Have faith in Tunisians to defend their democracy

President Kais Saied’s constitutional moves may prove troubling, but eyes should be on Tunisian civil society and its people.
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Even for a close follower of current events in Tunisia, the headlines on the night of July 25 were jolting: President Kaies Saied dismissed the prime minister and suspended parliament.

Shortly after the news broke, I received a message from a Tunisian colleague, saying: “Tunisians will never accept a return to dictatorship. We have come too far, there is a new fabric of society.”

In the wake of Saied’s moves under Article 80 of Tunisia’s Constitution, much is uncertain. However, as events progress, Tunisians’ ultimate rejection of a return to authoritarianism under the president is a factor that must be given due consideration.

This position flies in the face of much of the traditional media and think tank analysis, which regularly tolls a solemn bell for Tunisia’s democracy. Such rhetoric usually occurs around the January anniversary of Tunisia’s 2010-11 revolution, when many Tunisians’ desperate circumstances perhaps feel more acute and unrest commonly occurs — and the prospects of an “Arab Winter” to follow the Spring at least generates a cheap headline.

Graver still, back in 2013, were the declarations of an impending civil war, almost with a relishing glint of anticipation, as political party intrigue and manipulation were projected as a nationwide divide between secularists and Islamists. As a Tunisian comrade remarked at the time, “Tunisians wouldn’t ever fight a civil war over religion. The economy maybe.” Tunisian society is diverse, and then as now, cannot be straightjacketed into Saied and Ennahda camps — the latter being the Islamist political party that was the largest in the now frozen parliament.

In 2016, I analyzed British broadsheet newspapers’ framing of the so-called “Arab Spring,” finding that in the hands of the people of West Asia and North Africa, the events were commonly portrayed as signifying a reaction, failure or threat to Western notions of democracy and values. Otherwise, the Arab Spring was a label for something for the West to save through intervention, to spread liberal democracy and the ideals of the ‘West’.

I do not see how this has changed since that time.

Despite the grave economic situation compounding Tunisians’ suffering, intervention through sanctions has been proposed. Regardless of the obscene death toll from COVID-19, exacerbated by the political class’ mismanagement and abuse, withholding of vaccines from the country has been posited as a means of exerting pressure. This would punish, at risk of death, Tunisians for the actions of a president who is now submerged in that same political class.

Apparently, Tunisians are now “indifferent” — a return to the common charge against the people of the West Asia North Africa region that in the face of authoritarianism, they were feckless or apathetic. We are increasingly aware of the ways that people resist oppression on an everyday basis, often in hidden forms.

Seemingly, Tunisia needs to “learn from its neighbors” and see that strong men and populist leaders just don’t work out. Ya Sha‘b [oh people], have you not been paying attention to the beacon lights of say, the United States and the United Kingdom? In that regard — and aside from the fact my Tunisian friends are some of the most incisively insightful people I know — you might forgive them for not looking too far from home, and their own established legacy of resisting authoritarianism.

Well, “maybe Tunisians never wanted democracy?” Let’s be frank; some writers and publications never believed that Tunisians wanted democracy since Ben Ali was bungled into his plane on January 14, 2011.

The legal technicalities of whether this was a coup — or more strictly an autocoup to centralize power — continue to be debated. Ironically, the lack of a constitutional court, not the least of which is due to political parties’ obstruction, has not helped matters. Dissolving the parliament and blockading it with the military certainly seems to have overstepped Saied’s emergency powers.

Meanwhile, the practical necessity and popular support for the move is even more intriguing, as there has been relief and elation over an ineffectual government being removed during a period of intense economic and humanitarian crisis for Tunisia.

A number of the most seasoned Tunisian activists I know — who are also intensely critical of the political system — have welcomed the dissolution of the parliament on these grounds. However, they would not accept a return to authoritarianism.

The Tunisian General Labour Union, or UGTT, the Tunisian League of Human Rights, among other key institutions have released a statement that implies support for Saied’s move based on the urgent nature of Tunisia’s problems. However, this is conditional on a roadmap to return to ordinary political functioning.

Moreover, these are diverse organizations whose local branches often act independently. For example, local UGTT members participated in the 2010-11 revolution from an early stage, while the UGTT only officially came out in support of the protests in the last few days before Ben Ali left.

More importantly, these large, established organizations — which were institutionalized under Ben Ali and acted as a safety valve for dissent at times — are not representative of all workers, people and issues. This is a further bulwark against compromise with any Saied regime.

Other organizations such as iWatch have been doing fantastic work in the past years exposing corruption and pushing for prosecution. They have been attacked by the government in the past for their work, yet they will not sit silently in the coming months.

Concerning ordinary Tunisians’ perspectives, crucial reporting on the ground has reiterated that the dire economic circumstances and negligence during the pandemic are reasons why some have supported Saied’s actions. Some reports are indicating over 80 percent popular support for his moves. Yet, this says nothing about support for any permanent centralization of power.

Back in January this year when unrest occurred — which was too easily dismissed at the time as merely apolitical and aimless “rioting” by youths — it was clear that this was due to anger at the situation, as well as some desperation. I was alerted to the fact that young people involved said they “have nothing to lose,” reflecting a prominent sentiment of the 2010-11 revolution. This sense of having nothing to lose was notable again on July 25.

If people feel they have nothing to lose, then any fear or costs from rising up will be lessened. Tunisians want their problems resolved, not a return to dictatorship. If Kais Saied doesn’t achieve significant change, sooner or later he will be finished too.

Any power grab by Saied is also likely to be met robustly by many Tunisians. The democratic freedoms and rights that came with the end of Ben Ali’s regime are hard won, cherished and a source of pride among Tunisians. Some commentators seem to have forgotten that democracy is a bottom-up, as well as top-down, phenomenon.

It does not help when Tunisia’s democracy is seen to have started in 2011, with the mere holding of elections. Tunisians were never inert during the Ben Ali era, however difficult the circumstances. Many constantly fought for their freedoms in any way they could and paid the price of brutality, torture and disappearance. Periods of significant open protest were interwoven with the everyday acts of subverting regime authority, mockery and creative expression. If it is necessary, this is the foundation from which Tunisians will again assert their democracy.

This story was produced by Resistance Studies

Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies. This initiative is managed and edited by Stellan Vinthagen, Craig Brown, Ben Case and Priyanka Borpujari.

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