsi is still alive, his absence — whether temporary or final — from the presidency could affect Tunisia's stability and overall direction.

In the event that there is a temporary vacancy in the presidency, Tunisia's Constitution, adopted in 2014, stipulates that the Constitutional Court must convene and direct the prime minister to assume the president's powers for a period of 60 days. But if the position becomes permanently vacant, the court must empower the speaker of parliament to take on the president's powers for a period of time between 45 and 90 days, during which time the country will organize elections. But those articles present a major problem for Tunisia today: No judges ever have been appointed to fill the Constitutional Court, which exists in name only. As a result, the country finds itself in a quagmire that only its sitting lawmakers can solve.

Why It Matters

A leadership crisis will not necessarily lead to a rupture in policymaking, as Tunisia's prime minister wields considerable political and economic power, meaning that a vacant presidency won't leave the country rudderless. Likewise, such a crisis is unlikely to immediately affect foreign policy in Tunisia as — if for no other reason — the country isn't a significant regional power to begin with. 

The uncertainty surrounding Caid Essebsi's health is likely to usher in even more divisions among the country's political parties, which have long shown a predilection for fragmentation.

Nevertheless, Caid Essebsi's ill health will deal a blow to Tunisia's political stability in the near term. First, the uncertainty over his status is likely to usher in even more divisions among the country's political parties, which have long shown a predilection for fragmentation. This trend will especially affect this year's general and presidential elections, especially as secular political forces continue to split into ever-smaller movements. A vacant presidency would especially hurt the Nidaa Tounes party, the former secularist standard-bearer that Caid Essebsi founded after the Arab Spring but which has dissolved into an array of factions (including Tahya Tounes, a new party founded by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed) that disagree on important policy issues. Together, these splits have weakened Nidaa Tounes and its offshoots, ultimately meaning that the secularists will struggle to present any sort of concerted front against Tunisia's most powerful Islamist party, Ennahda.

Second, Tunisia is now facing yet another constitutional crisis that will stretch the country's institutions. While its new charter was implemented more than five years ago, Tunisia has yet to establish all the institutions envisioned in the constitution — including the Constitutional Court that is ostensibly tasked with guiding the country through its latest problem.

Background

In April, Caid Essebsi said he would not run in presidential elections scheduled Nov. 19, in spite of pressure from Nidaa Tounes to do so. The country, meanwhile, will also vote in two rounds of parliamentary elections in November and December — although some delays are possible.

The uncertainty surrounding the nonagenarian president is occurring at a time when Tunisia's economy is struggling. High levels of public debt, as well as significant unemployment and underemployment, are impeding the potential of an economy that boasts one of the most educated labor forces in the region. The International Monetary Fund's fifth review of Tunisia's extended fund facility, for instance, noted that the country continued to experience difficulty in managing inflation and public debt. 

And then there are Tunisia's security woes, which threaten the country's vital tourism industry.  On the same day that news broke of Caid Essebsi's deteriorating health, police in Tunis were attacked in two separate suicide bombings, later claimed by the Islamic State. Tunisia's tourism industry managed to pick up again after militant attacks directly targeting tourists in 2015, but renewed jihadist activity will naturally discourage tourism and business — to say nothing of the similarly deleterious effects that a leadership crisis will have on the country.

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