Considerations on the social and political consequences of the seizure of power in Tunisia

Vanessa Miani
Master IULM oriental languages and cultures, Internship CeSPI

Tunisian President Qays Saʻyyed announced a state of emergency on 25th July 2021 backed by drastic initiatives to restrain what he considers having corrupted the State institutions and society. If it was widespread welcomed by Tunisians right after the seizure of power, public opinion began to define itself in the months afterwards. We assisted to a gradual polarisation that could be resumed as a pro-Saʻyyed and anti-Saʻyyed dualism not only in public opinion, but also in the wider socio-political scene. Along with the current institutional uncertainties, this tense background could jeopardise the democratic achievements of the last decade.

On the one side, a huge part of the population endorsed the seizure of power operated by the President at the time of the coup. In a nutshell, Tunisians were no more willing to sustain the social, economic, and political conditions in which they were living. In the first half of 2021, the number of protests surged proportionately in the northern, central, and southern regions, characterised by violence and clashes with the authorities. In the first seven months of 2021, almost 8.000 protests were organised, nearly a thousand in the sole month of July, in which violence has marked 90% of the demonstrations held in Tunis, Gafsa and Tataouine each (FTDES, 2021). Demonstrators were mostly demanding effective reforms to tackle the pandemic social and economic repercussions in a moment where other economies of the Mediterranean region were beginning to grow again. In the meantime, a political deadlock was occurring in the country. The cabinet reshuffle in the middle of the pandemic crisis was defined by parties’ interest in taking powerful position in the new government, which led to a stall in the dialogue between the latter, the Presidency, and the National Assembly. In this framework, the inability of the institutional representation in delivering solutions and the palpable social tension both implicitly authorised the presidential initiative, supported by his large and constant popularity. Many young Tunisians have expected a radical stance to deal with a drastic change, sharing the hostility toward political parties with Qays Saʻyyed disclosed beliefs on party-based systems (Bajec, 2022).

On the other side, the seizure of power has been labelled as a coup d’état by Saʻyyed opposition – as well as by many analysts and observatories. It goes against the 2011 Revolution’s principles since the President granted himself extraordinary powers. Despite the promises and claims to maintain this political situation as temporary, the seizure of power indeed represents a halt of the democratic process, which was considered still in progress in the country. What is concerning to notice is that Saʻyyed brought in the foreground the main sign of his rhetoric contradictions: endorsing its own initiative by applying the article 80 of the Constitution yet claiming that the Constitution needs to be revised. As well, we could find this contradictory pattern in following measures he has taken: hailing the revolution’s principles and defining himself as its advocate yet suspending in almost its entirety the Revolution’s definitive outcome, the 2014 Constitution; suspending and then dissolving the primary means of people’s willing representation, the Parliament; championing the fight against corruption and cronyism yet manipulating some independent bodies composition, such as the Supreme Judiciary Council or, more recently, the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE). Besides these peculiarities that suffice to find a slightly shift to authoritarian features (such as enlarging exclusive political powers or addressing the “enemies” of the State) what concerns the most is the suppression of anti-regime discourse in parallel with the heavy threat posed to fundamental rights. A rise in civil prosecutions in military courts has been registered. Also, the number of arrests and detentions of political opponents, eventually prosecuted, has increased: it is the case of former President Moncef Marzouki, but also television host ʻAmer ʻAyad, el-Karama deputy ʻAbdellatif Aloui, lawyer ʻAbderrazak Kilani – former president of the National Bar Association, which was part of the Nobel-prized 2013-2014 National Dialogue Quartet – but also activists such as Myriam Bribri of the Menich Msamah movement. In the majority of the cases, the targeted defendants publicly criticised President Saʻyyed initiatives and approach. The President of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) Mohamed Yassine Jelassi denounced a steady decline in press freedom in Tunisia amid the exceptional measures: the country has been downgraded to the 94th position in the 2022 Freedom of Press Index by Reporters without Borders (RSF). Lastly, the backing of the police and the army to the President’s initiatives further justifies the worries about a potential slide into authoritarianism (Mohsen-Finan, 2022).

As might be expected, the polarisation process has been marked by certain political connotations. The first group supporting Saʻyyed’s measures shares his vision of political class epuration and fight against corruption. The faction reunites minor extreme leftist movements, mainly socialist-oriented, nationalist and against political Islam – thus anti-Ennahdha. Among these, Ḥarakat as-shaʻab party and the Qūwāt Tūnis al-ḥurrah movement, which spouse completely the system reconstruction plan wished by Saʻyyed (Crisis Group, 2022). According to his project, local and regional councils would regain a defining position on national policies, reshaping the role of popular sovereignty.

The other bloc reunites different political movements, ranging from secularist to political Islam, brought together by the common ground of opposing the presidential power grab. The parties involved are the ʻAbir Moussi’s Free Destourian Party (PDL), Rachid Ghannouchi’s Ennahdha, Nabil Qarwi’s Qalb Tounes and other minor parties such as Ettakatol, the Democratic Coalition, Afek Tounis, and the Republican Party (Crisis Group, 2022). The General Union of Tunisian Labour (UGTT), the biggest trade union in the country, joined the coalition after hesitating in the first months after the coup. Lastly, a series of civil society organisations and independent movements gave birth to the “Citizens against the coup” initiative (muwāṭanūn ḍhidd al-inqilāb). These different groups align in their requests: they demand the Assembly of the People’s Representatives (ARP) functions restoration and the anticipation of the presidential and legislative elections. However, despite its consistency, some argue that the civil society leverage had fallen compared to ten years ago (Boussen, 2022).

In fact, it seems tough to beat the President’s popularity: its rate never fell under 60%, according to Emrhod Consulting and Sigma Conseil surveys. It is reasonable to wonder what makes Saʻyyed popularity so stable: it seems that the reason lies in the absence of alternative and reliable political actors (Lakhal, 2022). Resulting from the above-mentioned surveys, a considerable portion of the population would vote for a “Qays Saʻyyed party” to the next legislative elections: the ironic part is that it does not formally exists to date. Only one opponent has acquired a certain leverage facing Saʻyyed: ʻAbir Moussi and her PDL, whose popularity increased over time up to roughly 30%. The other historic major party, Ennahdha, has by now lost its authority and is considered no more trustworthy since it has demonstrated the only willingness to remain in powerful positions in the last years (Marzouki, 2022).

What should we expect resulting from these developments? Indeed, we testified a recrudescence of democratic principles and a strengthening of autocratic initiatives, menacing the stability forged by the rule of law. This condition contradicts manifestly with the nature of the Saʻyyed discourse, which claims to be on the people’s side, borrowing the motto “as-shaʻb yurīd” since 2019 elections. It could be defined as populistic and sovereigntist, finding its force in the anti-corruption and anti-clientelism rhetoric. But this kind of populism “from above” would not probably lead to a structural change, which is what Tunisia actually needs (Gobe, 2022). The minimum affluence to the online consultation carried out for the Constitution’s revision from January to March 2021 made clear that Tunisians are not interested in institutional manoeuvres (Lakhal, 2022). They expect the President to revert the economic crisis – further exasperated by the Russian-Ukrainian conflict – since he appears to most Tunisians as the only one that could do it. Rationally, ratifying the Constitution would not alleviate people’s grief nor bring economic relief; therefore, protests have not lost their intensity and remained widespread and decentralised in central and southern regions (FTDES, 2022). However, the definitive dissolution of the Parliament enacted by the President marked the final step in the hostile confrontation with its members, aiming to exclude every political party, no more only Ennahdha or rather “those who have sabotaged, starved and abused the people” (from Saʻyyed speech on 1st May 2022), from the national dialogue. The latter has lately been carried out with the participation of the 2014 National Quartet, namely the UGTT, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA), the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH) and the National Bar Association. The dialogue has been conducted to discuss the constitutional amendments, which have to be published before 25th May 2022 to make them available for the July referendum. Unfortunately, the lack of inclusivity followed by the institutional marginalisation of parties is not the solution nor will be beneficial for future developments, considering the crisis as a governance impasse. If not addressed correctly, political and social tension would dangerously escalate in unpredictable ways.

In this context, the absence of international mediation in restoring the rule of law is another risky omission that threatens to endorse another fake democratic regime in the Middle East and North Africa region. The loss of institutional independence of key State’s usually independent bodies and the disregard for primary social and economic matters undermines the optimistic roadmap presented by the President to restore the ordinary State functions. What is more, the steadily manifest inconsistency of Saʻyyed discourse and the rising repression heighten the risk of establishing a hybrid political system at the expenses of democracy. Is it worth to compromise once more Tunisian achievements for the sake of a constitutional reform that complies only with the President view of populism? Right now, the regretful and undeniable fact is that the near future of Tunisia is again in the hands of one man.