Closing Arguments: Turmoil in Tunisia, Dangerous Drought in Iran

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group

Tunisia: Democracy Under Attack In the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010-11, Tunisia emerged as the singular success story, with autocratic President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali forced from power by massive protests, and a democratically elected government installed that saw secular and religious parties working side by side in accordance with the rule of law. Fast forward a decade, and Tunisia's experiment in democracy appears to be gravely imperiled after President Kais Saied fired Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, suspended parliament for 30 days and assumed executive and judicial powers. To justify his actions, which he says are provisional, Saied invoked Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution, which entitles the president, when confronting a “state of imminent danger" to the country, to take the steps required by "exceptional circumstances." Ousted parliamentary speaker Rached Ghannouchi, the veteran head of the Islamist Ennahda party, argues that Saied’s claims were procedurally flawed and his decision to seize power amounted to a coup. Ennahda is the largest political party in the coalition that controlled parliament, and is blamed by Saied for the legislative paralysis that has gripped Tunisia. Political inertia has aggravated an economic crisis magnified by Covid-19 and the resulting losses to the tourism industry, the lifeblood of the country's economy. Public sentiment appears to be on the side of the president, who has also vowed to crack down on corruption, with large crowds taking to the streets in support of his suspension of parliament. But if Ghannouchi, who is backed by Turkey and Qatar, and his Ennahda party become politically stymied, Saied runs the risk of opening the doors in Tunisia to the kind of radical Islamist violence that has become the bane of the Arab world. How the world responds to Saied’s actions will largely depend on what he does in the next 30 days. If he appoints a new prime minister, as promised, and reforms parliament, then the crisis may pass. Unlike others who have seized power in the region, Saied does not appear to favor consolidating authority in the hands of a military-style government, even if he is pushing to unencumber himself from democratic procedures and bypass a corrupt and ineffective parliament in favor of directly elected local councils. But he has purged senior officials, including prosecutors and judges, and lifted the parliamentary immunity of MPs. While many in Tunisia will support such moves, they will be strongly resisted by political parties, including Ennahda. Depending on what path Saied opts to go down, Tunisia -- the birthplace of the democratic uprisings against repressive regimes 10 years ago and the closest they have come to succeeding -- could become the next battleground in the ongoing struggle between secularism and political Islam across the region. Iran: Deepening Water Crisis Iran has witnessed violent protests in recent weeks over critical water shortages brought on by prolonged drought and human mismanagement. While the protests began in southwestern Khuzestan province, which has been gripped by drought since March, the problem of water scarcity is endemic in Iran. Public unrest has spread to neighboring areas, and threatens much of the country. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publicly called for calm and told authorities not to blame the protesters for the government's failure to provide for this basic need. In reality, however, there is no easy solution to Iran's water crisis. The prospect of large swaths of arable land becoming uninhabitable, permanently dislocating of millions of Iranians, is real. The social unrest that Iran has experienced to date is part of a larger socioeconomic emergency driven by climate change that is just beginning, and will impact every country in the Middle East, fueling domestic political unrest and contributing to regional instability. Iran's water shortages are the byproduct of a growing population, sustained by agricultural and energy production practices that are water intensive and inherently wasteful but politically and economically expedient. They make excessive demands on a shrinking water supply that is being depleted at a faster rate than it can be replenished. US sanctions have exacerbated the crisis, with the Iranian government pushing agricultural self-sufficiency and the farmers responding by planting water-intensive crops such as rice and sugarcane in a bid to maximize short-term economic gain. Dams used for agricultural use as well as power generation only make the situation worse, causing massive waste through evaporation. Iran could, in theory, take steps to mitigate the pressures on its water resources -- by completely revamping its agricultural practices, abandoning much of the damming of the Karun and other regional rivers, reducing oil and gas production, and increasing investment in desalinization projects. But such measures are unlikely to happen and, even if some did, they might not reverse the water emergency. Khuzestan is Iran’s largest oil-producing province, and Iran’s economic viability depends on this oil, meaning that Tehran won't turn off the taps there anytime soon, and is in fact looking to develop additional deposits. It has invested heavily in desalinization over the past decade, but the amount of water these projects produce barely makes a dent in the overall demand. The water-driven instability comes on the back of protests in cities, including Tehran, over power cuts, and ahead of hard-line President-elect Ebrahim Raisi's inauguration next week. Thirst, however, is a fundamental danger, and the problems it is creating in Iran are a portend of what the future may hold for the entire region.

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