The only Arab Spring success story on the brink

The only Arab Spring success story on the brink

Tunisia, the only country that emerged a democracy from the Arab Spring, is now in the middle of its worst political crisis since it got rid of former autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali over a decade ago.

On Sunday, the 64th anniversary of the country's independence from France, President Kais Saied responded to widespread protests over the ailing economy and COVID by firing embattled Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspending parliament for 30 days. Troops have surrounded the legislature, where rival crowds faced off on Monday, with one side chanting in support of the move and the other denouncing it as a coup.

How did we get here, do we even know who's really in charge, and what might come next?


Tunisians are fed up. Over the past year, Tunisians have repeatedly taken to the streets in the largest numbers in a decade to decry the stagnant economy, rising inequality, inadequate public services, and dwindling job opportunities for young people (even before the pandemic, youth unemployment was already at 36 percent, the highest rate in North Africa.) Young Tunisians led the protests, often battling trigger-happy police.

COVID, of course, made everything worse. It crushed Tunisia's labor-intensive tourism industry, and forced thousands of Tunisian migrants to hop on boats across the Mediterranean headed for Europe via Italy, which saw a five-fold increase in arrivals in 2020. Right now, COVID infections rates are soaring while barely 7 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated.

More broadly, the people feel politicians remain as corrupt as they were under Ben Ali, and have failed to deliver on the promise of democracy to provide a better life for ordinary Tunisians. Trust in the system has plunged after highly fragmented parliaments have created a series of fragile coalition governments that slow-walk meaningful reforms, leaving the country in economic stagnation and a permanent political stalemate.

Constitutional crisis. Saied's sudden move has created a constitutional crisis because it's unclear he had the authority to dissolve the government on his own.

A former constitutional law professor who was elected as an independent in late 2019 to root out endemic corruption, the president says he's within his constitutional powers to govern by decree until he appoints a new PM. It's an unusually out-of-character performance by Saied, who styles himself as a moderate statesman and whom many Tunisians jokingly refer to as "Robocop" for putting audiences to sleep with his monotone delivery during speeches.

However, the moderate Islamist Ennadha party, as the largest force in parliament and the coalition government, insists it must nominate the next prime minister. (Ennadha — which was banned by Ben Ali for being inspired by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood — has always been part of democratic coalition governments and won the 2019 parliamentary election, but fell short of an outright majority.)

The problem is that the separation of powers under Tunisia's mixed presidential-parliamentary system is somewhat confusing: just weeks ago, Saied and Mechichi were squabbling about who controls internal security amid the former's broader plans to reform the constitution. Interestingly, the constitution says a special court should resolve those disputes… but (surprise!) the executive and legislative powers still haven't agreed on how to set it up.

Next moves. Whether you think it's a power grab or a necessary intervention to address a crisis, Saied's action has captured the zeitgeist by moving against a political establishment that most Tunisians have long resented. However, it's hard to imagine how he will be able to govern once he restores parliament because he doesn't have a party of his own. As president, he controls the military, but the reformist Robocop would rather make Tunisian democracy work than become dictator of a police state.

At a minimum, the situation creates more urgency for Tunisia's politicians to fix a system that — imperfect as it may be — gives the people a lot more of a say than in any other country that experienced the Arab Spring.

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Germany's historic moment of choice is finally here, and voters will stream to the polls on Sunday for the country's first post-World War II vote without a national leader seeking re-election. They will elect new members of the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament. The leader of the party that wins the most seats will then try to secure a majority of seats by drawing other parties into a governing partnership. He or she will then replace Angela Merkel as Germany's chancellor.

If the latest opinion polls are right, the center-left Social Democrats will finish first. In coming weeks, they look likely to form a (potentially unwieldy) governing coalition with the Green Party and the pro-business Free Democrats, which would be Germany's first-ever governing alliance of more than two parties.

Change?

Though he's a man of the center-left, Olaf Scholz, current finance minister and most likely next chancellor, wouldn't represent a radical break from Merkel. He's among the more fiscally frugal of Germany's Social Democrats, and after decades in German politics, he's an experienced technocrat and a skilled manager of political alliances.

Nor would a change in government radically shift Germany's foreign and trade policies. Its new government, whoever it includes, will keep strong security ties with the United States and NATO and protect opportunities to expand economic relations with China. Germany's dependence on Russian energy will demand a continuation of Merkel's pragmatic approach to Vladimir Putin's government.

Scholz's conviction that a strong and cohesive EU is good for Germany will limit any temptation to get tougher with the governments of Poland and Hungary over their violations of EU rules and principles. And aware that COVID can widen gaps between richer and poorer EU countries, and that anti-EU economic populism remains a potent force in Italy and elsewhere, he's likely to support a generous approach to pandemic recovery in southern Europe.

But climate policy, an area where Merkel concedes she should have done more, will be an important and interesting story to watch. Given its leadership within the EU and its standing as the world's fourth largest economy, the influence of Germany's next government on climate policy will be crucial to global climate strategies. A new German government with Scholz as chancellor will likely push the pace of transition from carbon to renewable energy, at least in part because the Green Party coalition partner will push for this as hard as it can. The Greens must show progress on the climate front to maintain political credibility and popularity. If the Free Democrats are indeed part of the coalition, they'll push hard to limit tax increases to pay for tougher climate action, but they won't blow up the coalition that gives them a seat at Germany's governing table.

Merkel's legacy

Even in a country that values stability and continuity, Angela Merkel's 16-year run is remarkable. More than once she's proved the maxim that it's not the smartest or strongest who survives, but the one most adaptable to change. Merkel is smart and strong, to be sure, but she'll be remembered longest – by both devoted admirers and bitter critics – as the leader who insisted Germany could and should do more to help indebted countries survive Europe's sovereign debt crisis (2010-12) and to manage the surge of migrants that followed unrest in the Middle East (2015-16). Her improvisational talents also led her to change tack on nuclear power (after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan) and on common European debt.

But the main reason Merkel leaves power with an 80 percent approval rating is that, whether she receives more credit than she deserves, she has presided over a period of economic expansion and prosperity in Germany that few other world leaders can match. It's all the more remarkable then that her party looks set to find itself in opposition once a new government is formed. It's Merkel that German voters like, not her political family.

Bottom-line: Whatever he accomplishes as Germany's next chancellor, Olaf Scholz will find Angela Merkel a tough act to follow.

Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, shares insights on US politics:

Is a US government shutdown coming?

Hard to say. Republicans and Democrats generally are in agreement about the need to fund the government. And they generally agree at what level the government should be funded. And they generally agree about the need for supplemental money for Afghanistan and some natural disasters, coming out of hurricanes this season and wildfires. What they're not in agreement about is the federal debt limit, which is the cap on US borrowing that the US hit in early August and needs to be extended by some time in October. Otherwise, the US will have a first-ever default. This would be a very bad outcome with cataclysmic results for the entire world economy.

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Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen a lot during her 16 years in power. She's navigated a global economic recession, multiple wars in the Middle East which sparked an EU refugee crisis, and now a once-in-a-generation pandemic. Often the only woman in the room, Merkel has had to learn to tactfully deal with dozens of idiosyncratic world leaders. Many have come and gone since 2005, but Merkel has won elections again and again. We take a look at who she's dealt with from the top democracies (by economic size) throughout her tenure.

In May 2020, economic historian Adam Tooze told GZERO World he feared 1 in 5 American workers could still be out of job now due to COVID. It didn't happen. Why? Tooze says he failed to anticipate how quickly we'd get highly effective vaccines, and the scale of the economic stimulus the government was willing to put up. During the 2008 financial crisis, he explains, "we were still beginning to flex our muscles with regards to economic policy, and the scale of fiscal and monetary stimulus that we've seen is as unprecedented as the shock of the spring of last year."

Watch Tooze's interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television starting Friday 9/23/21. Check local listings.

Will Evergrande be China's Lehman Bros? Chinese authorities are bracing for the increasingly likely default of Evergrande, the country's most indebted property developer. If Evergrande — a gargantuan corporation with properties in 200 cities across China — stiffs its creditors, that'll send shockwaves throughout the country's financial system, and the wider Chinese economy and society. The possible ripple effects on home buyers and countless companies and individuals that do business with or are owed money by Evergrande have invited comparisons with Lehman Brothers, the US investment bank whose 2008 collapse triggered an American financial crisis that quickly spread to the entire world. Although in principle authoritarian China has ways of containing the fallout, the potential for social unrest is real — and opacity could make it worse. More broadly, the demise of such a big player in the country's once-booming real estate market, which accounts for over 7 percent of GDP, would expose the shaky foundations of China's debt-driven economic growth model, eroding confidence in China both at home and abroad.

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Betrayal. Treason. Duplicity. These are some of the words used by the French government to describe the US' recent decision to freeze Paris out of a new security pact with the UK and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, which nixed a contract for Australia to buy French submarines.

Macron's subsequent tough stance against one of its oldest and closest allies is unusual, including his decision to briefly recall the French ambassador from Washington, the first time a French president has done so. But this headstrong strategy is also a deliberate diplomatic choice.

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