The angry nationwide protests against poverty, police brutality, the country’s political elite and a spiraling Covid-19 pandemic, followed by the startling announcement of an attempt to poison President Kais Saied and the power struggle between the president, prime minister and parliamentary speaker, were a precursor to the implosion of Tunisia’s decade-long democratic transformation a few months later.
At the peak of Tunisia’s sweltering summer, Saied suspended parliament, lifted parliamentary immunity, fired the prime minister and declared emergency measures amid a pandemic crisis that almost brought the country to a standstill. In September, he cemented his power grab by assuming executive and legislative powers and ruling by decree.
Speaking in the name of “the people,” Saied has vowed never to return to the pre-July 25 order when he froze parliament, accused his political opponents of treason and pledged a “corrective” movement to Tunisia’s 2011 uprising.
In a 40-minute long televised speech on 13 December Saied announced a roadmap for change, setting dates for a referendum on constitutional changes on 25 July and legislative elections on 17 December 2022. He said the process would begin in January with online public consultations that will end on 20 March, which marks Tunisia’s independence day.
While the former constitutional law professor-turned-strongman has emerged as the sole face of Tunisia’s politics, scenes of the deadly fire in December at the headquarters of the Ennahda Movement in Tunis, home of the country’s largest political party, have provided a political metaphor for the country’s changing times.
The tumult has begged the question that has been in the minds of many for months: is this the end of Tunisia’s decade of democratic transformation? Between pessimists, including Saied’s critics, and the president’s supporters, any answer to this question seems to be weighed down with uncertainty.
Today, Tunisia has no parliament, a partially enforced constitution, and a president wielding unprecedented powers. This no longer makes it a democracy, but still does not qualify it as an authoritarian state, observers say.
“It is somewhere in the grey zone,” said Youssef Cherif, a political analyst and director of Columbia Global Centres, a US institution, in Tunis. “Saied has steered Tunisia to no man’s land.”
Speaking in a recent Webinar by Oxford University’s Middle East Centre in the UK on “Tunisia’s political crisis: the end of democracy?” Cherif cautioned against “black-and-white” interpretations of developments in Tunisia.
Rights groups have sounded the alarm at the proliferation of arbitrary and politically motivated acts of repression since Saied’s power grab. Three Tunisian MPs have been imprisoned for speech offenses, and at least 50 Tunisians have been placed under arbitrary house arrest, including former officials, a judge and three lawmakers, according to the US NGO Human Rights Watch.
Dozens of others have faced arbitrary travel bans, and the authorities have shut down three TV stations critical of the president for failing to obtain licences.
Yet, Tunisians are still capable of expressing themselves openly in the public sphere, Cherif said, because of freedoms gained in the decade following the uprising against former Tunisian president Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali.
The first protest against Saied’s measures was held in September, only metres away from another demonstration supporting him in central Tunis. Since then, more anti-Saied protests have been staged, and they have noticeably increased in size and political diversity.
The recently formed Citizens Against the Coup initiative, which organised the largest protest seen last month, was denied a permit to hold a press conference in a city hall.
Saied named university professor Najla Bouden as the country’s new prime minister two months after his July intervention. The new government, which includes eight female ministers, was formed in October.
“On a positive note, we see a civilian government, not a security government, or a government that responds to the political whims of this or that group,” Cherif said.
“There have been no bloodbaths in the country… and no immediate threat to the freedom of expression,” he added.
When the offices of the Qatari TV channel Aljazeera in Tunis were raided after Saied’s July intervention, its reporters were still free to report and move around the country.
Similarly, when Tunisians Against the Coup could not hold a press conference in a hall, they were able to do so in the street, which got them more publicity. There are regular anti-Saied demonstrations, and Tunisia’s main labour union the UGTT has resumed industrial action without being harassed.
“Democracy hasn’t ended in Tunisia,” Cherif said.
Saied was a barely known political outsider when he won the 2019 elections in a landslide. In both the presidential and legislative elections, Tunisian voters snubbed most of the country’s traditional political parties, resulting in a deeply fragmented parliament barely capable of consensus.
Saied’s popularity skyrocketed after his intervention in July, and according to Tunisia expert at Oxford University Anne Wolf, recent polls show a satisfaction rate of 80 per cent with his rule.
“This is also due to his populist strategy of power consolidation,” Wolf said. “He portrays himself as the leader of the Tunisian revolution who speaks for the people.”
When asked about his political project, Saied often replies that
“I want what the people want.” If he’s asked the follow-up question what do the people want, he says “the people know what they want,” she explained.
During his presidential campaign and long before his 2019 win, Saied was vocal in his aversion to Tunisia’s political class and democratic model. As an anti-establishment man, he envisaged an alternative form of democratic representation in which elected local council members would advance to parliament.
Saied has always envisioned a powerful president for Tunisia, said Wolf, and he should not be underestimated.
“He instigates confusion about his project because it buys him time – and when people are confused, they’re not organising as forcefully against him because they’re still hoping something positive will come out of the crisis,” she added.
On 9 December, a statement by the Tunisian presidency said that Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution was no longer “valid.”
“The way forward is to return to the people in a completely new and different way. There must be a legal solution based on the will and sovereignty of the people,” the statement, quoting Saied, said.
The president has vowed to introduce changes to the Constitution through a committee of experts appointed by the presidency.
The following day, member states of the G7 group issued a statement reiterating its previous position of urging Tunisia to announce a “clear timeline” and a swift return to functioning democratic institutions “with an elected parliament playing a significant role.”
The statement came as a reminder of the international pressures on Saied and Tunisia’s deep economic crisis, as much-needed loans and financial assistance remain contingent on Western support, which he does not have.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE have come out in support of Saied’s 25 July intervention. Algeria, France and Italy have barely issued criticisms of his decisions, remarked Cherif.
“However, four months after the power grab, none of these countries have offered the billions of dollars Tunisians need to pass the winter,” he said. “So far, their support is moral, not physical.”
His roadmap, however, was welcomed by the European Union, which described the timeline for elections as “an important step towards restoring institutional stability and balance.”
Domestically, Saied is politically isolated despite his popularity, having vilified Tunisia’s entire political class, including the million-strong UGTT, which initially supported his decision to freeze the parliament.
On 17 December, the anniversary of the Tunisian 2010 uprising, hundreds protested Saied’s roadmap in central Tunis’s Habib Bourguiba Avenue as a smaller counter demonstration supporting him was held nearby. Protestors said police prevented thousands from joining the demonstration, which called for the president to step down. The Citizens Against the Coup (CAC) initiative held a small sit-in, which was cordoned off by security forces.
Jouhar Ben Mubarak, a constitutional law expert and CAC leader said the roadmap is designed to “perpetuate” the political crisis. Noureddine Taboubi, UGTT’s secretary general, said the elections calendar does not address the country’s economic and social problems.
Observers say that Saied’s ability to confront sharpening opposition and Tunisia’s growing economic and political crisis means a bigger role for the security apparatus and military institutions.
“Saied will not be able to uphold his popular support base forever,” said Oxford University’s Wolf. “If anything, the current political crisis will just make things much worse, which makes his political future dependent on the support he receives from the army,” Wolf said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly