In Tunisia, opposition to President Kais Saied struggles to take hold

Tunisian President Kais Saied during a National Security Council in which he dissolved the Parliament, March 30, 2022 at Carthage Palace, Tunisia. AFP 

Nine months after the president's coup, civil society has remained divided on how to act against the risks of authoritarianism. 

 

By Lilia Blaise (Tunis (Tunisia) correspondent)

Published on May 6, 2022
 
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It has become a ritual since he took power on July 25, 2021. On each key date (birthday, religious holidays, etc.), Tunisian President Kais Saied delivers a speech justifying his "roadmap," and in the process ruffling up the political class and all his detractors, "enemies of democracy in the service of foreign forces."

On Sunday, May 1, which was Labor Day and the eve of Eid al-Fitr, he did not deviate from the norm. With bellicose tirades against those who "try to damage the state during Ramadan rather than spend their evening at the mosque," President Saied kicked off the drafting process of a new Constitution. Drafted by a committee of experts, the new text should be based on the national consultation in which some 500,000 Tunisians took part earlier this year. The president also announced the holding of a "national dialog," though it will exclude "those who have destroyed the country."

His speech did not provoke any outcry, nor has his gradual dismantling of the political institutions installed after the 2011 revolution, over the past year. 

Despite full presidential powers, the freezing and dissolution of Parliament, the dissolution of the Judicial Council and a reform by decree of the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE), reactions are timid among civil society and intellectuals.

 
'Fear of a return to chaos'

Is there an explanation for such apathy? For Aziz Krichen, a sociologist and former adviser to President Moncef Marzouki, the country is in "a moment of emptiness with, on the one hand, traditional elites in decline and, on the other, a new generation that needs time to emerge." "Although these elites were not in the forefront of the revolution, they were present afterwards in the democratic construction of the country," he said, "but they have not been able to renew themselves." Political scientist Yasmine Wardi Akrimi sees this silence as a symptom of "the fear of a return to chaos and especially the lack of alternative. Many have said to themselves: stop Kais Saied okay, but who will come after?"

In the street, the challenge to President Saied's decisions has been confined to two political opposition movements, which have been unable to rally beyond their activists. One is led by constitutionalist Jaouhar Ben Mbarek with the group " Citizens against coup d'etat," supported by the Islamic conservative party Ennahda. On April 26, they were joined by five liberal and social-democratic parties to form a "National Salvation Front" at the initiative of politician Ahmed Néjib Chebbi, 78. But it has little support because of the population's strong rejection of Ennahda, which was in power for ten years.

The second opposition movement revolves around Abir Moussi, a member of parliament and president of the Free Destourien Party, an anti-islamist group that claims to embody the legacy of Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba. But its discourse has sometimes been considered too divisive, preventing it from aggregating other currents. 

Faced with this lack of a political alternative, local associations, largely made up of young people who mobilized in the wake of the 2011 revolution, have struggled to position themselves. "There has been a loss of momentum in their commitment, because of the same disgruntlement that has driven Tunisians away from politics in recent years," said feminist activist Bochra Belhaj Hmida.

Some organizations have tried to take a stand. I Watch, an anti-corruption NGO that supported the July 2021 coup, has called for a boycott of the constitutional referendum scheduled for this summer. 

Al Bawsala, another NGO that fights for transparency in governance, has warned several times about the president's authoritarian oversteps, as have some academics and lawyers. But the "state of stupefaction" into which the country plunged after the exceptional measures taken by President Kaïs Saïed has meant that many people have still been "waiting or looking for new levers of action," said Salma Jrad, Al Bawsala director.

 

Runaway inflation

According to her, a large section of civil society began by supporting the president's coup on July 25, 2021. "But now, there is a real divide between those who want to defend the achievements of recent years, especially in terms of rights and freedoms, and those who consider that the referendum proposed by President Kaïs Saïed is an opportunity to change the political system," said the lawyer.

Olfa Lamloum, the director of the Tunis office of the NGO International Alert, confirmed this fragmentation of civil society, which was reinforced by a public debate polarized between pro- and anti-Islamists. Those who rejected political Islam saw a defeat for the Islamists in Mr. Saied's coup, an opportunity to put them out of power, de facto grating their support to the new president. "The hatred of the Islamists is now leading to a lot of opportunism and complacency towards human rights violations," said Ms. Belhaj Hmida.

"In this context, socio-economic issues are still relegated to the background," said Ms. Lamloum. However, the social factor has been the main unknown of this period. The surge in inflation (7.2%) and unemployment (18%)and the increasing debt in a country hit by two years of pandemic and the impact of the war in Ukraine have made the period very uncertain. 

The major trade union body, the Tunisian General Labour Union, has engaged in talks with the government, which is itself still in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for yet another round of financial aid. But there is no reason to rule out a rise in anger among a population hit hard by rising prices.

Lilia Blaise (Tunis (Tunisia) correspondent)

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