Is Tunisia experiencing a 'déjà vu' dictatorship with Saied?
Last July 25th, the Tunisian president Kais Saied dismissed prime minister Hichem Mechichi and froze parliament's activity, because of an "immense peril", using Article 80 of the constitution. Although most western critics agreed that Saied's move was a coup, opinions were divided regarding its constitutionality. However, the symbolism of this decision taken on Republic's Day, where Tunisians protested against the regime instead of the usual celebrations, had a great impact on the people.
Despite the curfew established as a Covid-19 measure, Tunisians celebrated in the streets till late at night. Aside from Islamists (mainly the Ennahda party) who denounced this coup, were Western observers, particularly the US, who predicted the worst scenarios. Tunisian analysers criticized "the selective marginalization of Tunisian voices in favour of overly rehearsed, decontextualized analyses", prophesying Tunisia’s fate.
The collective euphoria was engendered especially by Islamists being ousted and lasted for some days. Saied's decision was deemed a breath of fresh air for a young democracy, struggling with an economic, social, and political crisis. The Tunisian president who, since his election in October 2019, was perceived as a figurehead, proved to his people that he is finally taking action.
"Despite the popular hype, some young Tunisians remained sceptical about Saied having all powers and the rising potential of a dictatorship"
Saied has always been popular among the Tunisian youth, who organized his political campaign on social media platforms. In the following days, the Tunisian president called food businesses and pharmacies to lower the prices of their products, igniting people’s enthusiasm. Many business owners answered Saied's call and decreased their prices.
Most Tunisians thought that what happened on July 25th was a turning point for the country's history and the beginning of a new era.
After July 25th, the Tunisian president obtained the support of 94.9 % of Tunisians regarding the exceptional measures he took, according to the "Sigma Conseil" poll in late August. Moreover, the same poll notes, that Saied, much trusted by the public believing in his integrity, held the leading position in the voting intentions with 91.9 %.
Despite the popular hype, some young Tunisians remained sceptical about Saied having all powers and the rising potential of a dictatorship.
Their doubts were confirmed on August 24th as the Tunisian president extended, until further notice, the suspension of the Parliament's activities. Initially, Saied froze parliament’s activity for 30 days till he presents a "roadmap", claimed by many political parties and civil society organisations.
Before the ending of the exceptional measures period, on August 2nd, the "Movement of July 25th" a recently created and fiercely independent movement called on Saied to organize a national referendum and early elections, as soon as possible. During these 30 days wherein the Tunisian president retrained full powers, an anti-corruption purge took place. As parliamentary immunity was lifted, many deputies critical of the president, mainly from the Ennahda party and the ultra-conservative Al-Karama coalition, were arrested. The violence of arrests, reminiscent of Ben Ali's police regime, was criticized by other deputies and the families of the arrested.
This was followed by a number of judges and other parliament members placed under house arrest and were placed under a travel ban. Even more alarming is the fact that every Tunisian, who had the entrepreneur job on their identity card was also prohibited from travelling.
Despite the reassuring statements of Saied about his "commitment to ensuring the freedom of movement, but some people should appear before a justice", the president's practices are still tainted with much populist anti-elitism. While the Tunisian president has always been perceived as different from other politicians because of his integrity, it did not stop him from being politically strategic with July 25th's move, and what came later.
After invoking an "immense peril" that made him freeze the parliament's activities and dismiss the prime minister, Tunisians saw in Saied a nation's saviour and the one who was able to push Islamists out of power. This "fantasy" was shared by many, in the last few years. His anti-corruption purge's goal was to quench the public’s thirst for revenge and make the collective euphoria last.
Saied's decisions had great impact on Tunisians' minds, and the slightest criticism of the president stirred up anger and hatred. The cult of the leader's personality got progressively established, with a video on social media showing a music teacher singing with a children's choir a cover of a cartoon's song, but the lyrics are in praise of the president. This ideological recruitment of children, reminiscent of the pre-revolution regime, raised valid concern and criticism.
While waiting for the president's further decisions, the public opinion was divided, and quite regularly people were out in the streets to protest. Demonstrators were collected along two different teams who clashed: a group of pro-Saied, who have faith in the nation's saviour, and anti-Saied, who were composed of a loose alliance of Islamists, leftists, or progressive people denouncing the coup. This division among the people was concerning, because of the worst-case scenario of a civil war.
Human rights groups have warned about the rise in arbitrary and politically motivated arrests since Saied's intervention, and the use of military courts to hear caseshttps://t.co/VIEdPHkpc1— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) February 2, 2022
On September 11th, the Tunisian president announced he will appoint of a prime minister soon, and his intention is to modify the 2014 constitution, which he said he "respects but thinks was rejected by the Tunisian people". With his expertise in law as an assistant professor in constitutional law, Saied can easily instrumentalise the constitution and establish a legitimate dictatorship.
On September 29th, the president appointed Najla Bouden as prime minister, after announcing more measures to reinforce his executive powers at the expense of the government. Bouden, who has a P.H.D in engineering, would have limited powers in comparison to the president who will still chair the Council of Ministers. However, the latter heavily insisted on the "historical" aspect of this nomination, and how "it's an honour for Tunisia and a tribute to Tunisian women," since Bouden is the first female prime minister in the Arab world.
Once more, Saied knew which sensitive chord to strike, since Tunisians have much pride about their country being a pioneer in terms of gender equality and women’s rights. This unexpected nomination of a female prime minister, despite her non-existent experience in politics, only brought admiration over her class and elegance as a woman. Shortly after her nomination, most people on social media focused on her gender and looks, not her political resumé or expertise.
On latest wave of #unrest in #Tunisia. How economic frustration and broken promises of post-revolution political class are pushing young people back to streets @The_NewArab https://t.co/Mg2hUHndnW— Alessandra Bajec (@AlessandraBajec) January 26, 2021
Some have pointed out that Bouden, with her limited powers, might merely be a decoy to make Tunisians enthusiastic again about a bright future, and re-embellish Saied's image as a progressive and non-conservative politician, particularly towards Western powers - as alluded to by Yamina Zoghlami, a deputy from the Ennahda party confirmed, when she called Bouden "a shop window hiding Saied's actions".
Despite seemingly political stability being established with Bouden announcing the composition of her government on October 11th, and her 25 ministers taking the oath, a wave of popular discontent emerged due to the growth an authoritarian regime.
For example, Amnesty International has warned about the rise in the number of civilians being judged by a military court. From July 25th till November 10th, 10 civilians were brought to a military tribunal, and 4 for criticizing the president; a journalist, blogger, and 2 deputies. Moreover, Saied changed the date of the Revolution’s anniversary from January 14th (the day Ben Ali fled the country) to December 17th (the day where Bouazizi set himself on fire), which upset many in the public-at-large who consider such a decision should have been the people's call to make and not a president.
"For some time, Tunisians have been deluded by Saied's long speeches in literary Arabic and his populist statements. Yet, many now seem to be waking up and seeing the reality of their country"
The emergence of an authoritarian regime was further apparent with the repression of the protests. On January 14th, despite the "Habib Bourguiba" street being closed to the public, Tunisians went out and tried to access this street, which is a symbolic space of the Revolution. Citizens who protested against Saied's measures, as well as journalists who covered the event, were violently brutalized by the police, as reported by media outlets and civil society organizations.
More clearly, according to IWatch, Saied fulfilled only 6% of his electoral promises, which may explain the rapid decline in popularity of the Tunisian president as 55% of Tunisians say they are satisfied with his performance.
For some time, Tunisians have been deluded by Saied's long speeches in literary Arabic and his populist statements. Yet, many now seem to be waking up and seeing the reality of their country, which seems to be on the verge of financial bankruptcy and is heavily dependent on the loans and grants of international monetary institutions.
Amid a political, economic, and social crisis, as well as the mounting Omicron wave, Tunisians are exceedingly sensing a 'déjà vu' of a dictatorship.
Tharwa Boulifi is a 20-year-old Tunisian freelancer, who writes about feminism, human rights, and social justice. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Newsweek, the New African, African Arguments.
You can follow her on Twitter: @TharwaBoulifi
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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, or the author's employer.