On the evening of Republic Day on 25 July and after multiple protests across the country, Tunisian President Kais Saied announced a series of measures that turned the country’s political scene upside down.
Ennahda, the Islamist movement that had controlled the political scene for years, found itself isolated without significant support inside or outside the country and with no allies or prospect of national dialogue in sight after Saied suspended the Tunisian parliament whose speaker is Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi.
This sudden and unexpected change has muddied the waters not just for Ennahda, but also for the country as a whole, already on edge as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and an ongoing economic crisis. It is not known what will happen at the end of the 30-day period of suspension announced by Saied as part of the exceptional measures taken on 25 July.
For Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow at Carnegie’s Middle East Programme and an expert on Tunisia, there are several possible scenarios including a negotiated roadmap drawn up with the assistance of civil-society groups that Saied could agree to and allow the parliament to return to its normal functioning.
“We could also see Saied extend the emergency period past the 30 days and for another 30 days or more. We could see more protests if Saied does not begin to deliver on economic growth or pandemic relief or fighting corruption,” Yerkes, a former US state department and Pentagon official, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
For many Tunisians, the option of relaunching a national dialogue including Ennahda remains out of the question. Most believe that the president will take time before he shows his hand and may even extend the state of emergency.
“I expect the 30-day emergency period to be extended. Saied himself has said that this is possible, so the most likely scenario to my mind is some sort of roadmap put forward by Saied, possibly in consultation with civil society, that calls for new elections and a constitutional referendum on the electoral law,” Yerkes said.
This scenario worries Ghannouchi, who has said that Ennahda is ready to make concessions to “protect democracy”.
The president of Ennahda and speaker of parliament said in an interview with the French news agency AFP that his party was ready to make any concessions necessary to restore democracy. “For us, the constitution is more important than power,” he said.
Ghannouchi added that a new national dialogue would enable the country to emerge from the crisis. “If no agreement is reached on the next government, I will call on the people to defend their freedom and to reopen the doors of parliament,” he said.
The statement has been considered to be an indirect threat and a message to Saied and his supporters. However, such statements do not seem to affect most Tunisians, who no longer see Ennahda as the powerful force it was after the Jasmine Revolution in 2011.
It has been weakened substantially, and there is tremendous popular anger at Ghannouchi and his party for their failure to deliver over the past decade. As the only party to have been in power continuously since 2011, Ennahda shoulders an immense amount of blame for the present situation.
However, despite such reactions, observers say that while Ennahda has received a hard blow, it is not a fatal one, and the party could find a way of upsetting Saied’s plans.
The chances of achieving a specific scenario depend on the tactics of the main players, especially the president whose ability to manage things in the coming period, fight corruption, mitigate the economic crisis and control the pandemic will be important if he is to retain his authority and the confidence of his partners.
According to Yerkes, one of the keys to preserving this young democracy is civil society. “Tunisian civil society is incredibly strong and dedicated to seeing the gains the country has fought for so hard over the past decade succeed. It is not going to be easy, but as long as civil society keeps pushing Saied to follow the democratic path, Tunisia can weather this storm,” she said.
Some 30 national figures in Tunisia signed an open letter addressed to national and international public opinion this week. Tunisian academic and social media activist Olfa Youssef, one of the signatories, told the Weekly that the goal of the initiative was to respond to the allegations of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters that what had happened in Tunisia was a coup against the constitution.
The letter was designed to support the president in his actions in response to a popular uprising and as a result of the situation in the country where collapse is looming in every field.
“Our call aims to correct wrong political choices and affirm that we are committed and adhered to democracy, individual freedoms and accountability within the framework of the law without redress or retaliation,” Youssef said.
“Tunisia is a sovereign state, and we reject any foreign interference in the people’s choices. The list of names remains open to all who wish to join it,” she concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly