Anti-Coup protests in Tunisia reveal the limits of a divided opposition

Thousands of people took to the streets last Sunday in the capital Tunis to protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied’s coup in what was billed as the biggest demonstration to date against Saied since he took over. power on July 25, 2021.

Saied, who was elected president in November 2019, suspended parliament in July 2021 and has since suspended the constitution, sacked the Supreme Judicial Council, dissolved parliament and unilaterally announced plans for a new “road map” and electoral laws.

Saied suspended the constitution, sacked the Superior Council of the Judiciary and dissolved parliament.

Although last Sunday’s protests were large in number, they inadvertently revealed the limited extent of support for the opposition and laid bare ongoing struggles to form a cohesive movement capable of restoring order. Where Saied had once sought to curb protests by deploying security forces to harass protesters and limit their movement, it appears no such effort was made in relation to this most recent demonstration. For Saied, the protests have begun to follow a comfortably regular pattern in which protesters occupy the capital’s main street for a few hours, chant against him and listen to the same speeches by unpopular politicians before making an orderly departure to their homes. While the numbers are large enough to warrant media attention, they are not enough to force the military or security forces to question their support for the coup.

More importantly, Saied has grown increasingly comfortable with the growing public perception that protesters at home and abroad are primarily Ennahda supporters, as opposed to a reflection of the wider population. . This perception had important ramifications not only for the limited extent of popular sympathy, but also for opposition struggles to form a united front.

Although Ennahda only effectively ruled from 2011 to 2013, many believe they were the driving force behind the political failure of the past decade. Despite their 2014 electoral defeat to Béji Caïd Sibsi’s Nida Tunis, and although the subsequent government of Youcef Chahed (in which Ennahda was a junior partner) ruled unopposed and freely implemented its own policies from 2015 to 2019 , there remains a popular perception that Ennahda has been the main power for the past 10 years, and is therefore the main culprit for the failure to realize one of the aspirations of the 2011 Arab Spring.

Many believe that Ennahda has been the driving force behind the political failure of the past ten years.

Any discussion of the complex reality of Ennahda’s tumultuous political history over the past decade escapes national media platforms which, according to media magnate Nabil Karoui, “are seen by more than 90% of Tunisians” as opposed to other countries where foreign media receive a larger audience. than their domestic outlets. Any consideration for Ennahda’s political roller coaster that saw the party rush to avoid a coup in 2013 when its coalition partner and Speaker of Parliament Mustapha Ben Jafar unilaterally closed the parliament building amid protests seeking to capitalize on the momentum of Sisi’s coup in an effort to repeat the same in Tunisia, or who saw her scrambling to fend off UAE-backed efforts to isolate her, this which led the party to agree to support the government of Sibsi in exchange for its survival, has little credit. Instead, narratives are often presented in simplistic ways that underscore that Ennahda is the only party to have been consistently represented in all governments and parliaments since 2011, and therefore warrants particular condemnation and blame for the crises plaguing Tunisia.

There is a keen awareness of the poisonous chalice of Ennahda’s reputation in public opinion among opposition figures and movements opposed to Saied’s coup, and a tendency to create as much distance as possible with the party or to dilute its relevance in any alliance in which it participates. The “Tunisians against the putsch” movement is supported by Ennahda. The people who respond to his calls to take to the streets are overwhelming supporters of Ennahda. Yet its leadership is made up almost entirely of people outside Ennahda in an apparent concession from the party as it seeks to create a cross-party alliance made up of politicians and figures from all walks of life. Ennahda has tried for months to call a virtual parliamentary session to challenge Saied’s state of emergency. Still, he struggled to muster the necessary 109 deputies who would make up the majority of the suspended assembly. When more than 109 deputies finally gathered, Ennahda leader and Speaker of Parliament Rached Ghannouchi did not preside over the session, fueling speculation that the condition imposed by non-Ennahda deputies in exchange for their attendance was an agreement that Ghannouchi would not chair the session (and therefore not take credit for leading the initiative).

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Other opposition figures such as former President Moncef Marzouki have said in the past that although they believe parliament should be reinstated, Ghannouchi’s resignation as speaker of parliament must be a condition.

Ennahda decided to back Chebbi’s softer coup in a bid to temper Saied’s hard blow.

Even the formation of the new “National Salvation Front” reflects the predicament faced by the largest and most successful elected political party in resisting the coup. To facilitate its creation, Ennahda chose to support a compromised politician, Nejib Chebbi, who might be able to attract a wider range of allies at home and abroad. This despite the fact that Chebbi has consistently failed at the polls since 2011, and despite his support for suspending parliament and changing the constitution. By supporting Chebbi, who has not changed his mind about parliament and the constitution, Ennahda has effectively changed its position from demanding the return of parliament to a recognition of his suspension and has effectively decided to support the coup. softer of Chebbi in an attempt to temper the harsh coup d’etat pursued by Saied.

Yet, while this appears to be crude pragmatism on Ennahda’s part, this decision demonstrates an awareness of the realities of the Tunisian democratic experience. Saied’s landslide victory in 2019 was not a resounding assertion by the president, but a resounding rejection by the leader of the second largest party in parliament. In other words, although Qalb Tunis’ second place in the legislative elections suggested that it was the second most popular political party, the dislike for their leader was such that it caused politically apathetic Tunisians to rush to the polls to prevent him from becoming president. There is a reluctant acknowledgment that while Tunisians do not necessarily support Saied’s coup, resentment towards a parliament that has failed to deliver on its promises over the past decade and aversion to political parties who are considered to have exclusively benefited from the democratic experience remain important. Therefore, a new strategy is needed that can demonstrate an appreciation for people’s legitimate grievances while channeling growing discontent over Saied’s failure to deliver on his promises to alleviate severe economic hardship.

However, the tendency of the opposition to take advantage of this to contain Ennahda and restrict it is wrong. While Ennahda has become unpopular, it remains the backbone of opposition to the coup and the most effective organization at home and abroad. It was Ennahda that succeeded in attracting the thousands of people needed for the anti-coup demonstrations. Without Ennahda’s support, anti-coup protests are likely to resemble the few hundred who responded to Saied’s call for a rally in central Tunis on May 8. In other words, the other opposition figures could not impose themselves without Ennahda’s support or navigate their own effective platforms without Ennahda.

Ennahda’s lack of popularity is no excuse for overthrowing the democratic process.

More importantly, Ennahda’s lack of popularity is not an excuse to overturn the democratic process, but rather an additional impetus for other opposition figures to reaffirm it without compromise. Morocco is a clear example of how a once dominant Islamist party, similar to Ennahda, was outright rejected by ordinary Moroccans at the polls. Opposition to Saied must emphasize that the democratic process is capable of bringing about change and that popular grievances against Ennahda can be voiced clearly at the ballot box rather than in a coup that threatens to relapse the country into a brutal dictatorship.

Ennahda worked hard (and made many compromises) to create a unified front, and won over veteran politician Chebbi and others. But there are still significant currents of other oppositions who believe, wrongly, that an elected Ennahda is worse than Saied’s coup. The fear among these opposition figures and movements is that even if Ennahda’s share of votes decreases, other opposition tendencies do not have the popular support or the ability to convince people that they are an alternative. viable. This is why there is a preference for a “national dialogue” that allows them to exert disproportionate influence on the political process in a way that could allow them to restrain Ennahda without needing to secure a popular mandate forever. elusive.

The tragedy in Tunisia today is that many Tunisian opposition politicians remain opposed to Ennahda for the sole reason that they fear they cannot defeat it in the elections. This despite a looming reality on the horizon in which Saied’s coup threatens to wipe them all out. Tunisia is free to fall back into dictatorship, and many opposition members are focused on how they can resist Saied’s coup in a way that simultaneously shackles Ennahda in the process. The latter is considered equally, if not more, important than the former.

About Wesley V. Finley

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