Dr. Mongi Mabrouki | University of Carthage-Tunisia
Regardless his intentions, President Kais Saied’s initiative to freeze the parliamentary proceedings and dismiss Prime Minister Hisham al-Mashishi led to the dismantling of the most important pillars of the existing power system. He chose to lead alone an exceptional period of rule. Is this the beginning of a new era to get rid of all the burdens inherited from the previous phase? Does the president have the conditions for this change to be successful? How will the re-sorting between those who aligned themselves with President Saeed’s axis and those stood cautiously against him as critics or opponents of a foggy changer project be?
The new situation in Tunisia insofar as it creates a supportive political environment for taking decisive economic steps and confronting the crises of the past years, to the extent that it is likely to be diverted towards “populist” options that appeal to the emotions of the masses without achieving rescue and reform.((LAZAR ,Marc (2019), « Populismes de droite, populismes de gauche en Europe », dans Bertrand Badie et Dominique Vidal (dir.), Le Retour des populismes. L’État du monde 2019, Paris, La Découverte, p. 118-126.))
The history of peoples has major twists and turns that have marked their fate for decades. Will the current crisis be an opportunity for the Tunisian people whose revolution amazed the world a few years ago? Or will this opportunity be lost due to crises and the spread of corruption? We should consider that the president, who leads this critical period, has no political experience. He also lacks the sufficient flexibility to reach the difficult formula for success at a pivotal stage in Tunisia’s modern history.
The current situation split Tunisians into groups; loyalists to the president and hunters for opportunities around him, skeptics about his choices, and opponents of its slide towards a kind of tyranny.
Considering the priority of fighting corruption that spread in all the sectors of the state. How will the president determine his compass? How will he define his leadership team? How will he negotiate internally and externally in order to overcome the difficulties facing Tunisia?
- Features of the crisis in Tunisia: contexts and repercussions:
The deterioration of the economic and social conditions in Tunisia during the past ten years is the real cause of what happened on the 25th of July. This deterioration came as a result of the political transformations under an unstable security situation. Also, the popular protests and the continuous labor strikes with the excessive demands and the successive increases in wages without any increase in production. All these factors exacerbated the economic challenges and rated a decline in economic growth. It increased unemployment and poverty rates. The deficit in public finances, a steady decline of private and public initiatives, and a disruption of growth engines, the most important of which is internal and external investment. The lack of governmental stability was one of the reasons that delayed the development of a clear vision with practical methods to create a dynamic economy that leads to the rotation of the wheel of development. The COVID-19 pandemic has further worsened the economic conditions in Tunisia and the world as well in all sectors.
The economic crisis and the spread of corruption were not the only manifestations of the deteriorating situation in the country. Rather, they were exacerbated by the conflict between the three presidencies (the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister and the Speaker of Parliament). The conflict continued with no arbitration in the absence of the Constitutional Court. Consequently, the state’s affairs were disrupted and the economic situation became more difficult. Meanwhile, Most Tunisian political representatives engaged in attacking one another. The resentment against the political elites expanded due to their pointless fights, which have no connection to people’s reality and their worsening difficulties.
A significant number of Tunisian parties, national associations and organizations priory partisan rivalry, ideological rivalries, and setting political scores with their competitors or opponents over enacting democracy that is oriented to what benefit people. It was not difficult for President Saeed to perpetuate the disruption of the rising democratic experiment since tyranny has been entrenched in the Tunisian environment for decades. This democracy reshapes itself by competition among its actors, and by media monitoring of its performance.
The interaction of Tunisians with the rest of their political life is subject to a static systemic pattern. They do not devolve into a protest tendency except in extreme cases in which the existing balances between the society, the “mediating structures” (parties, unions, civil society structures, and especially human rights organizations) and the state are disturbed.
Protests arise when the state loses the mechanisms to handle social demands causing the accumulation of economic and social crises. They take the forms of spontaneous or organized protest, peaceful or violent, that erupt, depending on the contexts in which they descend. The accumulations of crises led to the 7/25/2021 movement. Angry youths, and those who plan to exploit this anger, including the supporters of President Kais Saied, were allowed to stir up troubles and call for undermining the regime.
We note that the protests do not hide the tendency to employ popular demand in order to fuel the crisis and exploit its repercussions. In this context, the President Saied emerged as a savior leader and provide solutions to difficult problems which were completely produced by his opponents.
The rhetoric of glorifying the savior was overshadowed, by exploiting the amplification of the image of the president who wields all powers in the collective memory. Indeed, the image of the powerful president was deeply embedded in the collective imagination. It is based on the experience of former presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali who were used to convey limitless capabilities to overcome any crisis. Therefore, the president is inclined to revive that hidden image of a president who works miracles for his people, by transferring all the powers of the executive authority to the supervision of the president, and he does not hide his inclination to the 1959 constitution. The latter was built on the background of empowering the president and expanding his field of intervention. He also does not hide his discontent with the 2014 constitution. He emphasized that the presidential system can be the optimal system when it harmonizes with the society’s culture and heritage in managing governance. This system is to be fortified with amendment mechanisms and a supervisory authority that prevents perversion and deviation of the highest constitutional functions from their noblest purposes.
President Said does not hide his tendency to tickle the psychology of the masses. He plays a leadership model where the individual dissolves in the group and mutes the individual consciousness by the collective one. In this case, feelings replace thoughts, and an impressionistic mindset prevails instead of thinking and contemplation. In this situation, the focus is placed on the leader who is being sanctified; especially in societies that suffer from alienation. The psychology of masses in these societies characterized by dependence on others; where the motivation to work decreases while the search for quick salvation spreads.((Case Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (2018), Brief introduction to populism, La Tour-d´Aigue, Éditions de l’Aube and Fondation Jean Jaurès, p. 19.)) These features are not far from the manifestations of “populism” that have emerged in Tunisian society during the last decade. Starting with the naive promises of the “Populist Petition” that won the third political power in the 2011 elections, by flirting with the emotions of the popular groups and eliciting their needs, and by calling the “Bourguibian Nostalgia”, to emphasize that “it is not possible to be better than it was”, and to underestimate everything that was new after the revolution.
These orientations aim to get rid of political opponents without relying on a political and economic program, but rather to refer to the past. Despite the media’s promotion of these trends, they did make any fundamental change in the political equation. Rather, they unintentionally paved the way to “The People Demand” movement.
This movement does not hide its sharp criticism of the party representation as a mechanism to manage the political life. They even tend to marginalize the political elite performance and call for the president’s alternative system. This political system is based on grassroots-council representation. Indeed, it replaces the traditional elites and political leaders with angry youths who did not have the opportunity to rule in the past.
The president is using the power of his position to preach this model. He aims to prepare a solid ground for his political project by reshaping the political scene with new alternatives and actors.
The change process of July 25 is viewed from two perspective. The first perspective is the will of the president and his supporters including those who call for the implementation of the president’s political system. The second is of those who got affected by that process and see it as a threat to freedoms and Tunisian democratic experience. The plan of each party is to position or re-position, either in order to implement change or resist it. The collision of the both sides wills may lead to undermining the gain and drag Tunisians into a battle that does not concern them in real, even though everyone speaks in the name of “the will of the people.”
2- The Situation after July 25th 2021: Estimating the beneficiaries and the losers
The President Kais Saied’s decisions came in terms of changing the form of power and the centers of influence((Al-Alawi (Noureddine), “Is the 2021 coup in Tunisia different from the 2013 coup in Egypt?”, link: https://www.noonpost.com/content/41415.)) of the political scene. He was faced with different positions internally and externally. They varied between rejection and acceptance with a change in the degree of rejection or acceptance. Internally, the July 25th movement was welcomed by four main groups:
The first category: includes the president’s organic supporters (those who identify with his ideas rejecting party representation, and favoring council and grassroots representation) and the occasional ones (accidental supporters motivated by opportunism or the search for those who adopt its demands). It is a heterogeneous category; it is influenced by the president’s position that differs from the political elites and attracted by his constant rejection of corruption in his discourse.
The second category: includes the opponents of the Ennahda party: supporters of parties such as the Free Destourian Party (Liberal), the People’s Movement (Nationalist), the Alternative Party (Left), the Popular Current (Nationalist), and the National Banner Movement (Left). We also have the parties that welcome the president’s decisions on the condition of a return to democratic life, such as the Tahya Tounes (Liberal) party, the project of Tunisia party (liberal), and the Afek Tounes party (Liberal).
The third category includes those who are angry at the performance of the system of government, especially the Ennahda movement; and who do not belong to the previous two categories. They criticize the partisan work in Tunisia, and believe that it should be more linked to what benefits people. They call the political parties to put the ideology aside and collaborate to implement programs that is related to the people’s daily living in all its various dimensions.
This model is waiting to be implemented in Tunisia following the steps of the successful democracies in the West.
The fourth category includes the followers of the parties who implicitly support the change. Their positions can be discerned from the occasional statements of their leaders, such as the United National Democratic Party (Left), smaller parties, art personalities and media professionals. The positions of most of these are based on explicit opposition to the Ennahda movement and taking positions against it.
As for the groups opposing the 25th July movement, we distinguish between three main categories:
The first category: consists of Al-Nahda (Islamic) supporters, and Al-Karama (Islamic) alliance supporters who see what happened as a “coup” aimed at excluding them from power, if it does not already intend to eradicate them altogether after tightening the grip on the centers of influence. This category considers that dealing with the corruption file is a ceremonial tactic to tickle popular sentiments, without turning into a comprehensive and non-selective confrontation with pockets of corruption.
The second category consists of supporters of different political parties such as the Democratic Current (Social), the Workers’ Party (Left), the Republican Party (Social), the Republican People’s Union Party (Social), the Amal Party, and the Heart of Tunisia Party (Liberal). These parties are with diverse left, social and liberal backgrounds. They see what has happened as a threat to the gains of freedom and democracy. Although everyone acknowledged the need to fight corruption.
The third category: It includes civil society components, national personalities (such as former President Moncef Marzouki), intellectuals, and academics from outside the political system. This category that supports President Saeed’s resistance to all forms of corruption without selectivity, provided that this is governed by constitutional and legal controls. Yet, they see what happened as a threat to Freedom and democracy.
Over the past few days, it seemed that the attitudes of rejection and acceptance were about to change according to the course of events. As Ennahda’s position shifted from sharply describing what happened as a coup, to a kind of acceptance of the change and its keenness to remain governed by constitutional and legal controls. On the other hand, it was found that the parties of the Democratic and Free Constitutional Movement and the People’s Movement were forced to reduce their support for the president, as they sensed the presidents’ negative attitude toward all parties not only Ennahda movement as they hoped and expected.
In fact, July 25th represents a turning point in the Tunisian political equation; the transition process will not be simple, yet it will gradually get more complicated. The external parties will not be concerned with the outcome of the situation and its repercussions. Rather, they will monitor the current situation. It is expected that they will have formulas to interfere and influence the political scene. Thus, a direct or indirect negotiation process should be conducted between all or most of the parties. We have to consider that change cannot overlook the effects of the external environment and the constraints of dealing with regional and international politics, especially in the case of a country burdened with its economic difficulties and heavy indebtedness.
The direction of change will not come out of the following expected scenarios.
3- The Prospects for Change in Tunisia: What are the possible scenarios?
The exceptional decisions taken by President Saied may turn into an opportunity to exploit all of Tunisia’s potentials of strength derived from its history, location, and its rich and promising human capital. This depends on the clarity of the president’s vision, and his quickness to create a suitable political environment for economic options that give Tunisians the needed will and hope to confront complex problems. The starting point is the proper selection of the Prime Minister and his ministerial staff, in order to initiate the rescue process, by arranging priorities that do not neglect the fight against corruption, but with focusing on operating all growth engines. This strengthens the confidence of Tunisians in their country, and in themselves. The president may miss this opportunity, if he pushes the country towards a new ordeal. Under the circumstances, Tunisians lose their social peace and their ability to coexist, and slip towards bullying each other with the support of parties, instead of strengthening national unity and protecting it by the force of law. They are the president’s choices and decisions that determine whether the country is accepting opportunities to take off, or is it slipping toward conflict ambushes?
The most likely options for a country’s destination can be determined based on the following scenarios:
First- The Soft Change Scenario:
The change appropriate to the nature of the Tunisian character should be smooth and soft, rather than violent and destructive. Even if they exaggerate the threat of rough decisiveness, Tunisians are often inclined to make compromises, no matter if they are on the edge of the abyss.((Winas (Almoncif), The Tunisian Personality: An Attempt to Understand the Arab Personality, Mediterranean Publishing House, Tunis, 2010.)) Therefore, it is preferable to Tunisians to negotiate the best way to deal the current crisis of their will so that the conflict does not pave the way open the door to more foreign interference in their affairs. The soft solution must start from where the crisis ended, so the beginning will be by appointing a prime minister and a ministerial staff well-qualified to meet the needs and necessities of the stage. Then, the Parliament approves that government. The anti-corruption campaign continues, within exceptional conditions that help the president to confront the centers of influence of “macro-corruption”. This is in case the president has the intention to give constitutional legitimacy to this stage, and abides by his commitment to preserving rights and freedoms((Al-Madawori (Haitham), “Mash’il, a coup descent or a democratic break?”, 28-7-2021, link: https://ultratunisia.ultrasawt.com)). The major beneficiaries of corruption’s silence cannot be guaranteed in case they find out that the president’s fight against corruption is neither circumstantial nor selective. At that time, the real battle of breaking bones begins, in which the president needs a strong internal mobilization in support of him, and a continued support of the security and military institutions for him, as happened on 7/25/2021.((twan (Abdel Bari), “Did Saied win the first and most important round in his struggle with his biggest opponent, Ghannouchi?”, 7/28-2021, link: https://www.raialyoum.com/index.php/))
Soft change is not only consistent with the characteristics of the Tunisian personality, but rather is consistent with the requirements of a regional and international situation.
The stability in Tunisia consists the basis for ensuring stability in Libya, and in the Maghreb region in general. Therefore, this option remains less costly and more profitable, if the concern is building, stability and coexistence.
Second: The Radical Change Scenario:
It requires that the president continues to disrupt constitutional institutions and invokes his legitimacy derived from popular acclamation. He calls for a referendum to revise the electoral law, and to amend the constitution to transform from a quasi-parliamentary system of government to a presidential system of government. This will be followed by, or simultaneous with, the organization of premature legislative elections in order to complete the president’s agenda for change, which is in line with his vision and the balance of power that he is manipulating in his favor. Among the dangers of this option is its tendency towards authoritarianism and imposing a halt to the democratic experiment, claiming that it is in the interest of “political Islam” and that it is a projection of the “Hebrew Spring”, while the Hebrew state and its allies in the Arab region are going to extreme speed in order to annihilate the remainder of the revolution launched from Tunisia in the winter between 2010-2011.
The profound change of the situation in Tunisia requires gradual pedagogy in arranging solutions. They should be implemented in proportion to the society’s ability to adopt new patterns of thinking and behavior by adopting conviction and acceptance, not coercion and obligation. Consequently, the civil and social peace of the state are to be protected. The radical change takes decades while the “rapid change” is the choices of adventurers. They aim to impose this change by force and coercion. This policy does not consist with the general characteristics of Tunisian society that is the most prepared Arab society for political modernization. The Tunisian society was the first to start the reform movement, the liberation of slaves, the establishment of labor and human rights unions, and the formation of the first nucleus of civil society.
Third – Retreat Scenario for Further Progress:
The third scenario is based on the possibility of Saied subject to internal and external pressures in order to retreat and return to the democratic process .he tends to form a government with an economic priorities. Meanwhile, Kais Saied reviews his methodology for building alliances and compromises. This policy of this stage will be based on the success of a long-term plan that fights corruption and carries out major reforms in the country. The reform is to include administration, education, health, agriculture, scientific research and all vital sectors. This plan is not consistent with the president’s insistence on prioritizing his political project over the demands of reform and combating corruption. Rather, it assumes that the country’s priorities are not based on the president’s mood, but rather on an assessment of its priority interests, with the possibility of an overlap between the two tracks.
It is better for President Saied to give time and priority to the policy of a targeted and practical dialogue in accordance with the above-mentioned priorities. He has to extend the strong influence of the law in combatting corruption, and in the methodology of managing the helm of governance. After that, it is possible to carefully prepare for a referendum on all components of the political system adopted in the country; and that is after the formation of a presidential council that will lead a new transitional phase (duration of two years). During this period, the most important political forces and social organizations will negotiate in order to lay the foundations of the Third Republic. A participatory approach must be adopted so that the president’s supporters and their competitors can shape the new face of Tunisia collectively. The most effective way for the president to ensure a popular understanding of the reform steps is to be transparent and open to the people about the reality of the situation while reducing their expectations that the state is unable to transform into achievements.((Al-Deeb (Ibrahim), “Al-Nahda and Kais Saied: Strategic Lessons and Expected Scenarios”, 1-8-2021, link: https://www.aljazeera.net/opinions/2021/8/1/))
Forth- The Mediation and Arbitration Scenario:
The end of the first month without resolving the conflict between the main parties presupposes the adoption of the mediation and arbitration methodology that cuts completely off with forced changes. It forces one of the parties to give up, so that it is defeated and surrenders to the other winner party. This is a suitable methodology for armed conflicts or battles when it is necessary for the parties to coexist. In terms of the political life, and in the Tunisian case, arbitration is the best solution if the following conditions are achieved:
- Acceptance by the two parties to the arbitration process, and the reciprocal concessions are required. This does not seem to be accepted by the president, if he has the opportunity to lead the initiative. His position will not change unless the crisis is prolonged without indications of a solution. Then, it would be difficult for him to bear the cost of its continuation of the strained situation. As for the opposite side, the Ennahda Movement, it is closer to acceptance due to its position and the ability of its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, to maneuver and make concessions in order to secure settlements.
- The existence of an arbitration body that both parties are satisfied with, especially President Saied, due to his toughness and lack of flexibility. He seems inclined to hold on his opinion, and monopolize the speech in front of his councils. In addition, the mediations that took place to bridge the rift between him and the heads of parliament and the government showed that he was focused on his vision, and his ability to modify his positions seemed almost non-existent.
- Neutrality of the media regarding the arbitration process, a process that is not guaranteed in view of the apparent biases of most media outlets, as demonstrated by the experience of the Truth and Dignity Commission, which suffered greatly from the biases of the Tunisian media against it.
Without the availability of these conditions, it is not guaranteed that the parties in conflict during the current crisis will resort to arbitration for reconciliation, unless they are compelled to do so. Indeed, the acceptance of arbitration and its outcomes are a condition for providing financial facilities that would rid Tunisia of its budget imbalance, which has reached unprecedented levels. This applies to the case of internationalizing mediation and making it not subject to the internal will of the Tunisian conflicting parties. I do not think that the situation in Tunisia is far from this frightening possibility, namely that wise patriots have often warned that giving way to conflict between Tunisians and linking it to regional conflicts without any ceiling that preserves independence will inevitably lead to the partial loss of immunity and national sovereignty.
Fifth-The Scenario of Despair and Violence:
Managing the crisis according to the rule of a loser/winner, by virtue of the circumstantial balance of power, leads to a strained situation that accumulates frustration and disappointment, and over time becomes a suitable environment for the outbreak of conflicts that begin with the use of soft forms of conflict, and reach the practice of violence. When the chain of violence and counter-violence begins spontaneously, or orchestrated by parties that push societies into the quagmire of self-destruction, as has happened in Algeria during the black decade, it is not possible to predict a ceiling for a bad fate.((Al-Deeb (Ibrahim), “Al-Nahda and Kais Saied: Strategic Lessons and Expected Scenarios”, 1-8-2021, link: https://www.aljazeera.net/opinions/2021/8/1/))
Societies that encourage education on the right to difference, and those who encourage coexistence, reduce the degrees of hatred and the level of aggression among their members and across groups. They are societies that prevent factors that lead to violence that may turn into a type of terrorism that threatens everyone. After the events of 25-7-2021, and even before that, the pioneers of social networks slipped into a frightening pattern of insults, spreading curses and treasons between the supporters of President Saied and those who are against him. The traditional media took part of this wave. The most dangerous thing is that the political elite and some members of parliament have been involved for years in directing insults and defamation to one another. Indeed, the President of the Republic himself, in cases of irritation, did not hesitate to describe a group of Tunisians as “germs and viruses, whose place is sewage channels.” Regardless of the president’s motives, the use of these phrases falls within verbal violence. The president should not have used them, and neither should the party leaders, politicians and the media have done so.
The Tunisian society has been experiencing psychological agitation to the point of turmoil, which has been exacerbated by the worsening of both the epidemiological and economic situation. Therefore, alarm bells must be sound to avoid turning the waves of media, school, family and societal violence, in general, into systematic violence that threatens social peace. This represents a ground for terrorism and is the most dangerous expression of the spread of violence. We must not rule out that the failure of democracy in Tunisia will not only affect the Ennahda movement, but rather the entire political life. As for Kais Saied’s quest to build an alternative to the parties through local coordination, it is a project that we will not presently discuss, but we point out that the transformation into an alternative framework with capable leaders, visions and ready-made work programs requires a period of time that the president cannot reduce to a few months or years. Moreover, the country cannot tolerate the political vacuum waiting for that.
The political scene in Tunisia is still witnessing the consequences of the political change taking place in the recent weeks. What happened was not the radical changes claimed by the supporters of President Kais Saied; the forces that are not keen for change have begun to absorb the shock and orchestrate a rescue plan that reconsiders their previous mistakes. In fact, what will shape the scene in the foreseeable future is not the will of the competitors to implement or disrupt the change, but rather the trends of the great silent majority of Tunisians. It closely monitors and tests the credibility of promises from all sides. What is important will not be showing intentions and exaggerating the marketing of promises, and minimizing the difficulties that Tunisians have been under for years. The outcome of matters will also be affected by the will of the donors who will pump into the Tunisian economy budget, ensuring the improvement of its imbalances and the reduction of its deficit, which is increasing year after year. The management of the entire process will not be immune from media interference with the caveats of its impartiality. The battles of change are not decided by the media’s interference on the importance of their influence, but rather by the ability to convince the feasibility of any option, and the weighting of the sponsors of those options, and the will of the regional powers to support this option only. Tunisia, like many countries in the world, when it bases its fiscal budgets on the generosity of the donors, rather than on the strength and vitality of its national economy, its choices will be influenced by the dictates of donors that are marketed as reforms. Crises are a test of the actors’ ability to choose, even between constraints. President Kais Saied’s will to change, and his choices in this regard, will be put to the test over the coming months. Will he be able to penetrate the minds of Tunisians after their hearts, with the guarantee of these options of a real response to the mothers of their problems? Then, he will take his place among Tunisia’s influential leaders. Or, will he be distracted by the minor battles, and deviate in his performance from confronting Tunisia’s crises and difficulties? If he fails the test, he would not be remembered among the symbols of Tunisian history, but rather his name would be expelled from the national memory.
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1LAZAR ,Marc (2019), « Populismes de droite, populismes de gauche en Europe », dans Bertrand Badie et Dominique Vidal (dir.), Le Retour des populismes. L’État du monde 2019, Paris, La Découverte, p. 118-126.
2Case Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (2018), Brief introduction to populism, La Tour-d´Aigue, Éditions de l’Aube and Fondation Jean Jaurès, p. 19.
4Winas (Almoncif), The Tunisian Personality: An Attempt to Understand the Arab Personality, Mediterranean Publishing House, Tunis, 2010.
5 Al-Madawori (Haitham), “Mash’il, a coup descent or a democratic break?”, 28-7-2021, link: https://ultratunisia.ultrasawt.com
6 Atwan (Abdel Bari), “Did Saied win the first and most important round in his struggle with his biggest opponent, Ghannouchi?”, 7/28-2021, link: https://www.raialyoum.com/index.php/
8 Al-Deeb (Ibrahim), “Al-Nahda and Kais Saied: Strategic Lessons and Expected Scenarios”, 1-8-2021, link: https://www.aljazeera.net/opinions/2021/8/1/