In Tunisia, a Day of Reckoning Awaits

In an interview with New Lines, a chief opposition leader signals the alarm as July 25 referendum nears; but he remains hopeful over the long term

In Tunisia, a Day of Reckoning Awaits
Rached Ghannouchi / Chedly Ben Ibrahim / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Introduction by: Lydia Wilson
Interview by: James Snell

The past year has seen Tunisia — long heralded as the single success story of the Arab Spring — edge toward dictatorship. It is feared that the results of the looming referendum on July 25 will be the final nail in the coffin of the country’s democracy, a fragile system that has nevertheless endured in the 11-plus years since Mohamed Bouazizi, a market trader, set himself on fire and sparked protests that spread across the region.

In July 2021, President Kais Saied removed the prime minister and dissolved Parliament, invoking emergency powers, a move widely condemned as a coup. Opinion polls were divided: Demonstrations expressed a level of popular support for the power grab, with those defending him hoping for genuine improvement in the dire economic conditions and expressing anger at the status quo. But the intervening months showed no such improvement — and more moves toward total control. By September 2021, protests had turned against Saied and his plan to scrap the 2014 post-revolution constitution. The upcoming referendum is on the question of whether to approve a new constitution that would concentrate formidable powers in the position of president.

Tunisia has a deep familiarity with oppressive, totalitarian leftism. Habib Bourguiba, who ruled from 1957 to 1987, left the country with an impressive list of liberal reforms: women’s equality enshrined in law, workers’ rights and unions strengthened, universal education and so much more. But this liberal checklist was achieved through ruthless oppression of his opponents, both within and outside of his own ruling party. From personally removing women’s hijabs during marches to celebrate liberation to pursuing and silencing political opponents, Bourguiba ensured his vision for the country through violence and coercion.

Those who voiced opposition were arrested or exiled, including huge numbers of Islamists. Among them was Rached Ghannouchi, who was imprisoned twice in the 1980s for his political activism before fleeing to the U.K., where he spent over 20 years. This period was formative to his political views and approaches to government, as he came to understand the value of a democracy without relinquishing his beliefs in the ideals of Islam. He gained the opportunity to test this blend of Islamism and democracy: After returning to Tunisia in early 2011, he led his Islamist party Ennahda (“Renaissance”) to victory in the very first, free and fair elections after decades of the overtly dictatorial rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ennahda has been part of a coalition ruling Tunisia since 2011 until today.

When the Muslim Brotherhood gained power in Egypt after their own Arab Spring success, they quickly moved to suppress civil society, closing down NGOs, restricting the media and limiting freedom of worship. Ghannouchi did the opposite. Despite winning a plurality of seats, he chose to share power with secularists in order to maintain the fragile stability of Tunisia — Beji Caid Essebsi, founder of the secular Nidaa Tounes party, was president between 2014 and his death in 2019. The new constitution, passed in 2014, was written in vague (and sometimes contradictory) language in order to unite the country and allow for future debate and development. This divided Ghannouchi’s own base, many of whom felt betrayed by the lack of sharia in the new constitution and the collaboration with secularists, and was expressed in protests and occasional violence, yet Ennahda continued with this balancing act, and peace and democracy tentatively endured — until now.

This is not to say that Ennahda and Ghannouchi remained popular. Their inability to deal with widespread corruption throughout the country — including within their own ranks — led to increasing protests. The economic situation remained poor long after they gained power, exacerbated by the pandemic, which they are seen to have woefully mishandled, with unemployment reaching 18%. Ghannouchi, by then speaker of the Parliament, was subject to a vote of no confidence in 2020, which he barely survived.

The atmosphere of anti-government feeling was the backdrop to Saied’s move to dissolve Parliament, and it explains the initial popular response to his power grab. Ennahda was the focus of much of the crowds’ hostility, with one party office in the southern town of Tozeur set on fire during a protest. Ghannouchi’s response was muted. He had initially supported the candidacy and presidency of Saied, and during the protests of September 2021, prominent members of Ennahda split with the party’s leadership over what they considered to be Ghannouchi’s unwillingness to confront Saied.

With ever-increasing anti-democratic actions by Saied, Ghannouchi’s attitude changed and became focused against the president. Ghannouchi announced in May that his party will not participate in Saied’s constitutional referendum, and he accused Saied of fomenting national division. In June, as it was confirmed that Saied had banned him from leaving the country, Ghannouchi began an international media campaign to denounce Saied as a tyrant. Speaking to New Lines, he expresses very clearly his disavowal for his former political ally in relation to his continuing commitment to democratic principles and practices for Tunisia.

In discussing the role of the parties and other existing political structures, he admits that the system has not yet achieved true stability nor development for the country but claims that it is the very success of Ennahda — the fact that it has endured when other parties have split or disappeared — that has led to the blame being placed at its door. Many will no doubt disagree and argue that the party has had a decade to improve conditions for the population of Tunisia and deserves the criticism it gets. Ghannouchi’s own colleagues can legitimately claim he is coming out against Saied late in the day, and his critics might wonder whether this is in relation to the threats made against him. In this, as he discusses, his position has aligned with the population, which initially supported Saied’s constitutional coup and only slowly turned against him with increasing evidence of anti-democratic plans for the country. Ghannouchi reflects on his support of a relatively unknown politician. He also discusses the international community’s role over the past year of unrest, in merely standing by and observing Tunisia’s headlong rush back into totalitarianism. Despite it all, Ghannouchi remains optimistic, with faith in the Tunisian people and his vision of Islamist democracy alike.

Below is our interview with Ghannouchi.

New Lines: Given the protests of especially the last couple of weeks, how much effect do you think they could have?

Rached Ghannouchi: The last few weeks witnessed vigorous efforts by Kais Saied and his entourage for a broad mobilization of his virtual supporters and the alleged overwhelming public support for him, while repeatedly, events on the ground have revealed that the people do not support Saied. Despite the fact that he came out personally to call on his supposed supporters to go out to the streets, he still failed to convince Tunisians to support him on the ground, which made him resort to falsifying their will in his failed electronic consultation [held in January 2022].

Similarly, May 8 [when there were rallies held intended by Saied to demonstrate his popular support] was another occasion that exposed Saied’s failure to mobilize the Tunisian public against the democratic system that was established by the constitution.

This repetitive failure motivated the public — that has always been the defender of democracy and civil liberties — to go out and express its opinion, including in the biggest protest that the country witnessed since the coup. This was on May 15, when Tunisian men and women came from all over the country to express their determination to defend their democracy, for which they had sacrificed their youth and their lives, to defend freedom and civil peace against the barbaric incitement to fight and destroy civil peace by populist parties.

NL: What do you think will happen now?

RG: We do not expect Saied to take into consideration the Tunisian public’s messages, as he does not listen to anyone. Perhaps he believes that he has a divine mission, a sacred war, to change not only Tunisia, but the whole world, since he said more than once “it is a martyrdom project” [willing to die for it], even though a resident’s sole project should be the people’s lives rather than death. Therefore, we suspect that he will continue to ignore not only the voice of the Tunisian people, haunted by the threat of hunger, fear for their safety and the future of their children, but also all the voices around the world warning him of the abyss into which he is leading the country.

On the other hand, we expect further determination from the people to restore our stolen democracy, demanding that Tunisia is governed by representatives of all its people, in the framework of tolerance, compromise and moderation, since extremism and populism lead only to wars and conflicts, which should in fact be the real enemy.

NL: Where is Saied’s base of support in the country? Is it the army? Is he authentically popular?

RG: There’s no doubt that for a period of time, Saied represented a considerable part of the Tunisian people. However, he quickly turned his back on even those who trusted him.

During the first round of the elections, he was trusted by a broad cross-section of Tunisian youth and the unemployed, but he quickly forgot about this support group, seen in his refusal to sign the law concerning the long-term unemployed, a bill that had been approved by Parliament.

Moreover, the vast majority of parties that supported him, during the second round of voting, were those fighting against corruption and defending the values of the revolution; 30% of people who voted for Saied were Ennahda party supporters. Yet again, Saied disappointed his constituency and lost their support by failing to fight corruption or achieve social justice.

Lastly, Saied channeled the feelings of a large segment of Tunisians toward the political elites and the institutions of the democratic state, which he subjected to a systematic defamation campaign, filled with negative propaganda, until the people lost faith in politicians and lost trust in a democracy that does not produce a clear ruling party or system, nor achieve stability or development.

He did his best to deepen this crisis, until the priority for Tunisians became having a ruler capable of ruling decisively, which was the moment the coup took place.

Yet, once again, Saied failed to respond to the expectations that he raised. Thus, his alleged popularity has been witnessing a rapid collapse after achieving a record increase of over 80%, according to some polls following the coup. Today it has fallen to almost 20% of those who expressed their opinions, according to some opinion polls, knowing that at least 70% refuse to give their opinion.

It’s clear that the people are not supporting Saied, but who does?

There’s no doubt that Saied’s coup would not have been possible if it were not for the compliance of some state institutions and some of its elite who were also victims of his negative propaganda.

However, I believe that everyone has today come to realize that the coup was a mistake which incriminated anyone who supported him, especially the state institutions that are now seriously threatened with being dismantled by Saied, along with the political elites, who were perhaps lured by the power offered to them through Saied’s coup, but now they find themselves targeted by the usurper himself.

NL: How have the unions played their part in opposition to Saied? Have they done all they could do to mobilize opposition to him?

RG: The Tunisian General Labour Union is a well-established national organization, and with no doubt it has a fundamental role in defending workers’ rights. This organization, along with others, had an arbitration role in the crisis between the political elites during the 2013 crisis, which led to it being awarded the Nobel Prize.

I think that Saied’s coup targets all the political and independent civil entities, an example of which is what he recently tried to do with the Agriculture Union [which rejected Saied’s so-called national dialogue, after which he issued decrees seemingly renaming the organization and appointing new people to its leadership]. I believe that the conflict between Saied and the union is almost inevitable, as he cannot accept any authority or any will to be independent from him. Therefore, this organization will be forced to defend its independence. At that moment, which I hope will not come too late, we will be by its side to defend it and its independence.

Do the political parties share blame for allowing the parliament to be suspended?

Certainly there is a weakness of democratic culture, along with the vulnerability of the democratic system, which was based on an electoral law that had served its purpose during the Constituent Assembly phase, but no longer serves democracy’s stability in Tunisia. It produced a fragmented, partisan scene and a Parliament dominated by conflicts, along with difficulty in building coalitions and reaching the required majority to guarantee stability of governments that are capable of achieving results.

The partisan scene is directly influenced by the electoral law, along with the constitutional articles that regulate the work of powers and how it is established. But it is important to consider the fact that the partisan scene is still very nascent and inconstant, as the parties that existed in 2011 are barely remembered 10 years later. As a matter of fact, the only party that survived is the Ennahda party, despite all the damage and being a constant direct target. Since it achieved what others could not achieve, observers are holding Ennahda as the only party accountable for the last 10 years, while tending to disregard any positives achieved during that decade.

Certainly parties are responsible for the vulnerability of democracy in Tunisia, which is the weakness that paved the way for fascist currents and radical populism, and helped the coup agenda in executing its plan, which included targeting the Parliament and suspending its activities by blocking its gate with a tank.

Parties are responsible for this due to their weakness; their strength would have helped protect democracy, as they did during the foundational phase despite the tremors the country went through during the first four years after the revolution when democracy survived despite terrorist attacks and assassinations. One can’t fail to note the robustness of democracy in the face of all the attacks targeting it after 2014, thanks to the existence of two major parties, and there’s no doubt that the weakness and the fragmentation of the Nidaa Tounes party contributed to the perception of a fragmented Parliament in 2019.

This is why the country needs strong parties in order to guarantee a strong democracy, which requires changing the electoral law and reforming the constitution, in terms of articles associated with managing the various powers of the state, how the government is formed and its parliamentary basis, as it is the people’s right to see the majority they elected in power, so it can be held accountable, something our democracy could not achieve in the past 10 years.

NL: Throughout all this, Saied has seemed to have somewhat strange international support. Could you describe the nature of the international response?

RG: The revolution represented a chance for Tunisia to join the world’s democratic countries’ club, which came as a result of the consensual constitution that it successfully wrote, with the help of many international institutions that accompanied the democratic transition.

This certainly contributed to setting Tunisia apart from most other Arab countries, and it is natural for some Arab regimes to see a stable democracy in a brotherly nation as a threat to their ruling systems — it represents a source of pressure on, and distinction from, the old model. Moreover, these countries might have seen that this democracy did not result in a system that serves their interests, although we have repeatedly said on many occasions that our Tunisian experience concerns only our country, its circumstances, and within its borders, but it seems that has not been enough.

Still, without a doubt, the stability or instability of a ruling system are affected by regional and international environments, whether negatively or positively. It’s clear the coup would not have been possible without the existence of agendas unrelated to Tunisia and the concerns of its people, but rather related to expanding conflicts between regional and international powers, starting from Yemen, Syria and Libya, then eventually Tunisia, as the weakness of the political scene gave these powers an open path to infiltrate Tunisian democracy.

Saied is the reflection of the expansion of the conflict of agendas in these zones of conflict, such as the Russian interference in Syria, Libya and the sub-Saharan regions, along with Tunisia. Therefore, it is not surprising to see Saied abstain from supporting the cause of the Ukrainian people, and to see him seeking [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s help, and probably China’s, at the expense of Tunisia’s relations with the European Union and the Western democratic system.

NL: What about the international support Saied is receiving? Are the Europeans being hypocritical in their refusal to condemn him?

RG: From the first moment since July 25, we considered what Saied did to be a coup, and even though the European Union was explicit in its statements calling for democracy, this position did not reach the point of accurately describing what’s occurring in Tunisia in a precise manner that corresponded to the development of events. These events have clarified how Saied does not listen to anyone and does not care about the international community, except when it comes to helping him bridge financial gaps that have been exacerbated by his policies, just as his disruption of the state institutions before the coup had contributed to creating those problems.

Meanwhile, we have not seen firm support from the European Union for the democratic process. It would have been more appropriate, as was mentioned in the statement of the European parliamentarians’ delegation that visited Tunisia, if Saied had the same legitimacy as that of Parliament, and it would have been better for the European Union institutions to be consistent with its convictions in dealing with their counterparts, such as by dealing with Parliament and parliamentarians as representatives of the Tunisian people [instead, they continued to engage with Saied as the legitimate leader of the country, based on his promises of “national dialogue”]. We have not seen from the European Union any dealings with the rest of the legitimate institutions, such as the Supreme Judicial Council that Saied dissolved, as well as the Supreme Anti-Corruption Authority before it and the Independent High Authority for Elections.

Events have proven that Saied does not listen to anyone, which was confirmed by members of the European Parliament. Yet, unfortunately, we have not seen the observations of the respected European deputies being reflected in the policies of the executive institutions of the European Union. We, as Tunisians, fear that stability, even at the expense of democracy, may become a priority for European institutions and member states, although experience with the pre-revolution regime has shown that democracy, even if weak, is the real guarantee for stability. What justifies Europe’s confrontation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in defense of democracy and of Europe’s eastern frontiers while at the same time Europe abandons, or at least waivers, in its defense of democracy on its southern borders? What message would Europe be sending to us through such a contrasting policy?

NL: Many international observers consider themselves shocked by political developments in the last two years. Based on your view, what kind of a person is Saied? Has he changed?

RG: He is a radical populist who sees himself as the carrier of a universal project, and not only for Tunisia. Has Saied changed? No, he has not, but we did not know him sufficiently well to be able to assess him. And that was our mistake, as we should not have supported an unknown person, based on campaigns seeking to influence public opinion and defame opponents.

Perhaps we should have taken action the first time he violated the constitution, when he considered the constitutional need to consult parties during the appointment of the prime minister a matter of formality, and then all the disruption he was responsible for toward the functioning of the state and the sabotage of public life. In fact, our patience with Saied, and our tendency for opting for dialogue with him, and our hope to see him return to rationality and engage in dialogue with others, were a great service to him, and enabled him to expand the vacuum around him, and eventually to take hold of state institutions, then use populist fascist methods to threaten all those institutions.

NL: The war in Ukraine has reminded many that dictators are only as good as their own vices. How do you think things will end for Saied if he continues down this line in power?

RG: I think that the scene in Ukraine that is shocking the world is not entirely different from what is happening in Tunisia, albeit to a different degree. That is because what is occurring in both places is an attack on democracy and an assault on the peoples’ free will, and on this occasion, we condemn every assault on free nations and on liberties.

The world has witnessed enough massacres and genocides; it does not need today a new Bosnia or mass graves like the ones that were discovered in Tarhouna, Libya, and what was recently found in the region of Bucha, outside Kyiv, or anywhere else in the world.

This can only be resisted by safeguarding the state institutions that protect citizens.

Just as we stand today against the dismantling of the state’s institutions and democracy in Tunisia, against attacks on civilians, and against resorting to violence and coercion to resolve conflicts, we adopt the same position, based on the same democratic values toward the aggression against the Ukrainian people.

The world has already seen the danger of such populist personalities who are driven by their unbridled passion toward tyranny and the use of all means to perpetuate their rule and their oppression. And I believe that humanity needs solidarity in order to prove that the values of democracy, coexistence and the right to self-determination of peoples are the only means to resolve conflicts.

NL: What will you personally do if things get worse? Will you remain in Tunisia?

RG: What will the Tunisian people do? Will they leave the country because of Saied or anyone else? I’m a Tunisian, like all Tunisians, and this country deserves sacrifice. My role, and the role of others, is to rekindle hope in the hearts of the people. Tunisia is indeed a beautiful country that is rich with its people who are its wealth, and it deserves to be struggled for, so we can live in it, base our dreams on it, and wish for a better future for our children and future generations.

There’s nothing left that can make me fear tyrants or tyranny, as I have been through many trials during my life, and I faced death at the hands of tyranny. I’m in my country, among my people, and I will continue to do my absolute best for them both.

NL: Finally, how optimistic is it possible for you to be about the future?

RG: Many are expecting the Tunisian people to rise once again, but the political elites’ role is to defend the people so that they are not forced to turn out and bring down the tyrant themselves. Indeed, the public protests occurring today are a manifestation of the conflict between those elites who call for democracy, personal and civil liberties (who today represent the majority of the Tunisian elites, which have succeeded in mobilizing the largest popular and public base) and those who are calling for fascism and tyranny, to which Saied belongs. However, when Saied eventually fails, as he has failed so far, to listen to these voices, the people will express their opinion in their own way, and at that moment, there will be no need for the separate actions of the elites, which will merge with the people, becoming an indistinguishable part of them, as “when the ocean rises and roars, it overshadows streams.” That will be the decisive moment, and I expect, given the fast pace of events, that this will not take too long before it happens, as the situation is no longer sustainable.

The Tunisian experience has survived for 10 years of absolute freedom, while other experiences have failed and fell in their early years. I believe that a decade of freedom is capable of equipping the Tunisian people, its elites, its youth and its institutions with the values of freedom, and they are today defending themselves, their liberties and their democracy. Therefore, I am confident that the coup will not withstand long when faced with the passion for freedom that this great people have, which never loses hope in living, and never turns its back on it, as it is the people whose poet said:

When the people will to live, Destiny must surely respond.
And night must be dispelled, and the chains must be broken.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy