A Thai scenario for Tunisian democracy?
Abdel Aziz Hali 25 October 2021

By appointing nine female ministers out of 25 to the Bouden government, in addition to the prime minister herself, the president of the Tunisian republic has once again managed to shake the ground under his detractors’ feet.

On the evening of July 25th, jubilation greeted President Kaïs Saïed’s decision to freeze the parliament’s activities and remove Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi from office for his inability to properly manage the health crisis related to the Covid-19 pandemic. But since then, supporters of the president and opponents to his renewed state of exception are fighting on the steps of Tunis’ municipal theater, alternating demonstrations and rallies, with a slight advantage for the president’s supporters.


A sense of déjà vu

This duel between supporters and detractors of the president’s measures strangely reminds us of the two-colored tug-of-war in Thailand following the September 2006 coup d’état which overthrew the government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in office since February 9, 2003.

On the one hand, were the yellow shirts. These were the supporters of the monarchy, the conservative elites and the middle classes. They came mainly from the capital Bangkok. On the other were the red shirts. These came mostly from the most disadvantaged members of society or from the countryside, generally from the north of the country. The reds supported the former head of government, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Protests against the Tunisian president’s unilateral move, or what the protesters term a “coup d’état”, began on Saturday the 18th of September, in downtown Tunis. Dozens of demonstrators chanted slogans for freedom, calling for Kaïs Saïed to “get out”, as the brandished copies of the constitution to express their disapproval at the president’s intent to amend its text.

Islamist supporters and Al Karama were present among the demonstrators gathered in front of the municipal theatre, shouting slogans such as: “Kaïs Saïed is a traitor”, and “the people want the fall of the coup d’état”.

We note, among others, the presence of national personalities including MPs Yadh Elloumi and Safi Said as well as the constitutionalist and former adviser to the Kasbah, Jawhar Ben M’barek, who is among those who called for the organization of this demonstration.


The opposition persists

On Sunday September 26th, bis repetita placent. The transitional provisions indicated in Decree 117 and announced by the President of the Republic have caused heated debate and several components of the national scene have expressed their rejection of the head of state’s approach, including his intention to “suspend the Constitution”, although this is not explicitly expressed through the maintenance of the preamble and the first two chapters.

To express this refusal and rejection, a massive demonstration was organized, again, in front of the municipal theatre, on Habib Bourguiba Avenue and a few meters from the Ministry of the Interior.

While all the demonstrators waved the national flag and some hoisted the Tunisian Constitution, one could recognize the sympathizers of Al Karama, who broadcasted the whole demonstration live on their Facebook page, as well as some dissident Nahdhaouis, including Samir Dilou.

The protesters chanted slogans against the President of the Republic and expressed their desire to uphold the Constitution and to remove Kaïs Saïed from office.

The live videos showed that the mobilization was able to gather more citizens than the one organized the week before. However, Nahdhaoui leader Khalil Baroumi posted a status indicating that several protesters had been prevented from joining the demonstration in question.

“The banning of buses from reaching the capital and the blocking of travellers in various ways show the weakness and fragility of the coup. Whoever does not believe in democracy, does not believe in rights and freedoms. Your repression is our path to victory and freedom,” he said.


Who is mobilizing the most protesters?

The pro-Saïed camp was quick to respond. A large demonstration in support of the President of the Republic was held on Sunday, October 3rd, in front of the municipal theatre by supporters of the Head of State.

The demonstrators started their rally in large numbers brandishing the national flag. After singing the national anthem, they chanted slogans against Ennahda’s leader Rached Ghannouchi while calling for the application of the law and the dissolution of the parliament. Police sources estimated the number of demonstrators to be between 10,000 and 12,000. The count was done with drones. If we add the demonstrators from the regions, we reach around 20,000 people participating in the demonstrations. But according to observers demonstrators gathering  on Avenue Bourguiba, the main artery in the center of the capital, were only around 3,000.

A week later, on Sunday the 10th October, the anti-Saïeds returned en masse. Despite a filtering and many controls, more than 5,000 people converged on Bourguiba Avenue, at the call of various groups opposed to the president. Moreover, according to a police source, there were between 6,000 and 8,000 demonstrators at the height of the demonstration.

Altercations were recorded between the protesters and the police. The protesters tried to break through the security barrier set up in front of the Palmarium shopping center to advance further along Bourguiba Avenue towards the headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior. However, the riot police tried to disperse them using tear gas.


Voices from the street

Between an intransigent opposition and a president who is true to his word, Tunisian citizens are more divided than ever. Even within themselves. This is the case of Karim Jbeniani (48 years old), whom we met on Habib Bourguiba Avenue.

“On the evening of the 25th July, I was among those who welcomed the decisions of President Kaïs Saïed. Tunisians are fed up with the laxity of the various governments since 2011 in the face of rampant corruption and deteriorating purchasing power. Someone had to take responsibility and blow the whistle,” he said. “However, the head of state took a long time to appoint a head of government. And reforms and action to bring the corrupt to justice are slow in coming. Of course, freedom of expression is still in place, but this state of exception and the accumulation of all powers in the hands of one person raise fears of a return to an authoritarian regime. For the moment, we are keeping our fingers crossed”.

For her part, Ines Msallem (28) – an executive assistant in a company – thinks that the opposition should continue its mobilizations to put pressure on the president.

“I was among those who voted by default for Kaïs Saïed because he was the more probing of the two candidates who reached the second round of the presidential election. But as far as bending the constitution and freezing the activities of the Assembly of People’s Representatives (ARP), no way! He was not elected to put the democratic process on hold and assume the role of Don Quixote. We did not elect an emperor to make rain and shine by accumulating all the powers. We didn’t make a revolution so that our destiny would be in the hands of one person. Tunisia is not an absolute feudal monarchy or under a totalitarian communist regime.  Who can guarantee that this situation is not a gateway to a new form of dictatorship?”.

These concerns are not shared by Mohamed Zguerni (36) – an accountant – who supports the measures adopted by Tunisia’s new strongman.

“Tunisia has never experienced an economic collapse as was the case with Ennahdha and its allies. The American rating agency Moody’s has just lowered Tunisia’s sovereign rating from B3 to Caa1, and maintains the negative outlook. Since January 14, 2011, we have been living in hell under the governance of a shameless kleptocracy and a rotten political class. And it is the people who are paying the price for their mismanagement and the damage caused by their amateurism,” he says while sipping his espresso. “Instead of crying wolf, the political class must be held accountable for their excesses over more than a decade. Before castigating the measures taken by Kaïs Saïed, the American Congress and the European Union must question the corruption of those in power since the fall of Ben Ali. A readjustment of the democratic process cannot be done with the same figures who led us to ruin. This is why we should support Kaïs Saïed in his approach to avoid the Lebanese scenario and the bankruptcy of the country,” he concludes.

Eleven years after the beginning of the popular uprising of December 2010, Tunisia continues to surprise the world – and itself – with its many contradictions.


Cover Photo: Tunisian protesters in front of the Tunis municipal theatre hold up signs against President Kaïs Saïed’s measures – Tunis, September 18, 2021 (Fethi Belaid/AFP).

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