On July 25th, also known as Republic Day in Tunisia, protests
erupted in many Tunisian cities to demand the government step down, which included burning and storming of a few Ennahda offices. Just as the frenzy calmed down as a result of the 8 p.m. Covid-19 curfew in place, the Tunisian presidency announced on Facebook and Twitter that the parliament would be frozen for a month, lifted immunity from members of parliament and sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi.
It is easy to see Tunisian president Kaïs Saïed’s actions as a reaction against the political elite that have controlled the country’s trajectory since 2011; the country’s economic crisis has deepened and many Tunisians have become disenfranchised and angry at their lack of action.
“In the last 10 years, there were no real changes between the old and new regime, except for the right to vote and freedom of speech” remarked Mehdi Ouerti, a recent graduate from Tunisia with a Masters in Law.
The healthcare crisis and disastrous response to Covid-19 are examples of corruption among the political elites: While hospitals were overcrowded and running out of oxygen, ministers, including former Prime Minister Mechichi, spent their weekend in a luxury hotel
Following the news lifting immunity from members of parliament, streets were filled by Tunisians celebrating the news shortly. “Everyone was out on the streets; it was as if we had won the African Cup. It felt euphoric and very refreshing… but there was also this feeling at the back of my mind that we would be in trouble,” shared Ahmed Mejbri, a 26-year-old computer engineer from Tunisia.
Very quickly, debates on social media intensified on whether or not President Saied’s actions constituted a coup, while the national television played reruns of Tunisian comedy shows. Saied enacted Article 80
of the country’s Constitution, which gives the President the right to take exceptional measures in the case when the integrity, security and independence of the country are threatened.
“According to constitutional experts, my peers and professors, it was a coup,” Ouerti added. “The problem is legitimacy; is it illegitimate for a ruler to make change?”.
“His decision to suspend parts of the constitution, without naming said parts, means that no civil liberty is protected,” declared Amir Cherif, a third year student at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations. “His actions against corruption have all either been debunked as fake news or targeted political opponents. It's basically a make-up policy made to make him win time and popular support.”
Recently, Kaïs Saïed claimed that 1.8 million people
came out in support of him on the streets, when local media suggests figures do not go above the low thousands.
“The popular opinion is deeply divided on the issue as popular protests against him have gathered at least as many people as those in support,” Cherif added. “The number of his supporters is quickly shrinking, and he puts his head on the line.”
As a response to the indications that Kaïs Saïed’s actions were a power grab, Tunisians on social media suggested that he could be overthrown if he were to become a dictator: “He would not become a dictator overnight,” reassured Mejbri. “But if he were, it would be gradual, in a way people would not necessarily grasp, it is hard for 10 million people to reach the same realization.”
“I don't fear Kaïs Saïd; I fear the door he opened. He eroded the state's institutions' resistance to power,” Cherif explained. “This means that in the future, there is a real risk that another political actor will pick [up] where Kaïs Saïed will have fallen and end the seemingly democratic system currently in place in Tunisia.”
Tunisia was in the headlines for appointing the first female Arab Prime Minister, Najla Boudene Romdhane
. Some have pointed out that Kaïs Saïed’s choice to appoint her was to appease modernist and secular elite as well as outside observers.
“I hope that she is the best fit for the role of managing and leading an entire country, curing our economy and caring for the people,” commented Sara Ghodbane, a student at NYU Abu Dhabi. “She is mostly from an academic background which I wouldn’t judge to be ideal for PM. The role needs a thorough understanding and experience in economics industries and leadership. But I am optimistic.”
For the generation that was too young to actively participate in the Arab Uprisings but witnessed the oppressive nature of the old regime and Tunisia’s transition to democracy, it is easy to realise the stakes of the changes in the country.
“It is a double edged sword; politically we were exposed to many points of view but grew up in a mood of immigration and disappointment, watching prices go up and public places not getting maintained,” Mejbri expressed. “There is a breath of disappointment carried for 10 years”.
Tunisian public opinion is by no means fixed or homogenous; it is constantly changing and informed by the desire for dignity, equality and an effective government. The obsession with Tunisia’s turmoil since the Arab Uprisings is the result of a sporadic attention span which does not fully encapsulate the complexity of the ongoing political crisis.
“When people are not aware of day to day developments in Tunisia, it is difficult to understand la mentalité,” Ouerti acknowledged. Keeping track of political developments in Tunisia is difficult and confusing for many reasons, including the nation’s reliance on Facebook and café culture for news. I urge observers to follow Tunisia’s developments more closely as opposed to reading and commenting on events only when they escalate.
Yesmine Abida is a Staff Writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.