Revolution, Democracy and the Tunisian Exception

1 August, 2021
Protesters in the streets of Tunis on Sunday, July 25, 2021 (courtesy Tunisie Numérique).
Pro­test­ers in the streets of Tunis on Sun­day, July 25, 2021 (cour­tesy Tunisie Numérique).

On Sun­day, July 25th, after a day of nation­wide protest, Tunisian Pres­i­dent Kaïs Saïed announced the dis­so­lu­tion of Par­lia­ment and the gov­ern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter Hichem Mechichi.

Iason Athanasiadis

The Tunisian demo­c­ra­t­ic roller­coast­er has gone into over­drive, seek­ing an author­i­tar­i­an anti­dote to sys­temic demise. But can reform come through sus­pend­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic processes?

A young woman clasps her heart as she swings around on the street, then col­laps­es against a wall: “My husband’s in prison and my newlyborn’s still held in the hos­pi­tal,” she gasps as bystanders shuf­fle for­ward in the over-40 degree heat to offer her water.

In the near­by market’s veg­etable stalls, cus­tomers shrug hope­less­ly at the unaf­ford­able prices of food­stuffs that con­tin­ue ris­ing. Civ­il ser­vants loi­ter out­side the min­istry dis­trict wait­ing to be allowed back in by the secu­ri­ty forces cur­rent­ly occu­py­ing them.

Mean­while, scarce oxy­gen cylin­ders are divid­ed one to every three patients in un-air­con­di­tioned med­ical clin­ics in this North African coun­try with the high­est Covid-19 death tolls.

Tunisian cit­i­zens have been suf­fer­ing from the con­se­quences of their state’s inabil­i­ty to guar­an­tee both more abstract con­cepts such as social jus­tice along­side cor­ner­stones of the social con­tract like a func­tion­ing health sys­tem, sta­ble prices for essen­tials, or even potable tap-water. Their trou­bles — and hopes that Tunisia’s post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary dead­lock might be bro­ken — are what prompt­ed them to sup­port a polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion by their Pres­i­dent that looked a lot like a coup.

“The past decade proved we’re not pre­pared for democ­ra­cy,” said Arbi, a taxi-dri­ver, “so if the Pres­i­dent changes the sys­tem from par­lia­men­tary to pres­i­den­tial, I don’t see a prob­lem with that.”

“We’ll nev­er allow them to flee again”

The Tunisian cap­i­tal has been bak­ing in a sum­mer-long heat­wave, a Covid-19 pan­dem­ic surg­ing out of con­trol since May, and rapid polit­i­cal devel­op­ments as of 25 July, the anniver­sary of the Tunisian Repub­lic on which Pres­i­dent Kaïs Saïed chose to unleash a cam­paign labelled an anti-cor­rup­tion dri­ve by some and a pow­er-grab by oth­ers. The com­bi­na­tion of an evening cur­few begin­ning well before sun­set at 7pm (it was moved to 10pm in the sec­ond week) and siz­zling days, tam­pered any appetite for active resis­tance to the avalanche of fir­ings, deten­tions and finan­cial inves­ti­ga­tions being announced on a dai­ly basis.

Oper­at­ing from the pres­i­den­tial palace in Carthage, and flanked by chiefs of the Army and the secu­ri­ty ser­vices, Saïed ini­ti­at­ed his dra­mat­ic polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion by send­ing the Army into the Par­lia­ment, lift­ing law­mak­ers’ par­lia­men­tary immu­ni­ty, and neu­tral­iz­ing the Judi­cia­ry by assum­ing con­trol of the Office of the Chief Pros­e­cu­tor. Hun­dreds of politi­cians, busi­ness­men and pub­lic fig­ures were banned from trav­el out­side Tunisia.

“We learned our les­son after the 2011 Rev­o­lu­tion,” said one Tunisian who didn’t want to be named, in ref­er­ence to for­mer dic­ta­tor Ben Ali who fled to Sau­di Ara­bia, “and we’ll nev­er allow them to flee again.”

But even despite wide­spread pop­u­lar sup­port for his inter­ven­tion (the first opin­ion poll released reg­is­tered four in five Tunisians approv­ing his actions), and a sense that he is seek­ing to pull his repub­lic out of a death spi­ral of cor­rup­tion, the nar­ra­tive of sur­gi­cal reform soon began to leak into glimpses of author­i­tar­i­an­ism. With­in the first week, inter­na­tion­al jour­nal­ists arriv­ing at Tunis Inter­na­tion­al had their equip­ment con­fis­cat­ed, sev­er­al par­lia­men­tar­i­ans and a judge were detained or sub­ject­ed to house arrest (although their arrests were alleged­ly relat­ed to pre-exist­ing sen­tences from which the waiv­ing of their par­lia­men­tary immu­ni­ty no longer pro­tect­ed them), and claims emerged that sacked Prime Min­is­ter Hisham Mechichi agreed to resign only after being threat­ened and phys­i­cal­ly abused dur­ing a bruis­ing Sun­day meet­ing at the Pres­i­den­tial Palace. Although Mechichi lat­er issued a pub­lic denial, he has remained out of sight ever since. A four-day pres­i­den­tial vis­it to Egypt in April to which Egypt­ian mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor Abdelfat­tah Sisi accord­ed great impor­tance may have laid the scenog­ra­phy for Saïed’s chal­lenge, amid claims that Egypt­ian advis­ers are also present in Tunis.

The optics got stranger when a New York Times team, detained while report­ing in the work­ing-class Tunis neigh­bor­hood al-Tadamun on Fri­day, reap­peared hours lat­er in the com­pa­ny of the Pres­i­dent wear­ing their for­mal best in a gilt-edged pro­to­col room. Saïed recit­ed the Amer­i­can Constitution’s intro­duc­tion in French, waved a print-out while lec­tur­ing them on its con­tents, and assured them they would be free to prac­tice their pro­fes­sion (even though some of their equip­ment had been con­fis­cat­ed too).

“I don’t trust Kaïs Saïed but I think this is an ‘oppor­tu­ni­ty’ Tunisian civ­il soci­ety can seize and expro­pri­ate from the Pres­i­dent and the Army,” said Iheb Guer­mazi, an aca­d­e­m­ic and researcher at MIT. “With­out such acts of pop­u­lar active appro­pri­a­tion of this chaos, with the ama­teurism Saïed is cur­rent­ly show­ing, and the increas­ing for­eign pres­sure com­ing to restore insti­tu­tions, I’m doubt­ful things will get bet­ter soon.”

So how did Arab Spring ini­tia­tor and suc­cess sto­ry Tunisia enter this new twist in its decade-long journey?

An unlike­ly rebel 

Pres­i­dent Kaïs Saïed is an aca­d­e­m­ic and con­sti­tu­tion­al law expert who emerged from polit­i­cal obscu­ri­ty on a groundswell of youth sup­port in the 2019 elec­tion to defeat a taint­ed media mogul. Saïed was brought to the fore by expec­ta­tions he would reform a 2014 Tunisian Con­sti­tu­tion that was in itself the prod­uct of an ear­li­er polit­i­cal cri­sis that brought the coun­try to the brink of civ­il strife.

Saïed is replete with con­tra­dic­tions: a wood­en, media-shy fig­ure whose declam­a­to­ry clas­si­cal Ara­bic did noth­ing to reduce his pop­u­lar­i­ty with a Tunisian youth dis­il­lu­sioned with its polit­i­cal class; he shut down the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood despite ini­tial­ly being sus­pect­ed by sec­u­lar Tunisians of being a cryp­to-reli­gious con­ser­v­a­tive; and jus­ti­fied his frontal assault on his country’s polit­i­cal life by lever­ag­ing the broad­ly-inter­pretable Arti­cle 80 of the Con­sti­tu­tion, which per­mits a head of state to take unspec­i­fied excep­tion­al mea­sures in the event of an “immi­nent threat.” Last Sun­day, the “immi­nent threat” was lim­it­ed vio­lence accom­pa­ny­ing street protests, although sup­port­ers have glossed over this by focus­ing on the metaphor­i­cal threat of a coun­try on the verge of collapse.

A post­mod­ern coup?

In front of the Par­lia­ment, housed in the Ottoman-era beyli­cal Bar­do Palace, there are no al-Nah­da sup­port­ers in sight. Armored mil­i­tary vehi­cles and police vans are parked inside and out­side of the closed main Par­lia­ment gate. Police per­son­nel and locals sit in a shad­ed cafe across the way, exchang­ing news and gos­sip about the lat­est devel­op­ment. A Tunisian flag cov­ers an Amer­i­can-donat­ed Army vehi­cle parked in such a way as to block the main gate.

The flag is a reminder of the rival claims to legit­i­ma­cy appealed to by the two sides, best cap­tured on the night of Saïed’s inter­ven­tion, when Rachid Ghan­nouchi head­ed to the Par­lia­ment to chal­lenge the Army. Find­ing his way blocked, he point­ed to the large lock on the gate and demand­ed it be removed, but was asked to get per­mis­sion from the Min­is­ter of Defense first.

“We took an oath to pro­tect the Con­sti­tu­tion,” a woman accom­pa­ny­ing Rachid Ghan­nouchi, the head of al-Nah­da and Speak­er of the Par­lia­ment, said.

“And we took an oath to pro­tect the Home­land,” shot back the offi­cer, send­ing the video viral.

While the EU has large­ly remained on the fence, US Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advi­sor Jake Sul­li­van called Kaïs Saïed on Sat­ur­day and urged him to form a new gov­ern­ment and ensure the time­ly return of an elect­ed gov­ern­ment, in a like­ly ref­er­ence to the one-month sus­pen­sion Saïed imposed. Tunisians are con­vinced that the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood is using pow­er­ful lob­by­ists in Wash­ing­ton to swing sup­port behind themselves.

But in Tunis’ quaint colo­nial down­town, a juice-shop own­er on the bat­tered Avenue des Lon­dres minces no words about the head of al-Nah­da, call­ing him a “dog” who should be dis­posed of. At a tech­nol­o­gy mall called Gal­lerie 7, repair tech­ni­cian Abduh believes we are wit­ness­ing the self-cor­rect­ing process­es of a lit­tle-under­stood coun­try that ren­ders it an excep­tion to its region: “The Egyp­tians and oth­er Arabs have no under­stand­ing of how Tunisia func­tions. We have our own rhythm, and we always avoid vio­lence: com­pare how quick­ly what hap­pened here over the past few days, end­ed, with the amount of blood­shed Egypt wit­nessed dur­ing its coup in 2013.”

“The ques­tion ‘coup or not coup’ belongs to a west­ern polit­i­cal the­ol­o­gy where democ­ra­cy is the reli­gious dog­ma and the coup is the blas­phe­my,” said Guer­mazi, the aca­d­e­m­ic. “Know­ing if this was a coup or not belongs to a com­fort­able legal­is­tic, con­cep­tu­al and lin­guis­tic puri­tanism that Tunisians today can­not afford in front of the huge san­i­tary, social and eco­nom­ic cri­sis we’re living.”


A sta­t­ic decade

Tunisia has been drift­ing in and out of polit­i­cal cri­sis for the decade I have been vis­it­ing and liv­ing here. On my first vis­it, a few months after the 2011 Jas­mine Rev­o­lu­tion, I wit­nessed armed groups of shop­keep­ers fac­ing off on the com­mer­cial streets of Tunis cen­tre-ville with unli­censed street­sellers infil­trat­ing the for­mer­ly pic­ture-post­card colo­nial dis­trict. On lat­er vis­its, I not­ed the hor­ri­fied looks which sec­u­lar bathers cast on Salafi fam­i­lies enter­ing ful­ly-dressed into the sea to cool off, and the width of the social gulf between coastal and inland, French- and Ara­bic-speak­ing Tunisians. Mean­while, unprece­dent­ed num­bers of Salafists were trav­el­ing to fight along­side the Islam­ic State, and al-Nah­da, which swept the 2011 elec­tions, stood accused of cul­ti­vat­ing them.

In 2015, a series of ter­ror­ist strikes against West­ern tourists at the Nation­al Muse­um and a beach resort, shut off one of Tunisia’s sole sources of for­eign cur­ren­cy. A lat­er attack on a Nation­al Guard bus prompt­ed coun­try­wide mil­i­tary oper­a­tions and a nation­al cur­few. All along, the econ­o­my was sink­ing into a morass of sta­t­ic salaries, a depre­ci­at­ing cur­ren­cy and ris­ing prices, lead­ing the coun­try into nego­ti­a­tions with the IMF on a 4‑bil­lion-dol­lar loan after reg­is­ter­ing a near­ly 9% con­trac­tion in the first year of the pan­dem­ic. The Fitch rat­ings agency down­grad­ed the econ­o­my to B- in ear­ly July. Already since 2017, Tunisians had been vot­ing with their feet and emi­grat­ing abroad, whether through the air­port or by get­ting onto boats along­side sub-Saha­ran Africans.

Rather than being exclu­sive­ly domes­tic, events in Tunisia also have a Mediter­ranean angle: the Mus­lim Brotherhood’s great­est ally, Turkey, was the only coun­try to open­ly crit­i­cize Saïed’s actions. Turkey’s com­peti­tor (and for­mer Tunisian colo­nial over­lord) France, has remained elo­quent­ly silent. Turkey is mil­i­tar­i­ly present in neigh­bor­ing Libya but its over­tures were rebuffed by Tunisia, which has close ties with tra­di­tion­al­ly anti-Mus­lim Broth­er­hood Arab coun­tries such as Sau­di Ara­bia, the Emi­rates and Egypt, all of whom main­tain cool rela­tions with Ankara.

Hav­ing side­lined the Tunisian polit­i­cal class, Saïed has diver­si­fied his alliance with the Army through an open­ing to civ­il soci­ety, hold­ing meet­ings as of the ear­ly hours of his tran­si­tion with the pow­er­ful Tunisian Gen­er­al Labor Union and NGOs.

“What relieves me is that there’s an active civ­il soci­ety in Tunisia that is par­tic­i­pat­ing in this tran­si­tion but also observ­ing and keep­ing the insti­tu­tions account­able,” said Ahlam Bousser­wel, the gen­er­al sec­re­tary of the Asso­ci­a­tion Tunisi­enne des Femmes Démoc­rates. “We have asked for a com­mit­tee that can ensure civ­il soci­ety par­tic­i­pa­tion, make pro­pos­als, mon­i­tor and criticize.”

If Saïed’s unortho­dox tran­si­tion is to be suc­cess­ful, the way ahead will pass through a com­pre­hen­sive anti-cor­rup­tion dri­ve that cleans­es Tunisia of a very Mediter­ranean and Arab trait: an entrenched series of net­works con­struct­ed on a wasta approach to social rela­tions and the econ­o­my. Any­thing less would mere­ly mark the replace­ment of one group with anoth­er, and fail to stop a promis­ing country’s con­tin­u­ing demise.

“The real ques­tion is not whether this was good or bad, with­in a west­ern clas­si­cal mor­al­iz­ing frame,” said Guer­mazi, the aca­d­e­m­ic. “The real ques­tion is whether this was avoid­able or not, and to me the answer is a clear no.”

CarthageCovid-19 pandemicdemocracyJasmine RevoutionTunisTunisiawasta

TMR contributing editor Iason Athanasiadis is a Mediterranean-focused multimedia journalist based between Athens, Istanbul, and Tunis. He uses all media to recount the story of how we can adapt to the era of climate change, mass migration, and the misapplication of distorted modernities. He studied Arabic and Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford, Persian and Contemporary Iranian Studies in Tehran, and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard, before working for the United Nations between 2011 and 2018. He received the Anna Lindh Foundation’s Mediterranean Journalism Award for his coverage of the Arab Spring in 2011, and its 10th-anniversary alumni award for his commitment to using all media to tell stories of intercultural dialogue in 2017.


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