“We are not here to cry over the past, but to appeal to your ethics and principles,” Maher Medhioub, a former Member of Tunisia’s suspended parliament, told the audience at an in-person seminar live-streamed on February 22 by the National Interest Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Medhioub and two other ousted Tunisian MPs who spoke at the event—Oussama Khlifi and Oussama Sghaier—were among the many MPs forced out of power when Tunisian President Kais Saied dissolved Tunisia’s Parliament and took over control of the government in July 2021. Although the action was internationally regarded as a coup, many Tunisians initially welcomed the development because of the chamber’s longstanding failure to resolve mounting economic and social problems.
“We want one thing,” Mehdioub asserted. “Dialog and peaceful pressure and the support of our friends [to] the free people of Tunisia to return the elected bodies to their rightful place.”
Specifically, the MPs are seeking the reinstatement of the parliament with new elections for president and parliament, the commencement of a national dialog with the President (it was not clear that this meant the present one), and a resolution of the economic and financial crisis.
“Our struggle is for a peaceful return of democracy to Tunisia.”
“Our struggle is for a peaceful return of democracy to Tunisia,” Mehdioub added.
During the discussion, the MPs openly acknowledged that the Tunisian parliament’s inability to function before the coup had led to widespread dissatisfaction among Tunisians demanding that it address the country’s ongoing economic and social problems. However, that support has diminished over the intervening seven months.
Indeed, since the coup, Saied has imposed severe antidemocratic measures. He banned travel in late July for businesspeople and all parliamentarians elected since 2011. In mid-September 2021, he suspended the Tunisian Constitution. In November, he unilaterally established a Cabinet of hand-picked officers, instead of a Cabinet approved by parliament. In February 2022, he adjourned the independent High Judicial Council “watchdog,” an act condemned by the UN as a violation of international human rights law.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have recently documented other significant human rights violations, including civilians brought before military courts for “insulting” and “defaming” the president.
As of January, support for Saied in the general public has plummeted to just half, according to Insights TN, a Tunisian poll, while the belief that what occurred in July was a “coup” by the sitting president has risen from roughly 40 percent to 65 percent of the population.
Political opposition to Saied has been fragmented so far. However, the MPs asserted that now that the initial shock has worn off, the political class is coming together in ways it has not in the past. Dialog among opposing factions now appears possible, if not vital, to determine an alternative path forward.
Political opposition to Saied has been fragmented so far.
The MPs are on a global tour to combat the misinformation coming out of Tunisia, according to MP Oussama Khlifi. Referring to his country as “the most successful Arab democracy project,” Khlifi in a stinging critique said that Saied had “debased democracy with his version of ‘base democracy.’”
Khlifi said that Saied has not only arrested many bloggers and social media influencers, but he has also thrown other government officials in jail and put members of the military under house arrest.
He noted that Saied had also targeted Moncef Marzouki, the former interim Tunisian president who served from late 2011 to 2014, and a lifelong human rights advocate. Saied called him an “enemy of Tunisia” and revoked his diplomatic passport. A Tunisian court subsequently issued an international warrant for Marzouki’s arrest (he is based in Paris) and ordered him to a four-year prison sentence in absentia for “assaulting the external security of the state.”
MP Oussama Sghaier described Saied’s actions as a false bid for democracy. What Saied calls the “Roadmap,” is a pretense at national consultation with the Tunisian people that poses questions such as: “Do you want to solve the environment or you do want jobs?” “Do you want a Parliamentary system of government, a presidential system, or a ‘basic system.’” Although according to Sghaier there is no indication of what this “basic system” would entail.
The result, Sghaier said, is that fewer than 200,000 people actually participated in the sham referendum. That is notwithstanding that some polls have claimed that Saied is popular with “90 percent” of the population. And while about 3 million people voted for him, Saied has had to urge Tunisians every day to participate in this failed consultation.
The MPs argued that the “roadmap” lacks detail, was produced “without transparency or input from other Tunisian political and civic actors,” and would prolong the president’s “unchecked power” through at least the end of 2022. In reality, the roadmap is “not something serious,” just a show to appease Western observers, Sghaier concluded.
Sghaier predicted that “in just a few weeks we are going to have a major problem.”
In eight months, according to Sghaier, Saied has really done nothing. Instead, there has been rationing of commodities in supermarkets, and the necessity to distribute subsidized commodities for sustenance, he said. Sghaier predicted that “in just a few weeks we are going to have a major problem.”
The MPs also lamented the absence of a strong U.S. reaction to Saied’s assault on democracy, suggesting that it may have encouraged him in his “destructive” antidemocratic path. They urged the Biden administration to press President Saied to take concrete steps to return Tunisia to democratic governance and only to back additional economic support for Tunisia upon his compliance.
In a letter dated March 3, 50 experts from institutions all over the US including 10 former US ambassadors to the UN and various countries, including three to Tunisia and one to Ukraine, called upon President Biden to “significantly increase U.S. efforts to help Tunisia reverse its rapid slide back into authoritarianism.” Noting that “Ukraine is not the only country facing grave threats to its democracy,” they asserted that Saied’s actions since last July had effectively “imposed one-man rule on Tunisia” through control of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.
When the MPs were asked how it was that Saied had managed to shut everything down, the MPs answered that the president had filled a parliamentary and governmental vacuum that people were demanding. But, according to Sghaier, Tunisians are now realizing that this shutdown is not leading anywhere. “So, we have to be ready to offer an alternative. This is our role. If we are able to present something different, we will be able to get the country back… We need the support of all the countries that want us to have democracy in Tunisia.”
Tunisians are now realizing that this shutdown is not leading anywhere.
When asked in a follow-up interview if it would take another revolution to reinstate Tunisia’s democracy, Madhioub told Inside Arabia that he did not foresee another “revolution in the political sense in the coming days or weeks.” However, he warned that in the next few months there could be a revolution of “the damned of the earth and the starving people since the majority of them have been suffering for years.”
The only possible way for Tunisia to “get out of this multidimensional crisis,” Madhioub predicted, is for “the American government, the European Union, and the Gulf countries to support a Marshal Plan for Tunisia.”
On a brighter note, there may be some indication that the campaign of international pressure is working. Saied, a former law professor, inaugurated a “temporary” council of judges on March 7 to replace the independent High Judicial Council “watchdog” he had abolished last month. Nine of the 21 members of this new judiciary overseer were directly appointed by Saied to replace magistrates whom he fired in the purge on claims of corruption.
Other stops on the MPs’ global tour include Vienna, Austria, and Madrid, Spain.