Assoc. Prof. Veysel Kurt *
Tunisia, the only country where the Arab Spring resulted in a series of democratic elections, is experiencing political turmoil once more. On July 25, the country’s Independence Day, President Kais Saied announced the suspension of Parliament for a month, the dismissal of the prime minister and the government, and the appointment of an unbiased prime minister as soon as possible. Members of Parliament were barred from leaving the country, and the doors of the Parliament were locked. Army units surrounded the Parliament with armored vehicles, preventing Rached Ghannouchi, the Speaker of the Assembly and the leader of the Ennahda Movement, and other deputies from entering.
Photographs of Kais Saied with security officials, particularly the army, were also served. Furthermore, Saied’s declaration that security forces would “respond with fire” if weapons were used raised serious concerns. In fact, even during the 2011 uprisings, Tunisia did not go through a process like a civil war. Many commentators describe these developments as a “bureaucratic coup” rather than a political crisis. An upside we might point out is that the assembly was suspended for 30 days and not dissolved. If the Parliament were to be dissolved, new general and presidential elections would have to be held. President Saied’s announcement that he will continue the government’s work by appointing a new prime minister does nothing to alleviate the situation. We should now take a look at the recent past in order to make better sense of the current situation.
A little background about the crisis
It certainly has not been all smooth waters for Tunisia since the 2011 protests. Since the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country has seen numerous crises, including political assassinations. The political process was undermined on the instigation of old bureaucratic circles, and governments were formed and overthrown several times. To the surprise of many international commentators, however, the Tunisian public and politics were able to weather these crises. Reforms and changes, especially in the security sector, have proven effective in preventing provocations and terrorist attacks.
Even the terrorist attacks in the capital Tunis in June 2019 were insufficient to derail this trajectory, and after a transition period, the government was finally formed following the adoption of the new Constitution and the holding of elections. The 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections were the first indications that the country had completed its transitional phase and had peacefully embraced the new system. Ennahda received nearly 20% of the votes cast in these elections. Kais Saied, a law professor with no practical political experience, won the presidential elections held after the death of President Caid es-Sebsi. With Ennahda’s support, Saied received 18% of the vote in the first round and 72% in the second. Rached Ghannouchi, the Ennahda Movement’s leader, was elected Speaker of the Assembly of Representatives. These results indicated that the public approved of the dismissal of the old system and actors.
However, the governmental system and election results led to continued political division. No party was able to form a government as they could not agree among themselves, and a “national unity government” with half of the cabinet made up of independent ministers was established on Feb. 27, 2020, under the premiership of Elyes Fakhfakh, even though his party was not represented in the Parliament. The main challenges for the government were to maintain the democratization process, prevent the sociopolitical divide from widening, alleviate economic distress and solve the unemployment problem. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it extremely difficult to address the economic issues. When the tourism sector, which accounts for 8% of the country’s GDP, came to a standstill, for example, the economy was thrown into disarray. In fact, the government was only able to continue its work for six months before a new government of technocrats was established in August 2020 by Hisham al-Mashishi, the former Minister of the Interior. Nonetheless, the problems persisted. And the situation morphed into a useful tool for the country’s political opposition.
The regional and international context of the crisis
It is impossible to accurately interpret the Tunisian crisis if the regional changes experienced since 2011, the parties involved in this change, and their visions are ignored. There is a serious conflict between the will for change that appeared with the will of the people and the vision and forces that advocate the status quo and want to re-establish an authoritarian regime. Since the 2013 coup in Egypt, there has been a visible conflict and competition between the putschist mindset and the will of the people. This competition could be seen in different countries at different times over the last ten years. A reversal of Tunisia’s democratic system, which was established at great cost, would be the final blow to the people’s will.
The governments established in Tunisia after 2011, and especially after 2019, have taken a neutral stance on almost all regional issues, preferring to concentrate on domestic issues instead. This neutrality was very noticeable during both the demonstrations in Algeria and the Libyan crisis. In this context, one must pay attention to Tunisia’s stance on the Libyan issue.
From a geopolitical perspective, Tunisia shares a land border and a maritime border with Libya, putting it in a position to influence the Libyan crisis by taking an active stance. It is well known that pro-Haftar countries, particularly France, have occasionally put pressure on Tunisia to exploit this position, but President Kais Saied has chosen to remain neutral. When the new Libyan government was formed, led by the UN, statements supporting the peace process came from various levels of the Tunisian government, offering their best wishes to the Libyan government. Just as all of this happening, certain actors who did not hesitate to express their hostility towards Ennahda in the context of political Islam and attempted to blame all of the country’s problems on Ennahda greatly amplified their domestic opposition. However, both governments, formed in February and August 2020, were coalition governments over which Ennahda had very little influence. The president was also an impartial figure. The Tunisian Assembly, chaired by Ghannouchi, is the highest-level body that Ennahda controls at the institutional level.
This situation becomes clearer when we examine the oppositional discourse of Abir Moussi, the leader of the Free Destourian Party, which is in line with the regional vision and official rhetoric of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Her parliamentary speeches and efforts to prevent the Parliament from functioning are recognized by the national and international public. It is also known that she has organized recent anti-government demonstrations, especially those held after President Saied’s statements. Therefore, in terms of timing, these developments in Tunisia cannot be evaluated independently of regional developments. And it is this aspect of the issue that closely concerns Turkey.
President Kais Saied’s decisions, implemented with the support of Tunisian security units, particularly the army, will shape the country’s immediate future. The parties with the most public support, particularly Ennahda, as well as the Tunisian army, would undoubtedly play the most important roles in this process. The army is not as politically motivated as the armies of other countries in the region, and it prefers not to actively interfere in domestic politics. During the 2011 uprisings, the army also refused Ben Ali’s order to intervene, paving the way for the revolution and gaining the trust of the people. The army’s attitude will also be a major factor in determining the dynamics of this process. Currently, however, it appears to be following the president’s orders. The siege of the parliament and the military’s refusal to open the doors, saying “we are only following orders”, despite repeated requests from Parliament Speaker Ghannouchi, are the main indicators of the situation. It is, however, equally clear that the army is exercising due caution so that events do not escalate and the world does not get the impression of a “civil war”. Ghannouchi’s statement that “the army will not allow itself to be exploited” could also be interpreted as a call for the army to act wisely and sensitively during this process.
Following the President’s statements -- at the time when this article was written -- the Ennahda Shura Council made a statement that the Parliament should be protected by the people, that the masses should gather in the squares and that the parties should unite against the coup. This call was supported by various figures and parties. Former President Moncef Marzouki, the Workers’ Party and the Republican Party, for example, all declared their opposition to the coup and demanded that the president reverse his decision.
Based on this picture, the following scenarios could be predicted for the near future of the crisis. The most optimistic scenario is a return to normalcy, with the president reversing his decisions. And this is what should happen in order for the democratic process to function properly and the revolution’s gains to be preserved. Such a decision is essential for minimizing the wounds that Tunisian democracy is highly likely to suffer at this point. However, from a realistic standpoint, the likelihood of this scenario occurring is, unfortunately, very low. The second scenario is that a new prime minister is appointed under the current circumstances, and elections with a technocratic government are held as soon as possible. However, this would necessitate an extension of the current thirty-day state of emergency. This would inevitably lead to an increase in tensions and possibly more vehement reactions from the opposition. In the third scenario, a government is formed as a result of an agreement between the president and political parties, the parliament is opened, and elections are held. The fourth scenario is that the bureaucratic coup transforms into an army coup, with Tunisia experiencing similar events to what occurred in Egypt between June 30-July 3, 2013, and later, which is the worst-case scenario. In Tunisia, political parties and the public, particularly the army and the president, must act responsibly in order to avoid the last two (and similar) scenarios, which would cause serious harm to the Tunisian people as well as international actors seeking regional peace, particularly Turkey.
Turkey did not hold back in making clear its position in the face of the developments in Tunisia. Official statements focused on democracy, as well as the gains and interests of the Tunisian people. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the decision to suspend parliament was met with concern, that a return to the democratic constitutional process was called for, and that Turkey would continue to stand by the people of Tunisia. Director of Communications Prof. Fahrettin Altun also emphasized that Turkey has always been on the side of democracy, calling for the crisis in Tunisia to be resolved as soon as possible and a return to the democratic process. Throughout this process, Turkey reacted to the suspension of the Tunisian Parliament by maintaining its principled stance against all initiatives that would disrupt democratic functioning. Maintaining this stance, Turkey is making efforts for the crisis to be resolved with the least amount of damage possible and without the occurrence of the worst-case scenarios. This attitude is not only consistent with Turkey’s principles but also the right one for maintaining Turkey’s regional vision and political interests. Therefore, under the current circumstances, Turkey will continue to work to alleviate the crisis, but will not remain silent if the process devolves into an open coup or civil war, or if a fait accompli threatens its regional interests.
*The author is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Political Science at Istanbul Medeniyet University. His research focuses on authoritarianism, military-civilian relations, conflict zones, and proxy wars in the Middle East.
**Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Al-Mujtama.