Thousands took to the streets last Sunday in the capital Tunis to protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied’s coup in what has been touted as the largest demonstration to date against Saied since he seized 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 High Judicial Council, dissolved parliament, and unilaterally announced plans for a new ‘roadmap’ and election laws.
Saied has suspended the constitution, sacked the High Judicial Council, and dissolved parliament.
Although the demonstrations last Sunday were significant in number, they inadvertently revealed the limited extent of support for the opposition, and laid bare the ongoing struggles in forming a cohesive movement capable of restoring order. Where Saied had once sought to restrict protests by deploying security forces to harass protestors and limit their movement, there appear to be no such efforts taken with respect to this most recent protest. For Saied, the protests have begun to follow a comfortably regular pattern in which protestors occupy the main street in the capital for a few hours, chant against him, and listen to the same speeches from unpopular political figures before making an orderly departure back to their homes. Although the numbers are significant enough to warrant media attention, they are not enough to force the army or security forces into questioning their support of the coup.
More importantly, Saied has become increasingly comfortable with the growing public perception that protestors at home and abroad are primarily Ennahda supporters as opposed to a reflection of the wider population. This perception has had significant ramifications not only on the limited extent of popular sympathy, but also on the struggles of the opposition to form a united front.
Although Ennahda only effectively ruled from 2011-2013, many believe that they have been the driving force behind the failed politics of the past ten years. Despite their election defeat in 2014 to Beji Caid Sibsi’s Nida Tunis, and although the subsequent government of Youcef Chahed (in which Ennahda was a junior partner) ruled unopposed and freely implementing his own policies from 2015-2019, there remains a popular perception that Ennahda has been the primary power throughout the past 10 years, and therefore is the primary culprit in the failure to deliver on any of the aspirations of the 2011 Arab Spring.
Many believe Ennahda have been the driving force behind the failed politics of the past ten years.
Any discussion of the complex reality of Ennahda’s tumultuous political history over the past decade eludes the domestic media platforms that media mogul Nabil Karoui once claimed “are viewed by more than 90% of Tunisians” as opposed to other countries where foreign outlets receive a higher viewership than their domestic outlets. Any consideration for Ennahda’s political rollercoaster that saw the party scramble to avert a coup in 2013 when its coalition partner and Parliament Speaker Mustapha Ben Jafar unilaterally closed the parliament building amidst protests seeking to ride the momentum of Sisi’s coup in a bid to repeat the same in Tunisia, or that saw it scramble to fend off UAE-backed efforts to isolate it that resulted in the party agreeing to prop up Sibsi’s government in exchange for survival, is hardly given much credence. Instead, narratives are often presented in a simplistic fashion that emphasize that Ennahda is the only party to have been consistently represented in every government and parliament since 2011, and therefore warrants special condemnation and blame for the crises that plague Tunisia.
There is an acute awareness of the poisoned chalice of Ennahda’s reputation in public opinion among opposition figures and movements opposed to Saied’s coup, and an inclination to either create as much distance from the party as possible or to dilute its relevance in any alliance in which it participates. The movement “Tunisians against the coup” is backed by Ennahda. The people who answer its calls to take to the streets are overwhelming Ennahda supporters. Yet, its leadership is composed almost entirely of those outside Ennahda in an apparent concession by the party as it seeks to create a cross-party alliance that consists of politicians and figures from across the spectrum. Ennahda tried for months to convene a virtual parliamentary session to challenge Saied’s emergency rule. Yet it struggled to gather the necessary 109 MPs that would constitute a majority of the suspended assembly. When more than 109 MPs did eventually gather, Ennahda leader and speaker of Parliament Rached Ghannouchi did not chair the session, fuelling speculation that the condition imposed by non-Ennahda MPs 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 stated in the past that although they believe Parliament should be restored, the resignation of Ghannouchi as Speaker of Parliament must be a condition.
Ennahda has decided to support Chebbi’s softer coup in a bid to temper Saied’s hard coup.
Even the formation of the new “National Salvation Front” reflects the predicament that the largest and most successful elected political party faces in resisting the coup. To facilitate its creation, Ennahda chose to back a compromised politician, Nejib Chebbi, who might be able to attract a wider spectrum of allies at home and abroad. This is despite Chebbi having consistently failed over and over at the ballot box since 2011, and despite his support for the suspension of parliament and amending of the constitution. In supporting Chebbi, who has not changed his opinion regarding parliament and the constitution, Ennahda has effectively shifted its position from demanding the return of parliament to a recognition of its suspension and has effectively decided to support Chebbi’s softer coup in a bid to temper the hard coup being pursued by Saied.
Yet, while this appears to be crude pragmatism on the part of Ennahda, the move demonstrates an awareness of the realities of Tunisia’s democratic experience. Saied’s landslide victory in 2019 was not a resounding affirmation of the president, but a resounding rejection of the leader of the second largest party in parliament. In other words, although Qalb Tunis’ second place in the parliamentary elections suggested they were the second most popular political party, the aversion to their leader was such that it provoked politically apathetic Tunisians into rushing to the ballot box to prevent him from becoming president. There is a reluctant recognition that even if Tunisians do not necessarily support Saied’s coup, the resentment towards a parliament that failed to deliver over the past decade and the aversion to political parties that are seen as having exclusively benefitted from the democratic experience remains significant. Therefore, a new strategy is needed that can demonstrate an appreciation of people’s legitimate grievances while channelling the growing discontent towards Saied’s inability to deliver on his promises to ease the dire economic hardships.
However, the tendency of the opposition to take advantage of this to contain Ennahda and restrict it is misguided. While Ennahda has become unpopular, it remains the backbone of the opposition of the coup and the most effective organization domestically and abroad. It is Ennahda that has been able to attract the necessary thousands to the anti-coup protests. Without the support of Ennahda, it is likely that the anti-coup protests would resemble the few hundred that responded to Saied’s call for a rally in central Tunis on May 8. In other words, the other opposition figures would be unable to impose themselves without the support of Ennahda or navigate their own effective platforms without Ennahda.
Ennahda’s lack of popularity is not an excuse to subvert the democratic process.
More importantly, Ennahda’s lack of popularity is not an excuse to subvert the democratic process, but rather an added impetus for the other opposition figures to reaffirm it without compromise. Morocco serves as a clear example of how a once-dominant Islamist party similar to Ennahda was emphatically voted out by ordinary Moroccans at the ballot box. The emphasis of opposition to Saied must be that the democratic process is capable of bringing change, and that popular grievances towards Ennahda can be made emphatically clear at the ballot box rather than in a coup that threatens to plunge the country back to a brutal dictatorship.
Ennahda has exerted significant efforts (and made many compromises) to create a unified front, and has won over the political veteran Chebbi and others. But there remain significant strands of other opposition who believe, quite 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 the vote is getting smaller, other opposition trends lack the popular support or ability to convince the people that they are a viable alternative. This is why there is a preference for a ‘national dialogue’ that allows them to exert disproportionate influence over the political process in a manner that might enable them to restrict Ennahda without needing to secure an ever-elusive popular mandate.
The tragedy in Tunisia today is that many of the political powers in Tunisia’s opposition remain averse to Ennahda for no other reason than they fear they cannot defeat it in elections. This is despite an impending reality on the horizon in which Saied’s coup threatens to eliminate them all. Tunisia is free falling back to dictatorship, and the focus of many in the opposition remains how they can resist Saied’s coup in a manner that simultaneously chains Ennahda in the process. The latter is deemed equally, if not more important, than the former.