Final curtain on the Arab Spring?

Summary: many are calling the events in Tunisia a coup with President Kais Saied using popular discontent to seize power but Francis Ghilès argues the steps the president has taken were necessary in a country where the economy is collapsing  and the Covid pandemic is rampant.

We thank Francis Ghilès for  today’s commentary. He is a specialist on security, energy, and political trends in North Africa and the Western Mediterranean and an associate senior researcher at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs. From 1981 to 1995 he was the North Africa correspondent for the Financial Times and has written for numerous publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Le Monde and El Pais. You will find his most recent Arab Digest podcast here.

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied likes to quote the second caliph of Islam, Umar Ibn-Khattab, also called al-faruq (he who distinguishes evil from good) who in his lifetime became a paragon of virtue in the Sunni tradition. For months the president stuck to an unyielding moral position which insists the Augean stables of what passes as politics in Tunis must be cleaned if the economic, social and health crises which confront the country are to be addressed. The mounting death toll claimed by Covid 19 (18,600 in a population of 12 million as of 26 July) is a result of the incompetent and erratic management of the pandemic by the government of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi. That and the economic mess the country is in pushed Kais Saied, the head of state, who has no executive powers but is head of the armed forces and responsible for the overall security of the country, to invoke, on Sunday night, Article 80 of the constitution. The article allows him to sack the prime minister, dismiss the government and freeze the activities of parliament – in other words to declare a state of emergency.  Both the dismissed government and parliament are attempting a fight back while charging he has carried out a coup.

The Muslim Brotherhood offices on fire in Tunisia on Sunday 25 July

Saied, an independent with no ties to political parties, may lack political experience but his popularity is intact. In October 2019, in a second- round runoff he received nearly three quarters of the votes cast, with notable support among young Tunisians, including even those who do not share his conservative social views. And on Sunday night, young protesters in their thousands took to the streets in celebration of his actions. The offices of the Islamist Ennahda party, the largest bloc in parliament were attacked and ransacked in several cities and towns.

The leader of Ennahda and Speaker of the parliament Rachid Ghannouchi accused President Saied of launching “a coup against the revolution and the constitution.” As the arch puppeteer of successive governments, be they led by Ennahda party members or members of other parties, Ghannouchi has shown scant respect for the constitution. In particular since 2015 he has blocked the selection of some of the 12 judges who are to sit on the constitutional court’s bench by using stalling tactics in parliament. The president’s decision should be submitted to the court within 30 days, but there is no court! Mr Ghannouchi, it would seem, has fallen into a trap of his own making.

Since he returned from two decades of exile in 2012, Rachid Ghannouchi, who has presided over his party for as long as anyone can remember, has inserted Ennahda into the web of dubious practises which passes for politics in Tunis. Since the so-called revolution, Ennahda’s voter base has atrophied in every election since 2011 as a result of the calamitous role it has played in government, in collaboration with small and essentially inept parties.

So-called because a revolution, for it to succeed, requires a political project and a well thought-out strategy. The protests of 2011 demanded more social justice, less corruption from the ruling class and more consideration for the poorer regions which send three quarters of their raw materials – wheat, water and internal migrants – to the coast. The second largest party elected, in late 2019, to the parliament presided over by Ghannouchi, is Qalb Tounes, led by a media baron, Nabil Karoui, who is in and out of prison on charges of tax evasion and money laundering. The parliament resembles nothing so much as a noisy souk awash with money rather than ideas. It is utterly lacking in policies which might address the country’s economic problems and the health emergency occasioned by the Covid pandemic.

Fish rots, from the head downwards as the old Arab proverb goes. For the vast majority of Tunisians, that fish includes the prime minister, Mechichi and Rachid Ghannouchi.

In Kais Saied, Mr Ghannouchi has perhaps met his match as he was barred from speaking on television by the military on Sunday night. On Monday the offices of Al Jazeera were raided by armed police. (The network, for the past decade, has all too often been seen to have acted as cheerleader for the Islamists.) In recent months, support from Qatar and Turkey for Ennahda appears to have ebbed significantly. Rachid Ghannouchi is strongly contested within the ranks of his own party because of what is seen as his refusal to relinquish the presidency. The large amounts of cash which Ennahda (and other larger parties such as Qalb Tounes and Nida Tounes) enjoyed seem to be drying up. The sources of those funds have never been accounted for.

Saied, the former law professor, has acted according to a vision of himself as the guarantor of institutional legality and cut the Gordian knot of a constitution which failed to clearly define the respective powers  and prerogatives of the president, the head of government and the speaker of the parliament. The first test of his political mettle will come with the appointment of a new government. Will the new ministers be untainted by corruption? Will they be competent? How to quickly reestablish a coherent policy to deal with the ravages of Covid 19, made all the more difficult by ten years of deep cuts in hospital budgets, part of a wider problem of state expenditure paying an ever growing number of civil servants rather than investing in health, education and other essential services and infrastructure.

Political discourse in Tunis has grown intemperate, violent even, in recent months; deputies have been assaulted in parliament by other deputies. If Saied’s actions and the response from his political opponents lead to clashes in the streets, reestablishing law and order without shedding blood will prove difficult.

Finally, and this is an uncomfortable truth that many Western admirers of Tunisian democracy will not welcome, many people in the country are utterly disillusioned and have stopped caring about the pursuit of the democratic ideal. In 2011 Tunisians wanted more jobs, more education and respect from their leaders; what they got from their freely elected politicians was less jobs, a declining standard of living and corruption on an obscene scale. They feel they have lost today much of the dignity they had recovered in 2011. If the people have given up on democracy, then the final chapter of the Arab Spring, begun in Tunisia in 2011, has been closed. As in 1987, when Ben Ali ousted Habib Bourguiba and seized power and again in 2011, a small, professional and respected army played a key role. Without the support of the army and the police, Saied could not have made his move.

Seasoned observers are adamant that Sunday’s events would not have happened without the consent of the  United States (where most senior Tunisian officers are trained.) Neither the European Union, nor it seems France were pre-warned. For now the street supports Saied. How fleeting is his popularity, how will it fare when he really starts to govern rather than preside, how will he deal with criticism and protest, of which there will be a great deal? With the future of Tunisia hanging in the balance, these are questions which the next weeks and months will answer.

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