The Tunisian crisis and the Saïed Option

The analysis of the political change in Tunisia by Alessandro Giuli’s standpoint

The institutional break-up that occurred on 25 July in Tunisia at the hands of President Kais Saïed can be seen either as political change in progress or as a way to stabilise a crisis which would otherwise be unmanageable. In the immediate aftermath of the meeting in which President Saïed tried to give a US Congress delegation reassurances on his choice to renew “indefinitely” the dismissal of the Prime Minister and the suspension of parliamentary activities – which he described as “fully compliant with the Constitution, contrary to the unsupported allegations of a coup d’etat, and in line with the will of the people” – it is necessary to dispel two misconceptions.

The first is that Saïed is the Tunisian Al-Sisi. He is not. After the insurrection led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian president restored the status quo by boosting the Armed forces, which local elites (and, as a consequence, the rest of the population) have always considered to be the natural backbone of any government. In Tunisia, on the other hand, the so-called “Jasmine Revolution” sprang from a broader catalogue of grassroots requests for moralisation and breaking with autocracy in the Maghreb, and its motives speak directly to the President’s personal background and political horizon. Saied is a jurist of international standing – he holds a PhD in Roman Law, Legal Systems and Market Law from the Università La Sapienza of Rome – who won the 2019 presidential election with 72.71 percent of the votes against a controversial candidate, a businessman linked to the Islamist block Ennahda, which had been in power since 2011, under the leadership of Rashid Ghannushi. He appeared sincere when he told US Senators Chris Murphy and Jon Ossof, “I had to take charge of the Constitution, which allows me to take exceptional measures, in line with its provisions, but also with ethics.”

In this sentence, which contains the hardly reassuring words “taking charge of” when referring to the Constitution, we can read both the substantial legitimisation of his disruptive choice - a betrayal of the revolution in the face of a pandemic crisis almost out of control and of widespread and persistent, if not endemic, corruption in vital state bodies – and a form of historical continuity with authoritarian regimes of the past (from Habib Bourguiba to Ben Ali). The latter exposes an unpleasant yet undeniable truth: after over half a century of authoritarianism, constitutional democracy cannot be an immediate conquest. Not even in Tunis, despite the presence of an active, albeit impoverished, middle class and of well-established trade unions – weakened though they are by their disillusion with the old political Islam, influenced by Pan-Arabism (the failure of which was recently unveiled by the Economist, as none of the three most influential countries in the Near East – Iran, Turkey and Israel – is Arab) and, more recently, with radicalised Islam.

And this brings us to the second misconception. Saïed is not actually acting in strict continuity with the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood. While he does feel the need to honour his reputation for being incorruptible, he seems to be very clear that under Ennahda’s grim rule, Tunisia has emerged as the world’s top exporter of foreign fighters and was the scene of politically and religiously motivated killings, with courts not immune from the Brotherhood’s influence. Only six years after the National Dialogue Quartet received the Nobel Peace Prize “for the decisive contribution to the construction of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia, in the wake of the Arab Springs”, the motivations that led to the award appear to have unfortunately fallen into oblivion.

If we acknowledge the obsolescence of the ‘Pan-Arabism vs Sunni Islam’ dichotomy, we need a paradigm shift to understand the Tunisian situation. The hope that transition could happen in a controlled and nonviolent fashion must be reconciled with the acceptance of the multi-faceted internal system of the Muslim Brotherhood, in which Tunisia currently occupies an intermediate position between opposite trends.

While Saïed’s ultimate ambitions remain unclear, and we cannot yet know what his attitude – of containment, if not repression – towards the deposed power will result in, we have to face the fact that the President currently holds the monopoly of dialogue with the Western World.

The strategic value of his role, as well as of his formal will to put the country on back the right track of the revolution, is confirmed by the dramatic twist of events in Afghanistan: if the US withdrawal ends up fuelling a crisis spanning from the Far East to the Sahel and Maghreb, through Turkey and the Near East, it is not surprising that someone is getting ahead with the “dirty work”. This is the case of Azzam Tamimi, the London-based historical leader of the extremist wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, who has launched an early campaign of delegitimisation of Saied’s “coup”, alongside the battle against the demonisation of the “more democratic” Taliban patriots.


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