A mere few days after President Kais Saied’s watershed announcement of “exceptional” measures, talk in Tunisia about whether or not the power grab was a “coup” is receding. Day by day, early critics of the move are softening their positions.
That heated debate arose in the heat of the moment. Like it or not, now, people, parties, and even civil society groups appear to be willing to give the president a 30-day (the timeline he himself declared) breathing period of sorts. But why?
The 25th of July: A revolutionary ‘reset’?
What happened on July 25 in Tunisia is the country’s newest political “enigma”. Did that day mark the beginning of the second phase of a decaying revolution? Or was it something entirely different?
It seems that many players invested in Tunisia’s civic-political scene are waiting for Saied to show his true colours. However, for some, this is still a historic moment – after all, the pre-25 July political establishment is in shambles.
Whether Saied’s planned reconfiguration is a “correction” of democracy or a “correction” of the revolution, as some seem to believe, is another important question. Harakat al-Sha’b, the pan-Arabist-leaning party that has expressed full support for Saied, for example, has described the President’s moves as a “correction” of the revolution.
“Salvation” is another word being bandied about in reference to the President’s actions. Saied sees himself and his new measures as embodying long-neglected revolutionary mantras and demands – freedom, dignity and employment.
A ‘correction’ of the revolution?
In Tunisia, the 2011 revolution did not lead to as radical a rapture from the old regime as initially expected or hoped for. The democratic process had its roots on shaky ground in terms of power relations, hierarchies, capital and corruption. And many of the pre-2011 elites were allowed to keep their power and privileges after the revolution.
Kais Saied is an outsider who, before the beginning of his 2019 election campaign, had remained on the margins of power. For years, he played “second fiddle” to political power-holders and focused on teaching constitutional law and offering political commentary on television. But he has always been vocal about his views on what needs to change in the country for democracy to prosper. Those who are interested in understanding the real motivations behind his recent moves can thus look at the statements he made back in 2012-13, before his rise to power. For instance, he decried “traditional” political leaders “selling their wares at a discount” and insisted on the need for a “new system” built “bottom-up” which places the youth front and centre.
In light of these past statements, it is possible to conclude Saied is now offering Tunisians the “break” with the old system that many of them have been awaiting. Heads will definitely roll across the board: in the army, the Interior Ministry, in political parties and state-owned enterprises. The problem, of course, is that Saied is trying to do it all on his own. He positions himself as a national mentor. Tunisia has tried this before (Bourguiba, Ben Ali), and it did not go well. In fact, it spurred a revolution in 2011.
A ‘correction’ of democracy?
Since 2011, the political class’s persistent failure to sever ties with the old regime and abandon its problematic and corrupt approach to government have been at the core of the country’s problems. Ennahda, which entered the Tunisian political arena as a leading actor after the 2011 revolution, committed cardinal sins.
It reconciled with both parties (e.g. Beji Caid Sebssi) and practices (e.g. corruption, as in aborting the recuperation of illicitly acquired money through the 2017 Administrative Reconciliation law) of the Ben Ali era. (It should be noted that other old-timers, such as Hamma Hammami and Nebil Chebbi, have also been eager to reconcile with the actors and practices of the old regime.) These attitudes have cast a shadow over the past decade of Ennahda’s (coalitional) rule and its presence as the largest party in Parliament.
Since the 2019 elections, Ennahda’s descent into the “old” ways has been crested with its notorious alliance with a new party, Qalb Tounes (QT). QT’s founder, Nabil Karoui, is facing several corruption allegations. Ennahda’s ally is also riddled with other moral-legal scandals such as that of (formerly QT) Zuheir Makhlouf, who is facing sexual harassment allegations. Saeid’s actions in some ways laid bare in people’s minds the contrast between Ennahda’s professed Islamist values and its political practices over the past several years.
Moreover, political parties mishandled key ministries, especially the Justice Ministry, and allegedly buried legal files targeting, rumour has it, numerous high-ranking state officials.
This record has come to the fore in the case of Bechir Ekrimi, the prosecutor general of the Tunis Tribunal (Chamber 13), now suspended and under investigation.
The Ekrimi case is evidence that Tunisia is struggling to respond to corruption efficiently. Taking a serious anti-corruption stance will cost the state so much of its already scarce material, technical and human resources. Treading this path will be arduous and can sink the young democracy in endless legal cases, the results of which are not guaranteed to deliver justice.
The debilitating division between the three heads of the executive (the so-called “three presidencies” – president, parliament and government) has been another weak spot of Tunisia’s new democracy.
A populist ‘saviour’?
In Tunisia’s new democratic system, political parties and politicians have played a dangerous game inimical to democratisation. On the one hand, they tried to turn “public opinion” in their favour by recruiting and seeking support from those individuals and groups whose opinions appear to have greater political consequence, somehow attempting to “gentrify” democracy. On the other hand, they played lip service to but essentially ignored the views and needs of “the people” for whom they claim to speak – the marginalised underclass, the bulk of people who protest, those who may no longer vote – if they ever did – weighed down by the daily toil of life.
Kais Saied has tapped into this paradox and thrust himself into the scene as someone who can “correct” Tunisia’s revolution and perhaps even its democracy. If he does not deliver, even this outsider would not be immune from protestors’ rage.
Here we stumble on the obvious problem. “Correcting” a revolution, or a democracy, needs democratic pluralism and collective ownership of such a mammoth undertaking. A lone president circumventing and disrupting democratic institutions and due process could not be the answer.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.