Tunisia marked the anniversary of the fall of the Zine Al-Abidine bin Ali regime on 14 January with angry protests against the government of Tunisian President Kais Saied against a backdrop of worsening economic straits in the country.
Several parallel marches were organised by an array of opposition forces including the Free Constitutional Party, the Tunisia Salvation Front, and the Islamist-oriented Ennahda Party, and these were joined by various other parties and civil society organisations.
The political forces issued statements vowing to “continue the struggle” to realise the aims of the Tunisian Revolution that overthrew Ben Ali in 2011 and to oppose Saied’s “anti-democratic course.” The demonstrators attempted to break through the security barriers that had been put up in the streets, leading to clashes with the security forces.
The day of protests appears to have had little effect, however. Saied continues to enjoy popularity, according to opinion polls, and on the previous day, 13 January, he toured the very area that his political adversaries later chose to stage the demonstrations. Police had to clear the way through the crowds that had gathered to cheer him on as he made his way to the Old City of Tunis.
“I walk among the Tunisian people. I fear only God and responsibility,” Saied said in a televised statement. “There can be no turning back. There is no place for traitors in Tunisia.”
It was the second time in a week that Saied had gone into the streets of the capital to meet people. The previous week, he went to the other side of the Medina, or Old City, to speak with various young people.
However, as hard as the government has been working to remedy the structural problems of the economy, it is impossible to deny that the socioeconomic crisis in Tunisia has tightened its grip. The country’s opposition forces have seized on this in order to boost their public profile and to press their demands on the government.
It has long been a practice of the opposition forces in Tunisia to take advantage of the complex difficulties that have plagued the country for years to put pressure on the government. This applies in particular to Ennahda, as it was sidelined by Saied’s decrees of July 2021 that steered the country back to a presidential system and reduced the influence of the political parties.
The irony is that Ennahda’s own popularity had plummeted against the backdrop of the same difficulties. Saied holds Ennahda and its allies responsible for the worsening economic straits that Tunisia has experienced during the past decade and accused them of treason and corruption. Many of their leaders currently face prosecution on various charges.
The Islamist Party and other opposition forces have pursued various means to recuperate their lost political clout and build up pressure on Saied. Among the most familiar has been the attempt to mar his and the Tunisian government’s image abroad by marketing certain stereotypes that are readily consumed in the Western media.
Most recently, they have cast aspersions on the legitimacy of the legislative elections that were held in Tunisia in December, citing the low voter turnout and the boycott of the electoral process by many political forces. They have also seized on an opening provided by the tensions between the government and the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), which has called for a “national battle to save Tunisia,” set the date for a general transportation strike later this month, and warned of possible additional strikes if its demands are not met.
Saied is not the only target of the opposition forces. They have also had Prime Minister Najla Bouden and her cabinet in their crosshairs, saying that the government’s attempts to stem the economic attrition and the slide of the Tunisian currency the dinar have met with little success.
The government has been working to implement a number of structural reforms to the economy in order to obtain a desperately needed $1.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF executive board was due to issue its final decision on this loan in December, but the fact that it has delayed its decision twice so far has added arrows to the opposition forces’ quiver. They point to this as proof that international donor organisations lack confidence in the Tunisian economy.
Many members of the opposition have genuine concerns that Saied’s decrees and policies have precipitated increasing sociopolitical polarisation and socioeconomic deterioration. However, their protest actions, despite the general inefficacy of the opposition due to the antagonism and ideological gulf between its Islamist and secularist factions, may also have adverse effects.
They will likely only aggravate the sociopolitical divides in the country, not least because of the tensions between the Islamist Ennahda and the UGTT and secularist political parties.
It is also likely that the waves of protests and strikes will further stress government institutions in Tunisia and complicate the management of the economy. It appears that it was the prospect of political unrest that led the IMF Executive Board to defer its final approval of the much-needed loan.
Nevertheless, all the signs are that the streets of Tunisia will remain the main arena for the battle between the country’s opposition forces and the president and the government.
The economic crisis in the country, along with deteriorating living standards and socioeconomic tensions, generate a fertile environment for the manoeuvres of Saied’s political adversaries. However, the president still possesses considerable domestic and foreign support, as well as other assets that should at least enable him to contain the impacts of their actions.
This is all the more the case in the light of the sharp divisions within the opposition camp, one manifestation of which was the anti-Muslim Brotherhood and anti-Ennahda placards held up by members of the Free Constitutional Party in their separate march in Tunis on 14 January.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.