The short-sightedness of Tunisia's coup apologists
What is happening in Tunisia meets all the basic criteria of a coup d’état.
The fact that it has been described as an attempt to establish a 'constitutional dictatorship' (as was indicated in a secret presidential document leaked in May) in no way contradicts this: the attack on the constitution and the seizure of total control, whether by force or other underhand means, are two familiar mechanisms when it comes to coups.
We should not be deluded into thinking that we are witnessing a power struggle between the presidency and the parliament, nor that this is a fight over the nature of the Tunisian political system: while President Saied says he wants it to be a presidential system, he is fundamentally a parliamentarian, which confuses the issue.
"We should not be deluded into thinking that we are witnessing a power struggle between the presidency and the parliament"
But the reality is much more dangerous than that. We are witnessing the final nail in the coffin of the desire for change and democracy that fuelled the Arab uprisings, and it is being delivered by those Arab states that led the counter-revolution.
This is the truth and should aid our understanding of the current Tunisian scene. Sympathy for the justifications that supporters of the coup are putting forward, such as the incompetence of the parliament and government, the deterioration in living conditions, and the escalation in coronavirus cases, will lead us into division and disunity, which is the intended aim.
Unfortunately, many among us have not hesitated, out of foolishness and ignorance, to justify the tyrannical actions we are seeing, and defend the perpetrators. Going along with claims which attempt to portray the matter as a 'secular-Islamic conflict' risks sinking into complicity, as does apportioning blame solely on strategic mistakes by the Islamic parties, in particular Ennahda.
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These arguments are pushed by the counter-revolutionary camp to promote conflict with an imaginary enemy and sow discord while it strangles what remains of a spirit that still longs to see democratic change in the Arab world.
I will not go into the details of the coup here, its origins and the strategies used, nor Saied's claims about the danger of the situation and how he was forced to intervene to save the country. Nor will I discuss the false claim that he was implementing Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution: a lot has already been said on these things.
The truth is that this is a power grab, fully supported by Arab states, in particular, the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Saied, since becoming president in 2019 has never been a neutral actor within the political turmoil of a fragmented country, and he has used this as one of his justifications for his coup.
"The truth is that this is a power grab, fully supported by Arab states"
Rather than acting as a neutral arbitrator between the parties, which he was in a position to do; able to build bridges and work towards unity, he actively stoked tensions, inflaming relations between different sides. He was a destructive presence, blocking any progress both towards a national consensus and the strengthening of constitutional safeguards which would have helped achieve political stability.
Some of those celebrating Saied's coup appear to believe that he represents some kind of saviour-figure and are overlooking the fact that the man has no political plan, vision, or programme. He is a populist politician par excellence, no better than the American ex-president, Donald Trump.
The latter ruled a strong country, in terms of its capabilities, deep-rooted institutions and power, and despite this, he almost managed to destroy it. While the 'ruling establishment' did eventually manage to rein him in, that did not prevent him inflicting deep wounds on American democracy and deepening social divisions in the country.
His four years as president did catastrophic damage to the US economy and yielded disastrous consequences for the nation in the pandemic. It is nearly eight months since his presidency ended, yet America has not recovered - social and political tensions are still escalating and spreading, to the extent that covid vaccines and masks have become signifiers for party-political and ideological identities.
In addition, Trump essentially remains in control of the Republican Party and retains a strong influence over tens of millions of Americans, meaning that the US has yet to see the true end of the Trump period.
If this is the case for the most powerful country in the world, with a value system, democracy and deep-rooted institutions, what does a similarly populist president mean for Tunisia, one who has succeeded where Trump failed? Saied has appointed himself the sole source of legislative, executive and judicial power, even though he has no experience in these fields, and lacks even a programme for the administration of the state.
"It was not the weaknesses of Tunisian 'democracy' which led to a failure to confront many of the crises"
The paradox here is that some of the naive onlookers, both Tunisian and Arab, who sympathise with the man's vacuous and wooden discourse, are unable to comprehend that it was not the weaknesses of Tunisian 'democracy' which led to a failure to confront many of the crises, dilemmas and aspirations of Tunisian society. You would be hard-pressed to find one Arab state which has succeeded.
Furthermore, even if this were true, then what evidence is there that a coup is the answer? In Egypt for example, a bloody military coup was staged, and despite that, it is still a failed state today.
Therefore, the issue is not linked to the success or failure of the system of rule currently in place, as much as it seems linked to the system of rule itself, whether democratic or dictatorial: apparently if the first struggles, there is no other option than to bury it.
This selective rejection is then used to preserve the idea of the "Arab exception" - the falsehood that democracy is incompatible with Arab nature and culture.
There is no doubt that Tunisia's democratic experiment was riddled with flaws from the start: this is true, but understandable, as unfortunately there was no legacy of experience to build on, and no Arab context from which lessons could be taken. This is not to deny the mistakes, crimes even, which many committed in the context of Tunisia's experience.
However, to pin all of the blame for the missteps and ensuing damage on these figures is unfair and risks entering into collusion. There were forces who never stopped plotting, both inside and outside the country, against the Jasmine Revolution - the cradle of the Arab revolutions which began more than a decade ago.
Chaos was fomented in the country, and discredited remnants of former Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime were allowed to return to influential parliamentary positions, in order to undermine the idea of democracy itself.
Moreover, despite the fact that Ennahda, the party with the most seats in the current parliament, was not given the chance to form a government, and had to enter into many bargains and agreements with other secular parties from various backgrounds, there are nevertheless those who insist on depicting the matter as an Islamic-secular conflict and as another failure of "political Islam".
"Many Islamists obsessed with self-flagellation have hastened to pin sole responsibility for the coup onto Ennahda"
It is not the Islamists alone opposing Saied's coup; it is the majority, even if that is not as clear as it should be. This includes civil society institutions, law professors, constitutional experts and many judges, except those who have been paid off by the counter-revolutionary camp.
Despite this, many Islamists obsessed with self-flagellation have hastened to pin sole responsibility for the coup onto Ennahda. While there is no doubt Ennahda is responsible in large part for the failure, the party-political system which the revolution produced also played a part.
You cannot help but stand stunned in front of some of these Islamists who yesterday were lavishing praise on Ennahda for its 'wisdom' and its flexibility in dealing with the Tunisian 'deep state', and its willingness to seek a peaceful consensus with its political and ideological opponents - in contrast with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – who today are loudly denouncing it and holding it responsible for everything that has happened due to its 'indecisiveness'!
"They have exploited its slip-ups and mistakes and have secured help from a president possessed by a baseless narcissism, who has taken Tunisia hostage and derailed it from its path."
They are the same people who heap admiration upon the strength of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Hamas in Gaza, without acknowledging the different contexts and complexities of each case. It is certain that if ever one of these two powers fail, they will also be castigated by these people.
To summarise, what is happening in Tunisia is not only a dispute over the interpretation of the constitution or an overturning of the structures which are supposed to ensure a balance of power. It is certainly not an attempt to save the country from the failure of the existing government, nor is it simply an attempt to crush the Islamists.
It represents the aborting of the Arab dreams for democracy, freedom, dignity, citizenship and humanity. Unfortunately, the counter-revolutionary forces have succeeded in penetrating the cradle of the Arab uprisings and its hope in creating a successful democratic system. They have exploited its slip-ups and mistakes and have secured help from a president possessed by a baseless narcissism, who has taken Tunisia hostage and derailed it from its path.
The matter has come to a head with a rejection of the budding democracy. Does this spell the end of Tunisia’s democratic experiment? Not necessarily.
While the Tunisian military and security apparatus appears to be going along with this 'rejection', the western position is ambiguous, the stance of the Tunisian political parties and organisations is weak, civil society and unions appear to be sitting on the fence, and people are confused, it is still not certain what these circumstances will lead to.
However, it is clear that Said appears to be in a stronger position than his opponents.
Osama Abu Arshid is a Palestinian writer and researcher based in Washington.
This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.
Translated by Rose Chacko.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.