Trying To Reset 12 Years of History in Tunisia
Federica Zoja 14 March 2023

Tunisia is undergoing an authoritarian pivot that seems to be taking back to a time before the Jasmine Revolution paved the way for democracy. It is not difficult to find those who recognize this trend, not only among President Kaïs Saied detractors but even among those who originally supported him. Very few, however, agree to do so in the light of day, putting their name and face to it. Once again, it’s a time for “prudence,” “risk calculation,” “always better to avoid,” because the risks of retaliation even for one’s own family members are real.

While the country awaits the instauration new parliament following the December 17 and January 27 elections, arrests among regime opponents are on the rise. Reset DOC sounded out Tunisian intellectuals that still remain on the ground, to understand their moods and anxieties for the future of their country. Zyed Krichen, a leading columnist at al-Maghreb newspaper believes that the historically low turnout rates are at the core of his analysis. “11.4 percent, in the second round. An unparalleled percentage in a country in democratic transition,” points out the journalist, also a commentator for Radio Mosaïque. To understand the anomaly of these legislative ballots, one need only think of 2019, when participation was 40 percent of eligible voters. “I would like you to grasp the difference between 2011, when 4 million citizens went to the ballot, and December 17, 2022, when not even 1 million [turned up].” Krichen provides two explanations: “Tunisians are clearly not interested in this process, in this transformation of the Constitution, of the electoral law, of the prerogatives of the president of the Republic.” A change that the columnist puts thus, “It is not personal power, rather the power of an extremely lonely person.”

Besides, “[President Kaïs Saied’s, ed.] workplan includes the introduction of a second parliamentary chamber, people are not interested in that at all.” That said, Krichen rejects any equivalency between voting participation rates and confidence in the president’s performance: “This would not be correct: it is true that among young people he has lost a lot of support compared to the beginning of his term, but polls and even the social ‘climate’ attest to a much higher support for him than that percentage.” It is difficult to come up with reliable numbers, but sources set a range of approval, depending on the dossiers addressed by the presidency, between 40 and 60 percent.

It is worth remembering that in the aftermath of the “coup” of July 25, 2021, when the President suspended parliamentary immunity and dissolved the People’s Assembly invoking Article 80 of the Constitution and the socio-political context of “grave risk to the country,” “more than 90 percent of the public had confidence in the President. However, he has lost a good half of that approval,” Krichen pauses, tracing Saied’s recent history as a constitutional lawyer previous to his political career.


However, do Tunisians hold Saied responsible for their country’s current debacle?

Krichen has no doubt: “For the most part, no. They believe that it is the fault of those who ran Tunisia in the post-Revolutionary period as well as the external conspiracy that targeted the welfare of the Tunisian population.” The executive has been riding this alternative narrative for the past year and a half to justify the economic and political paralysis, which has persisted despite the quasi-abolition of the party system by the head of state.

This is, therefore, the second interpretation indicated by the Krichen: there are those who did not vote, but still do not blame the president, virtually giving him carte blanche and withdrawing from political activism: “Let others take care of it,” is the underlying thought. Somewhat like in pre-revolutionary Egypt, between 2010 and 2011, when sociologists spoke of a “couch party,” formed by a cohort, a majority, of a politically inactive population.

A separate discussion, Krichen explains, should be centered the cultural, industrial, and political elites who “have all broken with the President,” and this “explains the palace’s attempts to restrict freedom of expression, demonstration, and assembly.” He retains however, some residual optimism: “It is complicated for Saied to act in a country where journalists, intellectuals, people of culture are expressing themselves in broad daylight, criticizing, debating. And unions organize protests. Citizens debate, students gather. Independent media exists and works.”

Krichen says he is still “quite free” to work, “But I realize that this balance is fragile, entrusted to the willingness of editors and newspaper owners to resist.” A completely different situation from “the 1980s, 1990s…,” although “power (Krichen punctuates the French word le pouvoir with solemnity) becomes nervous, believes in an internal and external conspiracy to undermine it but we are not yet in a dictatorship as we were in the past.”


The million-dollar question is: Will the Tunisian president be able, should the case arise, to accept the loss of popular support, seeing himself as the best solution to the national crisis?

“Psychologically I do not believe that he can accept defeat gracefully,” Krichen says. Hypothesizing the use of military support, however, seems “premature” at this historical stage.  The former constitutional law professor will try to “shape the game to his advantage to the last,” before throwing in the towel. A conservative revolutionary, from the beginning of his political career Saied has delineated a rather vague plan to transfer some of the country’s illicitly acquired wealth from the country’s ruling class to charities with the goal of completely changing the socio-economic picture.

For the time being, however, the picture remains hazy, and the economic-financial model of reference remains liberal and laissez-faire.

Shortly before the start of the holy month of Ramadan, in the midst of a frenzy of academic activity, Amel Grami spoke to from her office at the university. An outspoken professor in Tunisian society as well as a writer and columnist, Grami says with bitterness and lucidity, “I have the feeling that I have gone back in time. Like me all those who were political activists under Ben Ali. We are back in a police state.”

Her judgment is particularly biting: Grami was among the Tunisian intellectuals who gave Kaïs Saied some favorable margin immediately after his July 2021 coup, in an anti-Islamist capacity.

“There is nothing new, we have seen everything already. Photos of the president’s opponents, especially among the youth, are published in pro-government media. Arrests and intimidation are being carried out, even at the academic level. Today talking about freedom has become dangerous again,” the professor explains. Even at the civil society level, activist advocacy is limited, public reactions are not what they used to be.


How do you justify popular support for the president?

“The nostalgia for economic and social stability, in my opinion. And then the allure of a populist leader who goes out without security and mingles with his people, who fights against corruption,” Grami replies, stressing that “there is no room at the moment for rational analysis.”

Support for Saied today is based on a widespread “emotional state” of the people, who moreover cannot count on a critical and vigilant media: “The national networks offer a lineup of young, pretty female journalists who are clearly not prepared. We are noticing the return of discussions about the Islamic veil for women, of traditions, etc.” and a vacuity of information complete with analysis and debate.

The next parliament’s composition will be crucial for Tunisia in the coming months, but there is little talk about it: “In my opinion, it will be a mass of Saied supporters. We cannot generalize because apart from a few individuals they are unknown people, but let’s not expect a dynamic full of confrontations and discussions. It will be a chamber made specifically to pass laws proposed by the Raïs.”

The Assembly of People’s Representatives – according to a statement by the Higher Institution for Elections – will be installed on March 15 at the latest. The civic list “For the Victory of the People,” with which candidates styled themselves as “close to the July 25 project, but partisans of the people, not of the president” participated in the vote, and has already reported that it counts on 42 seats and is in talks with 16 other potential independents who are interested in a rapprochement.

The Assembly will consist of 161 members, of which 30 were already elected in the first round and 7 from constituencies abroad, are yet to be voted on due to a lack of candidates. This time round, there are very few women: according to preliminary results, no more than 25.

In the meantime, the President can count on powerful allies in the Gulf: the Emirates have always viewed Tunisia’s democratic exploit unfavorably. This is a very dangerous precedent for the entire MENA region, especially because of the strategic role of women, key players in the demand for rights.

“Think also of Iran: the role of women in the assault on the totalitarian Islamic regime is central and challenges the whole patriarchal model of society and political life.”

Even on the opposite side of the Mediterranean, the silence toward returning authoritarianism is deafening. Not to mention racist attacks on African migrants: “The pipeline that passes over Tunisian territory is too important for Europe.”

Grami recalls in great detail “when leaving for conferences and events abroad, we would talk freely but upon returning it was safe to pass through police checkpoints at the airport.” Now, it’s back to square one: “One has to take countermeasures, be vigilant,” even with respect to one’s acquaintances. At the same time, however, Professor Grami does not want to forget her “lived experience”: “I can’t backtrack, it’s a matter of personal consistency,” she says with gravity, recalling her lifelong struggle against totalitarianism.

Today, the authoritarian turn takes advantage of the existing divisions in society: “There are those who, despite having a democratic background, support Saied because anything goes, as long as it’s not Ennahda [the moderate Islamist party, holder of the political majority from 2011 to 2019]. And indeed, among democratic women, there are those that support the President as well as those that don’t. They are a mirror of what is happening in society at large.”

“Lack of will, fatigue, disenchantment” characterize a part of the population. There are two countries at odds: “Those who continue to leave, even under dramatic circumstances, and the elites who continue to fill restaurants, sunbathe, dance.” But there is also the generational factor: “Now it’s up to young people to demand reforms, to defend democracy, to be heard. There are many who think so; among those who lived as leaders through the revolution and now feel as if they have thrown away so many years of life unnecessarily.”


Cover Photo: People shout slogans during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied after his statement against African migrants, saying their presence was a source of ”violence and crimes” in Tunis, Tunisia on 25 February 2023. (Photo by Yassine MAHJOUB/ NurPhoto via AFP)


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