The largest protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied’s four-month consolidation of power took place near the country’s parliament building in the capital Tunis on Sunday after weeks of quiet.
The newly formed Citizens Against the Coup Movement, which called the protest, claimed that 30,000 people had showed up, a figure disputed by official statements estimating the turnout to be not more than 1,000.
The local media reported that minor scuffles had taken place between the police and protesters who had attempted to reach the parliament building in the Bardo district of Tunis but had been barred from advancing.
“Down with the coup,” they chanted. “Shut down Kais Saied” and “Freedom! Freedom! End the police state!”
One of the protest’s organisers, left-wing activist Jauohar Ben Mbarek, said that thousands more people from outside the capital had been prevented from reaching the demonstration in central Tunis due to road closures and police check points.
The police were responding to rumours that the protesters would attempt to storm the empty parliament building and had sealed off the area.
Despite the restrictions, Sunday’s protest was the largest in months opposing a series of radical measures taken by Saied since 25 July to rule by decree.
After freezing the country’s parliament and dismissing the prime minister, the president suspended parts of the constitution and issued a presidential decree granting himself executive, legislative and judicial powers in September.
Saied’s intervention capitalised on previous anti-government protests, a surge in the Covid-19 pandemic, and rising unemployment and a failed economy, and the fact that Tunisia’s parliament, presidency and prime minister were locked in a power struggle that had led to political stagnation.
“We have been under one-man rule since July 25... We will stay here until they open the roads and end the siege,” Ben Mbarek told Reuters.
A political outsider and a former constitutional law professor, Saied was elected two years ago in a landslide election and continues to enjoy wide public support despite his measures.
Once considered the Arab Spring’s only success story, Tunisia’s decade of democratic elections and successive elected governments and parliaments has failed to deliver economically effective policies.
The disillusioned public mood was felt in the results of both the 2019 legislative and presidential elections that brought Saied to power and punished the traditional political parties including the Islamist Ennahda Movement, the largest political movement in Tunisia.
The outcome resulted in a deeply fragmented and largely paralysed parliament with limited tools for consensus.
For Saied, who has been vocal in his contempt for the country’s political class and Tunisia’s system of democracy, the 2014 Constitution, containing a delicate power-sharing system, is the root cause of the political stagnation.
By suspending parts of the constitution that contradict his emergency measures, Saied says he wants to create a more functional political system and has vowed to form a committee to draft new election laws and amend the constitution.
Observers say that Saied favours a presidential system in Tunisia, but Saied himself has revealed little of how he intends to move forward.
His measures have been under scrutiny from Western governments, however, which have voiced concerns at the continuing absence of a parliament and the suspension of the constitution.
Saied has responded to the criticisms with both assurances and bitter statements alluding to unwanted “interventions” in Tunisian domestic affairs.
But while public opinion in Tunisia still seems to be on his side, most political parties and the country’s elite have expressed their impatience with the status quo. Sunday’s protest was revealing not just in its turnout, but also in the diverse faces involved, who have become more visible in resisting what they describe as Saied’s “coup”.
One such individual is Abderrouf Betbain, a former Saied adviser who was at the front of Sunday’s protest. He told Reuters that Saied’s measures had isolated Tunisia in the region as a country that has been without a parliament since July.
“We want to restore democracy,” he said.
The Citizens Against the Coup Movement appears to be a loose coalition of Ennahda, secular and leftist groups, and independent political figures. According to Ben Mbarek, it will call for more protests and “struggle against the coup until democracy is restored,” as he wrote on his Facebook page.
Earlier this month, the movement launched a “democratic initiative” that aims to combat the emergency measures and mobilise for early legislative and presidential elections after the restoration of parliament.
The powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) supports early elections but has finally come out in support of the freezing of parliament after months of vague statements.
UGTT Secretary-General Noureddine Taboubi said on Sunday that the suspended parliament should “not be reinstated” in a comment to the Qatari network Aljazeera.
Taboubi said he had had a telephone call with the president following Sunday’s protest, and the latter was “open” and “listening” to possible solutions to the ongoing crisis.
He said it was essential for the government to review the country’s electoral law and to hold legislative elections as soon as possible. “We have the ability to find solutions through meaningful and calm dialogue,” he told Aljazeera.
The million-strong UGTT gained more influence in Tunisia after successfully mediating between the warring political forces in the 2015 political crisis under a previous leadership, earning a Nobel Peace Prize along with other entities active in the country’s National Dialogue.
Last month, Saied appointed Najlaa Bouden, a former university professor with some World Bank experience, to form a new government that includes eight women. She has made few statements since, however, and Saied has remained the face of Tunisia’s politics.
Observers caution that Saied’s popularity will be affected if he fails to deliver improvements in the country’s faltering economy.
Tunisia’s unemployment rate rose by 0.5 per cent in the third quarter of this year to 18.4 per cent, with the number of jobless estimated at 762,600 as against 746,400 in the first quarter of 2021, according to official figures released on Monday.
A counter-protest supporting Saied will be held on 17 December on the 11th anniversary of the Tunisian uprising in 2010.