'Living in a state of suspicious silence': Raed Ben Maaouia on battling Tunisia's grim future with hope

Tunisia interview
7 min read
13 September, 2022
The New Arab Meets: Raed Ben Maaouia, a 27-year-old Tunisian civil society activist and the co-founder of Tunisia's social accountability group Association. In this interview, Raed examines Tunisia's future amid a political and economic crisis.

“There's always hope, if there was no hope I would not be talking to you today,” begins Raed Ben Maaouia, a 27-year-old Tunisian civil society activist, when questioned about the grim future of Tunisia after the 25 July referendum.

It was a paradox of hope and despair that gave birth to Tunisia’s spring in 2011. 

In 2011, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor, set himself on fire after an unfair battle with poverty and injustice. 

Bouazizi’s ashes spread hope in the North African country, driving millions of young Tunisians to the streets to oust Ben Ali’s two-decade-long regime. 

Perspectives

The Tunisian audacity of hope swept the Arab world reviving a long-postponed dream of democracy.

A decade later, MENA’s dream of democracy has been crushed under new autocrats’ obsession with power. 

Meanwhile, Tunisia’s democracy, considered the last surviving experience of the Arab spring, is suffocating under Saied’s grip tightened after passing his new constitution on July 25.

However, Raed like many young Tunisians refuses to give up Tunisia’s battle toward democracy.

"The Tunisian audacity of hope swept the Arab world reviving a long-postponed dream of democracy"

Saied's constitution: Dismantling Tunisia's democracy

“Tunisia today is living in a state of recession, a kind of fading opposition, a suspicious silence,” said Raed as he described the ambience in the North African country in the aftermath of the 25 July referendum.

A year ago, President Kais Saied froze the parliament, dismissed the government and announced he will rule by decree. 

As Saied claimed that his exceptional decisions were to defy corruption, his opponents argued that he was simply staging a coup against Tunisia’s democracy. 

“We can say that what happened in July [last year] was a coup from inside the 2014 constitution,” answered Raed after a pause.

Saied, a former constitutional law professor, invoked article 80 of the 2014 constitution last year, which authorises the president to take “any measures necessitated” in case of “imminent threat jeopardising the nation, and the country’s security and independence.”

Despite little hope in Saied’s promised constitution, many Tunisians have given the President the benefit of the doubt. An illusion soon faded after Saied made public on June 30, a controversial draft that sets up a hyper-presidency akin to autocracy.

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Sadok Belaid, the chairman of the constitution commission, which was appointed by the President, has bluntly disowned the public draft, saying it was revised by Saied.

“Saied wrote his own constitution. A constitution that neglects the principle of balance between the powers and makes it impossible for Tunisians to question the President,” Raed, the co-founder of Tunisia's social accountability Association, told The New Arab.

The poll by Sigma Conseil said 92.3 percent of voters in the referendum supported the new constitution, which, with no minimum participation rate requirement, is now set to become law.

"Saied wrote his own constitution. A constitution that neglects the principle of balance between the powers and makes it impossible for Tunisians to question the President"

The controversial text would move Tunisia towards a more presidential system under which Saied would have ultimate authority over the government and judiciary. 

The President would also be allowed to present draft laws, have sole responsibility for proposing treaties and drafting state budgets, appoint or sack government ministers and appoint judges.

The new constitution stipulates that the President would be the head of the armed forces and be charged with naming judges, who would be banned from striking.

Simply, Saied's constitution will make him more powerful than all his opponents and with control over even judiciary power, Tunisia’s opposition fears that facing jail and bogus sentences will be the fate of every criticiser of “the head of the ummah”.

“The new constitution replaced the term of judiciary power by judiciary job, meaning that he [Saied] does not acknowledge the judiciary as a power anymore,” Raed continues. 

In June, President Kais Saied sacked 57 judges, accusing them of corruption and protecting terrorists – charges the Tunisian Judges’ Association said were mostly politically motivated.

On August 10, the Tunisia court revoked Saied's encroachment on the judiciary. The decision was celebrated as a sign of the independence of the judiciary in Tunisia. 

“I believe that there are honourable judges. But, honestly, [after the new constitution, I have no faith left in the [judiciary] power,” said Raed.

Signs of growing control on freedom of speech have already started showing in the North African state.

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On August 7, Tunisian police stormed a one-man comedy show in the city of Sfax and "assaulted" Lotfi Abdelli, one of Tunisia's best-known comedians, after a joke about President Kais Saied and the country's law enforcement agencies.

Abdelli and his producer announced that they would leave Tunisia for good. One in five Tunisians wants to leave the country, according to Tunisia’s National Observatory of Migration (ONM).

Raed said that many of his acquaintances from artists and activists have expressed their discomfort with the shrinking freedom in the country.

Since Saied’s power grab, Tunisia has closed TV and radio stations critical of the leader and had opponents arrested.

As Tunisian journalists continue to cling to their rights to report on the reality of the country, the state’s electronic harassment makes their work harder.

“Today journalists and opposition members get demonised for criticising or disagreeing with the President. We are slipping into a dangerous situation,” said Raed.

Around social media, many accounts using Saied’s picture have been seen attacking tweets denouncing the President’s recent decisions. Accusations of traitor and terrorism are their go-to allegation.

"Today journalists and opposition members get demonised for criticising or disagreeing with the President. We are slipping into a dangerous situation"

It is unclear if those pro-Saied bullies' accounts are bots or real fans of the Tunisian President.

However, it is undeniable that many Tunisians continue to defend and stand for Kais Saied despite all his red flags.

Saied-mania: A false god 

“I can say Kais Saied is a phenomenon, probably people will study about in the future,” said Raed smirking.

Speaking to Tunisian citizens on the referendum day, several voters, mostly elderly, voiced their unshakable belief in the good intentions of Saied. Thus, most of them said they did not read the constitution that they voted for. 

“You should know that most of the Tunisian citizens vote based on feelings, mainly due to the lack of political awareness,” added Raed.

A sixty-four-year-old intellectual, a retired professor with a clean political resume.

Unlike his predecessors who spent holidays in Saint-Tropez and collected exotic animals, Saied spent his life in a middle-class neighbourhood in Tunis hanging out in popular cafes where Tunisians curse their leaders and their policies. 

From those cafés, Saied started his avant-garde campaign. 

Saied, not Islamist enough to intimidate liberals and not liberal enough to scare Islamists, won the 2019 election with a landslide victory.

His strongly worded speeches and promises to end the corruption in an almost bankrupt country continue to fuel the faith of his believers despite his rising authoritarian drive.

However, the West no longer believes in Saied’s prophecy. 

On August 9, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said that Tunisia's "dream of self-government" was in danger, adding to previous American criticism of the president's expansion of powers.

Austin said the US stands committed to supporting “our friends in Tunisia” – and anywhere in Africa – who are trying to forge open, accountable and inclusive democracies.

"I don't want foreign powers to come to hold [mediating] talks in my country like Libya. That’s why Tunisian opposition parties must unite and put pressure on Saied towards establishing an inclusive national dialogue"

Saied has reacted furiously to the US “intervention in Tunisia’s national affairs.”

In his interview with The New Arab, Raed warned of a Libya-alike scenario in Tunis as opposition parties remain divided.

“I don't want foreign powers to come to hold [mediating] talks in my country like Libya. That’s why Tunisian opposition parties must unite and put pressure on Saied towards establishing an inclusive national dialogue in which all actors in the Tunisian political scene participate – citizens, parties, civil society, and national organisations,” Raed told The New Arab.

“What we are living today is not only Saied’s fault. Opposition parties have also failed in uniting, and in educating [Tunisian] people about their political rights," concluded Raed.

Basma El Atti is The New Arab’s Morocco correspondent, covering local affairs and social and cultural events in the Maghreb region. She began her career as a journalist in a Moroccan anglophone outlet, before joining The New Arab in 2022.

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma