When the Tunisian president Kais Saied announced on July 25 his decision to dismiss the unpopular Prime Minister, suspend parliament, and lift immunity from its members, there was a collective sigh of relief felt across Tunisia. In the months leading to Saied’s decision, a struggling economy and disastrous management of the Covid pandemic have motivated strong opposition and popular discontent with the government’s and parliament’s failure to effectively manage the health crisis and combat endemic corruption. This situation has resulted in widespread political tribalism where partisan loyalties divided the country into a Manichean opposition between pro-Saied and pro-Ennahdha camps. A radical solution was not only hoped for but inevitable. So when Saied invoked Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution that grants him powers to deal with “imminent danger to statehood, national security, and the country’s independence”, there were mass celebrations because his power grab made sense for many Tunisians, especially in Saied’s camp. His move to “call on the Tunisian people to stay calm and not respond to provocations” resonated with his supporters and activists who took umbrage at any analyses or reports that frame his power grab as a coup d’état.
Ignorant, dangerous, ill-informed, inhumane, and interventionist—these are some of the words Ouiem Chettaoui uses to describe some “Western-based pundits, think-tankers, and careerists” including the author, a Tunisian academic and writer, Dr. Sarah Yerkes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Will Todman, a fellow in the Middle East Program at The Center for Strategic and International Studies, Peter Beaumont, a senior reporter at the Guardian, Vivian Yee, the Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times, and almost anyone who considered Saied’s power-grab a threat to Tunisian democracy or reported on what his opponents labeled as a coup.
The “us” versus “them” rhetoric has for instance fueled the popular dismissal of any opposition to Saied’s power grab as “hasty interpretations and distorted representation of events have the potential to shape reactions, and as such reality.” On the one hand, those who “trust Saied” and believe in his promises are labeled as critical Tunisian voices who are more knowledgeable about “the lived experience of 'many Tunisians'” and Tunisian civil society. This includes those who believe “Saied’s decision was an acknowledgment that something was seriously wrong and needed serious fixing.” It is worth noting that a common trick in this camp is to dissociate themselves from being labeled as Saied’s supporters by obscuring their deep wish to support any authoritarian figure that would crush the ‘evil’ Ennahdha. On the other hand, Western-based journalists and analysts who viewed Said’s move to be a coup were lumped together as “Ennahdha sympathizers”. This includes AlJazeera, the New York Times, and the “all-knowing MENA specialists” and “pundits” who are maligned as pro-Ennahdha propagandists such as the author, who is falsely accused of “engaging in such risky framing about impending violence and the risks of ending up in an Egypt-like scenario.”
The attacks on “pro-Ennahdha” commentators and journalists become a framework for all sorts of accusations. First, there is no reference to an “impending violence” scenario in my AlJazeera op-ed. Second, the supposed fixation “on one word— “coup”— as can be noted by reading the headlines and first few paragraphs of virtually every opinion piece published in a US newspaper or DC think-tank platform on Tunisia” is disingenuous. A cursory reading of most articles that have been published in the weeks after July 25 in the Guardian or The New York Times reveals that they often quote the opinions of those in the opposition who viewed Saied’s power grab as a coup. Besides, a significant number of reports and articles in Western media highlight a wait-and-see approach rather than a coup scenario. For instance, Todman’s answer to the question “was this a coup” is that “it is too early to say.” These misrepresentations have deliberately distracted public discourse from the more crucial discussions about Saied’s authoritarian drive and favored a sense of self-censorship and a wait-and-see limbo. It is worth noting that the Tunisian president’s recent decision to extend the suspension of Parliament until further notice has been met with a stronger split in public opinions over what is evidently a coup.
Furthermore, lamenting that the “precarious jobs for Tunisian intellectual elites who are paid far less than their foreign counterparts for the same work and deeper knowledge of the local context, better linguistic skills, and wider, more diverse networks. International development funding has also produced rent hikes in seaside neighborhoods that cater to the immigrant, Global North development workforce” further disorganizes the political debate by turning it into a personal one. Here, the discourse on decolonizing local knowledge production is highjacked to demand better access to the same systems of power. Perhaps what reveals this domestication of the problematic NGO knowledge production is the perceived importance of opinion pieces and think tank articles in shaping foreign policy in the US and elsewhere, despite the fact that Biden’s administration has increased its direct assistance to post-July 25 Tunisia by doubling its vaccine donations to one million vaccine doses and especially backing Tunisia’s capacity to pay off a bond loan and secure a new allocation from the IMF. To be clear, empowering critical Tunisian voices should not translate to more inclusion of the Tunisian members and heads of the local branches of international NGOs and think tanks, but to break free from NGOism altogether. When I wrote a few years ago about the myth of Tunisia’s exceptionalism and the fetishization of its democracy by dominant media narratives, the least I expected was for its main argument to be highjacked to accommodate middle-class anxieties of inclusion and prestige. These anxieties are made even starker when a large number of Tunisian activists and journalists have been interviewed, substantially quoted in many articles and reports, and participated in various panels and talks in Western media and elsewhere.
This attitude of “authoritarian aggression” didn’t stop there. When Chettaoui writes in her article that “many Tunisians took to social media to state clearly that they did not appreciate the efforts of Western policy specialists,” she fails to reveal is that she was actually “on group chats, clubhouse rooms, Facebook campaigns to bring more Tunisians to join Twitter to push back versus mainstream English-language narratives” and to call for an online backlash. Although Yerkes apologized for suggesting to withhold vaccines and got the wording changed in the article, her Twitter account has since been deactivated after online mobilization to “cancel” her. This is an egregious example of mob justice that has since turned uglier. For instance, major local media outlets have weaponized mob outrage to attack her and every Western Journalist who dared to report on the different opinions regarding Saied’s power grab. Vivian Yee, for instance, was vilified as a biased and amateurish journalist and ridiculed for wearing sandals to meet the Tunisian president. Even Lilia Blaise, the Tunisian journalist at the French newspaper Le Monde, has also been victim to the online mob who maligned her as pro-Ennahdha because she reported on the growing role that the military plays in the Tunisian politics after July 25 coup. Meanwhile, Chettaoui hastily dismisses this dangerous threat by noting that “Tunisia’s army is small and distanced from political and economic affairs.” This is a misinformed claim since Tunisia’s military has been involved in at least three different coup attempts since independence in 1962, 1987 by the 8 November Group, and 1991.
The decision to frame any opposition to Saied’s coup as largely indebted to pro-Ennahdha propaganda reveals a confirmation bias among many members of Tunisian intelligentsia that co-opts and censors any opposition to dangerous democratic setbacks. In their view, Ennahdha has never been fully integrated into their everyday cultural and social organization and has often been labeled as a parasitic presence, or what Hammami calls “Ennahda syndrome.” The most immediately striking aspect of such a syndrome is the desire to downplay the strong opposition to Saied’s power grab by claiming that “aside from Ennahdha, some legal specialists and civil society actors have also interpreted Saied’s steps as a coup. But it is still under serious debate” (my emphasis). However, labeling Saied’s move as a coup does not come only from Ennahdha and some specialists but substantially from various political and social activists and parties that are much more important, which many commentators fail to acknowledge. Right after Saied’s decision on July 25, many prominent academic and political leaders have stressed their strong opposition to his coup. The list includes Yadh Ben Achour, the eminent Tunisian constitutionalist who co-wrote Tunisia’s 2014 first constitution, Sana Ben Achour, the renowned Tunisian professor, specialist in public law and activist, Hamma Hammami, the well-known political leader and the head of the Tunisian Workers' Party, Ahmed Najib Chebbi, the prominent figure of the Tunisian opposition movement and current leader of the Democratic Progressive Party, and many others who characterized Saied’ power grab as unconstitutional and a serious threat to Tunisian democracy. These public figures are not pro-Ennahdha activists or “some legal specialists”; They are the very guardians of Tunisian democracy who, for most of them, experienced the 1987 coup when then-prime minister Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali ousted the ailing president, Habib Bourguiba, and seized power for the next 23 years. Hammami, informed by decades of political resistance and struggle against authoritarian rule, goes even further to describe Saied as a dictator in the making.
Beyond the Islamist-Secularist divide, the complex relationship between the urban middle class in Tunisia and Saied remains an overlooked dimension of the political struggle after July 25. Representatives of the urban middle classes in local media, civil society, and the state administration continue to support his power grab a month after and to barely acknowledge serious concerns about his reluctance to appoint a new head of government and the absence of any clear political and economic roadmaps. Perhaps the most worrying aspect is how they take Saied’s claims at face value without discussing or challenging them. Although she concedes that “skepticism and criticism of Saied’s measures by political and civil society actors is warranted,” Chettaoui goes on to rationalize his power grab by highlighting that “Saied himself spent the two days following his decision meeting with and reassuring different groups that he has no interest in keeping executive, judicial, and legislative powers consolidated in his hands and that he remains committed to democracy”. She further dismisses an Egypt-like scenario in post-July 25 Tunisia is inconceivable because he “has never been a military commander nor a Ministry of Interior official”. However, as Blaise argues, the growing privileges of the Tunisian army are closely linked to Saied’s decision to deploy the army to secure his power grab by sending military officers to block access to the parliament, government, and television buildings and speeding up investigations by the military justice of dissenting voices such as the independent MP Yassine Ayari.
In fact, urban middle classes in Tunisia have actually become a source of Saied’s authoritarian drift. Despite all recent setbacks, they continue to view the Tunisian president as an accountable figure of change when all evidence predicts either a spectacular failure or a return to authoritarian rule. As such, the call to give voice to local Tunisian activists and commentators would not necessarily ensure a fair and balanced analysis. Clearly, Saied is not the revolutionary figure that his supporters want him to be. His popularity is not “around messages of anti-corruption and direct democracy, as Chettaoui claims, but results from complete obscurity and the popular acceptance of his dangerous conspiratorial beliefs and obsession with the “deep state.” For instance, when he decided to cut short his retirement in 2018 and announce his run for president, he reiterated the same political program that he used to promote right after the 2011 revolution. Also, after July 25, he repeated the same vague plan of dismissing political parties altogether and establishing his pseudo-utopian direct democracy. But, whenever he was questioned on the details of such a massive program, Saied has always remained elusive and peddled all kinds of obscure claims, the latest of which is that “the parliament itself is a threat to the state”.
Saied is often presented by his sympathizers by his academic position as a law professor to imply that he is a rational and moderate leader. And yet, whenever he is challenged on his rigid views on sexual freedom and women’s equality, his response is to cite all kinds of egregious and discriminatory claims such as “foreign powers encouraging homosexuality in the country.” His traditional conservatism supports the death penalty and opposes homosexuality and equal inheritance for men and women. Such a bigoted ideology seems to be so deeply rooted in Saied’s identity and discourse that no amount of ad-hoc political promises can change my view that he is a failed politician who believes that a directly elected parliament to be the deus-ex machina solution to Tunisian’s endemic corruption and unaccountability. The desolating spectacle we are now accustomed to is of an angry and clumsy demagogue who uses threats of force or intimidation to uphold his power grab. After all, he cannot lose if he continues to promote a hodge-podge of ill-defined and empty promises. The recent polls that showed his strong popular support further underscore that the Tunisian president’s political capital is infinite.
Such a blind faith of the Tunisian middle class in Saied’s political experimentation is motivated, I believe, by expectations of better socioeconomic benefits under his rule. In The Autocratic Middle Class, Bryn Rosenfeld argues that economic motives can challenge the middle class' drive to be agents of democratization. With Saied, there is this certainty that their socioeconomic networks will continue to preserve their privileged position or better to further develop it under the new protection from powerful lobbies. The absence of any strong pressure by middle-class groups to urge Saied to implement viable economic policies should be then understood within the desire for stability for more than 650,000 civil servants and more than 1,3 million in the informal sector. Also, there is no hint of economic radicalism in Saied’s recent actions and promises. Instead, he keeps repeating his vague call to traders to reduce food prices and to end monopoly and speculation. The middle class as a professional class of white-collar workers and entrepreneurs that has largely been dependent on the state for all kinds of benefits can only support the drive to dismantle the corruption lobbies so that new forms and opportunities of bureaucratic corruption can take place. As Rosenfeld notes, political crises do not make the middle classes “supportive of a democratic transition or of the work of building a democracy. It means that they are inclined to a more paternalistic relationship with the state and would prefer to see if one has failed, the replacement of that with another that will do better.”
The current political deadlock in Tunisia results from the absence of revolutionary figures and forces of reform and social change and not “the ill-informed analyses of Western pundits.” On the one hand, the abysmal political record of Ghanouchi’s Ennahdha a decade after being the leading political force has weakened their hold on power, which in turn has led to serious rifts and in-fighting between the conservatives and the more progressive members. As such, it is misleading to refer to Ennahdha as one monolithic party and ideology. The seemingly corrupt maneuvers of Ghanouchi’s Ennahdha also resulted in widespread public contempt for the Islamic Democratic party and even a strong rejection of Ghannouchi’s legitimacy as a political figure. On the other hand, Saied’s inability to effectively lead the country after his coup and his fixation on political experimentation will eventually jeopardize the post-revolution political gains.
Tunisian democracy and public discourse don’t have to be driven by a logic of spectacle “to surprise analysts just as it did in 2010–11” and even less by a rhetoric of “we don’t know yet, let’s take some time to see what happens.” Instead, it is urgent to actively participate in safeguarding the ideals and gains of democracy in post-revolutionary Tunisia without succumbing to a nativist attitude that opposes lived experience of native Tunisians to the intellectual freedom of foreign observers and analysts, or vice versa. Whatever civic and democratic capital Tunisians need to build in the coming months to achieve urgent economic and political demands, it should provide barriers to the tyranny of majority opinion and the censorship of those who are considered to be “hot-take arsonists.”