Tunisia on edge

Imen Boudali, Wednesday 28 Jul 2021

Uncertainty prevails in Tunisia after the president’s confrontation with the Islamist Ennahda Party this week


Tunisian President Kais Saied suspended parliament and immunity for MPs and fired the government this week, citing “imminent danger” to the country.

The move underlined his reputation as an unknown quantity and a political outsider whose success in the 2019 presidential elections came as a thunderbolt to the country’s established parties.

It plunged Tunisia’s still young and fragile democracy into uncertainty, while generating protests among Saied’s opponents, notably the Islamist Ennahda Party.

Tunisia’s 2019 elections produced a parliament without a clear majority, leading to a complicated political situation that has frustrated the economic recovery and led to additional problems in managing the Covid-19 pandemic.

In recent weeks, the country has faced soaring Covid-19 cases and deaths from the virus, with one of Africa’s highest infection rates.

On Sunday, Saied announced game-changing measures for the country, which has been stuck for months in a constitutional impasse. There have been apparently endless conflicts between the parties in parliament and a standoff between the president and Speaker of Parliament Rachid Ghannouchi, also leader of the Ennahda Movement.

The tense political climate and the economic difficulties fuelled by public dissatisfaction and the Covid-19 pandemic have resulted in a precarious situation and undeniable popular anger.

On the occasion of the 64th anniversary of the Tunisian Republic on 25 July, many Tunisians took to the streets to make their voices heard and express their rejection of a failing political class. They demanded the dissolution of the parliament and the departure of a government deemed to be incompetent.

“That day I went out onto the streets to celebrate, as I do every year on 25 July despite the general situation. But what was different was that I could feel the rage of my fellow citizens walking alongside me to protest in front of the parliament,” said Yosra Chikhaoui, a young activist.

She recalled sensing the anger and frustration of the protesters, triggering the feeling that the day was going to change something for the country. “Everyone had a feeling that the protest was not like any other. People had been tired and furious for months, even years, and it was the moment to say enough is enough,” she added.

 Saied, for months engaged in a standoff with the Islamist movement, then sacked the government, froze the work of parliament, and took personal charge of the executive. This dramatic turn of events, a shock for a country that since 2014 has been operating on the basis of compromise, has transformed the political scene and led to protests from Saied’s opponents.

Following the announcement on Sunday, Ennahda immediately denounced what it called “a coup against the revolution and against the Constitution.” Ghannouchi, 80, observed a sit-in in front of the parliament to protest against his being denied access by military forces. He has chaired meetings of his office online from a car parked in front of the parliament building.

For Tunisian political expert Sghaier Hidri, Ennahda has never been as weak as it is today, and its frailty has been translated into the absence of a popular response to Ghannouchi’s call to support him in his sit-in.

“The electoral base of the Ennahda movement has seen a notable decline in recent years, which explains the lack of a large mobilisation of its supporters. It is therefore in an unprecedentedly thorny situation, with a reduced number of supporters and no significant political support. Even the declarations of its leaders aimed at winning the sympathy of foreign parties have not been echoed,” Hidri told Al-Ahram Weekly.

But the Islamist movement was quickly supported by its two powerful parliamentary partners, the Heart of Tunisia and Karama Parties, which also claimed that Saied had carried out a coup. Former president Moncef Marzouki said the decisions made by Saied could be the beginning of a slippery slope, leaving Tunisia “in an even worse situation”.

Saied has found supporters in the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), however, which has joined the president in his undeclared war against Ennahda.

Among international reactions to the move, Turkey denounced what it called “a blow to the democratic process in Tunisia”. The Turkish Anadolu News Agency reported that Turkey wanted to see “a quick return of democratic legitimacy in Tunisia, according to the provisions of the Tunisian constitution.”

Western reactions were more reassuring, with Spokeswoman for the German Foreign Ministry Maria Adebahr saying that her country did not regard the events in Tunisia as a “coup”. 

The US has followed the same line, and the EU has called on all Tunisian parties to maintain calm in order to preserve the stability of the country. Josep Borrell, EU high representative for foreign policy, said that Brussels was closely following the situation.

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday that Russia was closely following developments in Tunisia, indicating that it hoped that the events would not threaten the security of Tunisian citizens.

Reactions from the Arab countries have thus far been restrained.

“We can say that the international reactions have surprised the Islamist movement, which expected more. Faced with this situation, it is now seeking a settlement to avoid the prosecution of its leaders or their exile. Ennahda now finds itself entangled and its own existence threatened,” Hidri said.

While the future of the democratic experience in Tunisia is still uncertain, observers say things should become clearer in the weeks to come.

While many hope that the country will now be able to focus on the fight against the pandemic and the need to support the economic recovery, further resistance from Ennahda cannot be ruled out.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 29 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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