Institutional Power in Tunisia: From Centralization to Dispersion

2016-08-03    |   

Institutional Power in Tunisia: From Centralization to Dispersion

Who rules in Tunisia? Is it the president, parliament, or the government? Is it the Tunisian General Labor Union, the most powerful trade union, or the Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts, the most prominent employers' organization? Or is it corrupt money and foreign conspiracies?

These questions were not asked during the era of tyranny since everyone knew that the power to make decisions was in the hands of one individual. He could be influenced by an inner circle, but all authorities eventually referred to him de jure and de facto. After the revolution, there was a transformation from a state of centralization of power, concentrated in the hands of one individual or a group of individuals, to a state of dispersion or fragmentation in relation to who makes the decisions or their outcomes, or the probability of their implementation. What matters today is not to control the decision-making power, but to implement the decision on the ground as well. A number of old and new laws and even judicial rulings have been suspended.

This stalemate has become institutional and has rendered the state semi-paralyzed as if there is latent fear of change among everyone, or fear that change may be beneficial to some to the exclusion of others. Everybody is aware and conscious of this situation and seeks -at least outwardly- to “resolve the issues” in a certain direction. However, this will not be achieved unless we understand the reasons for the state’s dysfunctionality and the weak authority lying behind it.

These reasons are either obvious and primarily institutional, or latent but far more dangerous since they [affect the state] like fever spreading through the body.

Apparent Power in Tunisia: One Authority or More?

Since the first days of the revolution and the establishment of the High Commission for the Realization of Revolution Objectives, Political Reform and Democratic Transition, the political elites sought to nip tyranny in the bud. These elites were obsessed with the observance of freedom and provision of the means for the establishment of a democratic society, in the belief that the all-powerful state has already had its glory and it' s time to trim its nails that have gnawed at the flesh of its own citizens.

Advocates of the revolution have had a strong desire to uproot dictatorship. That period in time was full of progressive laws and decrees. At the time of the National Constituent Assembly, the new founders produced a constitution that summed up that strong desire to weaken the executive authority without enabling other authorities to take the initiative.

The public restructuring of state institutions under the January 2014 Constitution was based on the idea of ​​the distribution of power to create balance among different [state] powers as much as possible. To strengthen this desire, so many independent constitutional and administrative bodies enjoying considerable autonomy compared to conventional administration have been established.

Things went further when for the first time in the history of Tunisia, the term “local authority” was used to denote the word “decentralization” which Tunisians had been accustomed to.

In sum, constitutional authorities became vested in many bodies including the three conventional powers: (presidential, legislative and judicial), the independent constitutional bodies, and the local authority. Other authorities (e.g., unions, media, and civil society), whose power exceeded the state’s in many respect also emerged.

Obviously, the term “state of law and institutions” which was a slogan of the Ben Ali regime is not capable of accommodating the revolution’s aspirations. The slogan “democratic society” or “democratic state” has become the most preferred for Tunisians.

While this shift in political ideas from Max Weber’s or Hans Kelsen’s thought model of the state which glorifies the institution at the expense of the individual identifies with what Western democracies experienced themselves, post-revolution Tunisian democratic institutions were inexperienced and not used to democratic practice. This is unlike the case in the West where institutions witness a progressive development.  

In light of this situation, the Tunisian state has turned into an inheritance that should be divided between heirs eager to exercise power from inside and outside the state’s institutions. Thus, power has turned very quickly from a status of centralization to one of dispersion or fragmentation between various structures, institutions, and organizations.

Thanks to the legacy of governance of numerous governments that came after the revolution, the state has lost much of its influence and has become weak. Although the storm has slowly passed, those holding the reins of power, especially the executive authority, are incapable of playing any leading role in the running of the state. The state’s typical official has turned from being strong and domineering to passive, submissive, and “understanding” towards all the influencing factors.

The typical official is now holding onto what is already at hand, in the hope that they won’t be affected by the “dégage” curse [French slang word meaning “Get out!”] or the “custom” of the peaceful turnover of power. Such state of weakness and abjection has fueled heated political disputes. The state’s different institutions are now operating without a solid political base. They are so in disagreement that they are even seeking to disrupt one another. The government which emanated from the winning Nidaa Tounes party in the 2014 elections was forced to fight a covert battle against the same party that has chosen it, and whose leaders were seeking to overthrow it.

This dilapidated institutional situation has paved the way for the prevalence of latent authorities working outside the institutions in shady paths, hiding behind money, media and networks of influence.

Latent Authorities

Authority derives from laws, provisions, or valid decisions that are final once their procedural course has been exhausted. There are multiple institutions of power in Tunisia, but they all take decisions with the assumption that these decisions will be implemented and complied with. However, this ideal image of institutions in Tunisia is facing a different reality in which this process is affected by other centers of influence.

At the level of the executive authority, most if not all of the decisions issued by the highest authority fade little by little as they descend from the top to the bottom of the administrative hierarchy. These decisions are often directly resisted by those involved, face collusion among those affected, or are met with negligence among those in charge of enforcement because they lack the incentive to work.

The decisions taken sometimes get distorted down the ladder and fail to reach their designated aim.

In the field of administrative control, for example, an order is made to inspect a certain building for construction violations or cafes’ licenses or prices, based on a complaint. After a follow-up on the fate of those decisions, the complainant ends up as the subject of accountability in aspects related to their activity or violations they committed that were not pursued legally. In this regard, administrative corruption is an obstacle hindering any attempt to apply the law without intervention, by swapping sin with sin, and through mutual blackmail between the conflicting parties.

On the other hand, administration which is a tool for implementation turns all of a sudden into an arena for conflict, and sometimes into an arbitration mechanism between the conflicting parties. Sometimes such administration is biased in favor of one party.

As usual, what fuels the battle is bribery and the power of money or the media, depending on how important the issue at conflict is.

The state of decomposition and fragmentation of power among centers of influence where the political intersects with the financial, and where individual interests clash with collective interests has made the state’s institutions a failure. It has also turned exemplary officials into tag-alongs that avoid any possibility of collision with the “system”.

The question is: what is the solution? What distinguishes this stage is that there is consensus over the diagnosis, but disagreement over the treatment.

Today, the Tunisian state has exhausted its mechanisms in the management, leadership, and structuring of its institutions. Therefore, it is crucial that a serious state reform program is put in place; one that does not fall into the projection and simulation methodology under which the 2014 Constitution was cancelled, and does not simply accept patching up initiatives.

Today, the state suffers from a growing surplus of non-viable or non-effective institutions. It is imperative that reform be made by redefining the tasks of many structures, including ministries.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


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