Tunisia: Between untenable status quo and uncertain future | News

Tunis, Tunisia – Political parties and civil society groups continue to reject President Kais Saied’s “monopoly on power”, demanding the right to decide the future of their country amid deteriorating socio-economic conditions.

Hundreds of Tunisians gathered in the capital on Friday to mark the 11th anniversary of the uprising that toppled former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, defying a government ban on public gatherings imposed to counter the rapid spread of COVID-19. 19.

The ban came just two days before protests called by major political parties and national figures against the exceptional measures taken by President Saied on July 25 – a move criticized by critics as aimed at stopping the protests.

On what had been Revolution Day until last year – now officially observed on December 17 by presidential decree – groups of protesters gathered in various places in central Tunis after security units blocked all major roads leading to Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the famous focal point of the 2011 revolution.

Despite the heavy police presence, the country’s main political parties, civil society organizations, lawmakers, lawyers and activists demonstrated.

“The political elite is trying to assert its presence in the public sphere in an act of resistance against the president’s intention to monopolize the political process,” Tarek Kahlaoui, a Tunisian political analyst, told Al Jazeera after the protests in Friday.

On Avenue Mohamed V, supporters of the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha gathered alongside members of the Citizens Against the Putsch campaign.

The Ennahdha movement, which held the most seats in the now-frozen parliament, led opposition parties protesting Saied’s suspension of parliament, his seizure of power and plans to change the constitution, they call it a coup. These measures were reinforced by a presidential decree of September 22.

“We are not ready to return to a monopoly of all power, to be under one-man rule or one-party rule,” senior Ennahdha member Gafsi told Al Jazeera. who did not give his real name. rally on Mohamed V.

“We will not give up the political freedoms we have gained through the revolution,” he added, criticizing Saied’s concentration of decision-making power and control over the judiciary.

Gafsi embraced his party’s call for a comprehensive national dialogue to resume democratic life and reach common ground, suggesting it is the only way out of the political impasse.

“The shortcut to get out of this crisis is the return to democracy,” said a protester named Montassar gathered in the same crowd. “The revolution is on, we continue to go through the transitions slowly but surely.”

The Citizens Against the Coup initiative, which includes members and supporters of the Ennahdha party as well as politicians and human rights defenders, had announced that it would organize demonstrations from December 17 to January 14 to demand an end to emergency measures and a return to democracy.

The collective also demanded the resumption of parliamentary work, the defense of the constitution, the preservation of rights and freedoms and the setting of a date for early legislative and presidential elections.

Political activist and professor of constitutional law Jaouhar Ben Mbarek, coordinator of the anti-coup campaign, told a press conference on Thursday that meetings had been organized with the aim of “forming a national democratic front united to fight the coup”.

“Authoritarian drift”

Ridha Belhaj, a lawyer and a member of the campaign’s executive committee, said following Friday’s rallies that the broad rejection of Saied’s decisions, the heavy security presence and the brutal methods used against protesters will mark a “turning point”.

“A large opposition front will be formed to fight against this authoritarian drift, especially as the economic and social crisis deepens, isolating Kais Saied more and more,” Belhaj said.

In recent days, Citizens Against the Coup has launched preliminary talks with various parties in an effort to build a political front.

His proposed plan is to return to constitutional rule and is premised on restarting parliament’s business – even if only on a temporary basis. This in turn would allow him to undertake political reforms such as amending the parliamentary electoral law, establishing a constitutional court and preparing for new elections, Belhaj explained.

At the same time, he continued, a national debate with all the living forces of Tunisian society should be opened to discuss the essential economic and social reforms.

Saied has repeatedly promised to organize a national dialogue in recent months, although he has yet to deliver on his promises.

“The big problem since the revolution is this disconnect between the socio-economic demands of the people, unmet until today, and the continuation of neoliberal policies that continued after 2011,” Belhaj said.

“Now is the time for the political class to reflect on the mistakes made over the past 11 years and to move forward under new conditions.”

The Workers’ Party held its own rally in front of the Central Bank to commemorate the anniversary of the revolution in a symbolic choice “to condemn the Najla Bouden government’s pursuit of the same financial policy that has harmed the people and the country”. , said Secretary General Hamma Hammami. .

Outside the bank’s premises, Jawaher Channa, an activist affiliated with the party, expressed his strong opposition to both the president’s takeover and a takeover of the political establishment led by Ennahdha and its allies.

“The way out, as we see it, is the creation of a progressive and revolutionary axis capable of leading the next phase,” Channa told Al Jazeera, indicating that the focus should be on economic rights and social, where all governments have failed. nowadays.

A coordination of social democratic parties, which includes Attayar (Democratic Current), Ettakatol (Democratic Forum for Labor and Freedoms) and Al Joumhouri (Republican Party) also organized demonstrations in downtown Tunis.

The long-promised roadmap unveiled by Saied last month involves a constitutional referendum, to be held on July 25, following an online public consultation between January and March, and parliamentary elections in December this year. .

“Rebalancing the Power”

According to Kahlaoui, the main test is whether opposition forces will accept the president’s plan and fight it from within, or impose their own. He wondered if they would be able to counter Saied effectively and come up with a viable alternative plan to get out of the current crisis.

According to him, the political elite should operate “within the existing roadmap” while focusing on Tunisia’s social and economic priorities.

“It would be more realistic to go to the end of the announced plan and then find real opportunities for rebalancing power with Saied, and move on to ensuring at least the restoration of the country’s institutions and the functioning of democracy”, argued Kahlaoui. “That’s the way to go.”

According to him, the real “change maker” is to know how the president will approach the socio-economic file and if he will be able to limit the possible mobilization of social movements, in connection with the deterioration of economic and social conditions.

He added that the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) was careful to avoid an open struggle with President Saied.

UGTT secretary general Noureddine Taboubi criticized the president’s roadmap in December, saying it did little to address the country’s social and economic problems.

“How long are we going to discuss the constitution? Today people have empty stomachs and are getting poorer,” Taboubi said. He added that the union supported the actions taken by Saied on July 25, but “did not give [him] a blank cheque.

In a press release published on Friday, the UGTT called for dialogue with the participation of the various national forces to act in accordance with the law and the protection of rights and freedoms.

Although Saied’s actions in July continue to receive support among the Tunisian population, the president has lost some popularity as the growing opposition has become more openly critical of what it sees as an autocratic trajectory. .

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