by Hugh Fitzgerald
Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the Islamist Ennahda party
The much ballyhooed “Arab Spring” began with the self-immolation of a Tunisian street seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, in protest at police corruption and his own ill treatment. His death set off riots across Tunisia, becoming a general uprising against the massive corruption of President Ben Ali and his cronies; Ben Ali was forced to flee the country. Meanwhile, in a dozen Arab countries similar street protests grew, becoming violent, and leading to challenges to the existing regimes, some of which fell (as those of Mubarak in Egypt, Qaddafi in Libya, and Saleh in Yemen), others of which resisted (most notably, that of Bashar Assad in Syria); in three of the countries that experienced the “Arab Spring” – Syria, Libya, and Yemen – civil wars are still going on.
Meanwhile, in Tunisia, democracy seemed to take hold; Tunisia was held up as the exception, the country where the “Arab Spring” had succeeded.
But all is not well in Tunisia. At the end of July, Tunisia faced its worst crisis in a decade of democracy after President Kais Saied ousted the government and froze parliament with help from the army, in a move denounced as a coup by the main parties including Islamists. A report on this move by President Saied to temporarily increase his power is here: “Tunisian democracy in crisis after president ousts government, Reuters, July 26, 2021
This was only a quasi-coup: Saied was not an outsider seizing the presidency; he was already the President. But as President his remit had been limited to control of foreign policy and the military. Now, in firing the Prime Minister, Hechim Mechichi, and taking over the responsibility for domestic policy, Saied was temporarily expanding his powers.
This decision by Saied followed months of deadlock and disputes that pit Saied, a political independent, against both Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, a member of the Islamist party Ennahda, and a fragmented parliament, as Tunisia has descended deeper into an economic crisis exacerbated by the spread of COVID-19. Many Tunisians believe that Mechichi badly mishandled the coronavirus pandemic.
Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the Islamist Ennahda party, responded to Saied’s firing of Mechichi and assumption of his duties as an assault on democracy and called on Tunisians to take to the streets in opposition. Some did, but so did a much greater number of Tunisians -many tens of thousands — who supported Saied’s getting rid of the incompetent Mechichi, and taking on the task himself of dealing with the pandemic and with the sputtering economy.
Supporters and opponents of the president threw stones at each other outside parliament on Monday morning [July 26] leading to injuries with one man sitting on the pavement bleeding from the head….
Supporters of Saied and Ennahda gathered outside parliament early on Monday morning, some of them exchanging insults and throwing bottles.
“We are here to protect Tunisia. We have seen all the tragedies under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood,” said a young man who gave his name as Ayman….
Ayman was referring to the Islamic movement founded in Egypt in 1928, which has inspired Sunni Islamists across the Arab world, including Ennahda.
Those coming out to support President Saied know that he is no Islamist, but is the sworn enemy of both Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the Islamist Ennahda Party, and of Hachim Mechichi, another member of the party, whom Saied has just discharged as Prime Minister. It is not only that Said has proven himself both honest and competent, but that he is intent on making sure that Tunisia does not fall prey to Ennahda, which the outside world appears to believe is a “moderate” Islamist party. Saied is in the secularist political line of modern Tunisia’s father, Habib Bourguiba, and of the late Mohammed Beji Caid Essebsi, a follower of Bourguiba and President of Tunisia until his death in 2019.
Imed Ayadi, an Ennahda member, likened Saied to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who deposed the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi in 2013.
“Saied is a new Sisi who wants to collect all authority for himself … We will stand up to the coup against the revolution”, he said.
Saied is quite different from Al-Sisi, who when he staged his coup was Egypt’s Defense Minister and derived his power from his role as head of the army. Saied wins the allegiance of his supporters through moral, not military, force; those supporters, so many of whom have been demonstrating on the streets their delight with Saied’s latest move, admire both his honesty and his competence. Furthermore, he has already said that his assumption of the powers of the just-discharged Prime Minister Mechichi will end just as soon as a replacement Prime Minister can be found. He has also promised that Parliament will be restored in 30 days.
Saied, who swept to office in 2019 after campaigning as the scourge of a corrupt, incompetent elite, rejected accusations that he had conducted a coup.
He said his actions were based on Article 80 of the constitution and framed them as a popular response to the economic and political paralysis that have mired Tunisia for years….
In a televised address to the nation, Saied said “We have taken these decisions… until social peace returns to Tunisia and until we save the state.” “Social peace” means bringing an end to the street fighting between supporters of Saied and the Islamists of Ennahda.
The support for Saied is an expression of faith in his promise to bring order to a country which has too often, and especially in the last month, descended into chaos on the streets, with protesters violently expressing their fury at the mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and their dismay at the country’s growing impoverishment. Fights between those protesting against the government and those supporting President Saied have been breaking out everywhere. Those who support the President include people who are not necessarily of one mind, and include both leftists (i.e., secularists) and some Islamists who see Saied as the only one capable of maintaining order, which is key to getting the country back on track. Saied is seen as honest himself, and as someone who has managed to steadily reduce the level of corruption.
If President Saied weathers the Islamist challenge on the streets to his taking over the Prime Minister’s duties, and also dissolving Parliament, Tunisia may well turn out, after all, to be what it always claimed it was: the one success story of the “Arab Spring.”
First published in Jihad Watch.