How Tunisians can instill democracy in the face of growing authoritarianism

With president Saied grabbing more power and the parliamentary system in crisis, people’s councils could defend Tunisia’s democratic gains.
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As Tunisia’s president Kais Saied takes the country down the path of authoritarianism, opponents faced a quandary about what to do during the July 25 referendum, on a constitution that will hand Saied significant power. Political opponents and civil society organizations considered whether it was better to vote “no” in the referendum, or boycott it completely. Different organizations started to push for the latter, albeit with little confidence it would seriously scupper Saied’s moves.

Even with an underwhelming turnout of around 27.5 percent — not necessarily due to boycott, but possibly popular disillusionment, which is no less political — Saied will introduce the new constitution regardless, with 94.6 percent who voted supporting the new constitution, and no minimum participation threshold. Meanwhile, protests have faced the problem of disunity and dispersed opposition. Political parties that should be mobilizing popular opposition and advocating for a return to the parliamentary system remain tainted by perceptions of ineptitude.

So, what could be done to keep Tunisia on the democratic path?

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  • Have faith in Tunisians to defend their democracy
  • Even if the political opposition could unite, a mass protest is unlikely to achieve much tangible change — despite the assumption that a protest like this on Jan. 14 is what removed Ben Ali from power during the 2010/11 revolution. The revolution involved weeks of serious unarmed struggle against security forces, complex machinations by those security forces, and the emergence of organized and increasingly coordinated opposition. Which is to say nothing of the months and years of opposition preceding the revolution.

    The sense of alarm and lack of options could be a time to think outside the box; what about grassroots democratic councils? These could at least be a way that the democratic opposition in civil society could connect to the many ordinary Tunisians who are disillusioned with Tunisia’s political system and do not know what to do about it — but who should not just be dismissed as indifferent or apathetic to it, which remains a tired refrain.

    Before considering this idea seriously, it must be acknowledged that ironically, Saied has proposed the “New Foundation,” a system of councils that would purportedly decentralize decision making and enable citizens to participate in a form of direct democracy. He even attracted the support of, and consulted with, participants in the councils for the protection of the revolution, or CPRs, which emerged during Tunisia’s 2010/11 revolution.

    Notably, some of these participants may now be feeling Saied has been disingenuous. Yet irrespective of Saied’s own ambitions, and the fact his “New Foundation” may manifest more along the lines of Gaddafi’s people’s committees in Libya — a masquerade of democracy hiding a brutal authoritarian regime — it is important to note Tunisia’s own recent history of democratic experimentation (some say expedience) in the CPRs.

    The CPRs during the 2010/11 revolution

    The CPRs were a fundamental part of the constructive resistance that emerged in Tunisia during and after the 2010/11 revolution. One participant, Noman, clarified that the CPRs started “from Sidi Bouzid and later became in all of Tunisia.” Another participant, Ayoub, characterized them as a form of “direct democracy,” established in “every city and neighborhood,” He explained:

    It’s the whole militant parties [which] organized. The adherent of the union of the student [UGET] and general union [UGTT], we make some kind of council […] every neighborhood had its council, every town composed of neighborhood had big council. To rule the affairs of the towns of the neighborhood.

    The CPRs were considered as exemplary of Tunisians’ unity and solidarity during the period. As Noman described: “In those days it was really good solidarity. Nothing politics. No politics. They all like each other, all the people.”

    Sghiri recalled how he and his associates considered there to be an opportunity to “renew the social contract and revolutionize its socio-political structures.” Tunisians I spoke to, including Nader and Ayoub, also reflected this view, yet felt Tunisia’s formal political parties squandered this unity and potential, co-opting the revolutionary legitimacy of the CPRs and pushing younger participants out of the process.

    Tunisians take a rest at a wall with an Arabic slogan and the word ‘Freedom’ sprayed on it during the first Casbah protest on Jan. 23, 2011. (Flickr/Nasser Nouri)

    This is best reflected in the Kasbah protests shortly following Ben Ali’s departure, which interlinked with the CPRs in terms of participants, ideas and demands. There were two main sit-ins in the political district in Tunis, between Jan. 24-28 and the second from Feb. 20 to March 4. There were also demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins across the country, with solidarity caravans travelling to the capital.

    Participant Achraf again emphasized the unity of Tunisians against the regime remnants, while Noman stressed the efforts to form “a revolutionary government, coming from the people who made the revolution. To take power and really rule and take out all the system.”

    This challenges the assumptions of the participants being satisfied with interim prime minister Ghannouchi’s resignation on Feb. 27 and the promise of establishing a Constitutional Assembly, meaning they packed up and went home. Instead, Gana pointed to the serious brutality with which the security forces broke up the second Kasbah sit-in, which Noman believed ultimately “made Mohammed Ghannouchi resign.”

    Noman also noted that people in Kasserine, Gafsa and Sidi Bouzid continued strikes for days after to “oppose the idea of a constitutional assembly,” and just 23 percent of the electorate there ultimately voted to approve it.

    The interim government’s acquisition and institutionalization of revolutionary legitimacy intersected with political parties’ activities during this time. On Jan. 20, 2011, the January 14 Front was formed including left-wing parties, the Tunisian General Labor Union, or UGTT, and the Bar Association, which subsequently adopted the Kasbah protesters’ demands. Later in February, they took on the nomenclature of the CPRs, forming the National Council for the Protection of the Revolution, or CNPR. That they did not necessarily reflect the bottom-up activities of the revolution’s participants was suggested by Achraf, who during the Kasbah protests found that “we admitted two [political] parties without our consent.”

    This party-political process was institutionalized further, as well as revolutionary demands diluted, when Ghannouchi’s replacement, Beji Caid Essebssi, formed the 170-member High Authority for the Achievement of the Objectives of the Revolution, Political Reform and the Democratic Transition on March 14, 2011. In the wake of the Higher Authority’s establishment, Honwana explained that the CNPR ended up splitting: “major parties such as Ennahdha, Ettakatol and the CPR and some civil society associations joined the Higher Authority, other CNPR members, especially those of the radical left, were against this move.”

    The further unfortunate dynamic was how these developments played out as exclusion at a more localized level, among the young and ordinary participants of the revolution. Ayoub, a member of the General Union of Tunisian Students, or UGET, explained how he and his colleagues tried to:

    Create a citizenship culture, to talk with people and to mobilize people and to work in the streets, creating pressure and writing stuff and giving it to the people and talk with people in the coffee shops and the streets and many places. To make them realize what is democracy, political system, presidential regime, parliamentary regime, what’s this Westminster regime […] all this stuff we’re trying to make it easier to understand.

    Yet Ayoub recounted how many “leftist leaders” among the UGTT and political parties — who would have participated in the CNPR — dismissed the concerns, role and participation of the youth. He was told condescendingly, “not to confuse his law education with the reality on the ground.”

    Tunisian protesters chant slogans for the removal of the remnants of the RCD party from government in front of the prime minister’s building during a demonstration in Tunis, on Jan. 21, 2011. (Flickr/Nasser Nouri)

    Likewise, Emna, former vice president of the UGET, explained that the youth who helped make the revolution were being marginalized: “In civic society and political society, we are only a force of protestation. We haven’t a place, a leadership place in the government.” While an element of this appeared to be divisions and apparently a lack of leadership among the youth, she largely pointed to how “the government marginalize us politically, [as do] even political parties and opposition.”

    Therefore, if the CPRs genuinely enshrined a deeper movement for systemic change, solidarity and unity that Tunisians valued, their missed and undermined potential should be reconsidered. What might it have meant to many marginalized and desperate Tunisians had there been an enduring space where they could have directly contributed to political and economic processes, giving them a stake and a role while reducing their alienation from such processes?

    Re-establishing the CPRs in the present

    The most powerful impetus to new councils being established would be if marginalized and unemployed people, including youths, were to take the lead. They are typically disparate individuals and groups, yet periodically come together in demonstrations and more violent clashes with security forces. They bear the brunt of Tunisia’s ever-worsening economic situation and are increasingly desperate; they must be listened to and recover real agency.

    However, activists also need to go back to basics of engagement with fellow citizens at the local level, like Ayoub described in the aftermath of the revolution. Initiatives could be adopted by individuals and groups in civil society, unaffiliated and networked activists and independent trade unions, which oppose Saied’s authoritarianism and want to maintain Tunisia’s democratic gains. This could include the UGET, the Union of Unemployed Graduates, iWatch, the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, among others. The crucial action of any of these organizations would be to engage with ordinary people to encourage their participation.

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, Tunisia saw various mutual aid efforts, what Henda Chennaoui referred to as “community solidarity” efforts that were “directly managed by women. This happens at the neighborhood level, especially in poor areas of Tunis and its surroundings. There we witnessed solidarity actions, not only among women, but also involving families, children, men, everybody.” The legacy of these connections could be a further basis to feed into new CPRs.

    Returning to local councils established from the bottom-up could also avoid problems of Tunisian society fracturing along support for Saied and those against him. In contrast, Saied’s rhetoric about excluding enemies from the political space, usually leveled at the Islamist party Ennahda, and actions against its leaders, could automatically alienate ordinary Tunisians. For example, there are those affiliated with or inclined towards Ennahda, yet who remain critical of its leaders and have no direct responsibility for the political and economic crisis with which the party has been associated.

    If local councils were a space where ordinary people — including those with party affiliations or inclinations — could come together to highlight their problems and concerns, it seems reasonable to think that conflicts are more likely to be resolved, as proponents of council systems such as Hannah Arendt have argued. And they would find that they have much in common, whether their personal economic plight, that of their daughters and sons, neighborhood concerns and everyday struggles.

    Jørgen Johansen and Brian Martin have defined social defense as opposition not only to external aggressors but state violence and repression, a “defense of society or community, not necessarily of territory.” This involves defending — indeed creating — “practices and institutions that enable people to live cooperatively. This can include political practices such as free speech and assembly, economic practices such as production and distribution of goods and services, and social practices such as care for children.”

    The political significance of this in the Tunisian context is clear, and a council system could contribute to the defense, organization and enactment of the democratic political practices that are threatened by Kais Saied’s authoritarian regression. More than that, practical solutions to the economic crisis could be proposed and organized.

    The Tunisian revolution created a space with a conception of the political that prioritizes freedom and dignity — the latter encapsulating the political, economic and social spheres. Tunisia’s democratic gains are under imminent threat, so these priorities must be directly reasserted by Tunisians. One way is through a tangible system of councils.

    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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