This week, Tunisia’s President, Kais Saied, bowed to reality and extended the transition period that will be needed to move the country out of the mire it found itself in after a decade of mismanagement under governments dominated by the Ennahda Party, the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In power, Ennahda had acted, as Brotherhood organizations always do, to seize control of the levers of the state and society one after the other, and in so doing overplayed their hand, provoking a backlash in a country where there remains a large secular component to the populace. A protest movement began earlier this year that viewed itself as trying to reclaim the original “Arab spring” revolution from a situation that had been hijacked by the Islamists.
Amid the escalating corruption and political paralysis—compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and added to by the brutality of the government’s response to the street protesters—President Saied took the decision on 25 July to dismiss Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and freeze parliament for an initial period of thirty days. On 24 August, that period was extended, and Saied will address the nation about the specifics in the coming days.
Despite the narratives spread by the Brotherhood and its international supporters that have called Saied’s actions a “coup”, they were undertaken within the spirit of the constitution and with broad public support.
In an exclusive interview with European Eye on Radicalization shortly after Saied’s decision, Mohamed Yassin al-Jalasi, the head of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, put the blame for the crisis squarely on the Islamists and reported that his meetings with Saied had been frank and productive about retaining the advances in freedom that have been made in Tunisia since the fall of outright autocracy in 2011.
This week, the president of Tunisia’s legal bar, Brahim Bouderbala, who supported Saied’s decision in July as a positive step for the country, has said that “prolonging the measure was to be expected because one month is not enough time to lay the groundwork for change”. The powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) and other sectional interest and civil society groups have asked the President to adumbrate how he plans to move forward, but none of these actors oppose what he has done so far, particularly the anti-corruption campaign.
The final proof that Saied is acting with, and not against, public opinion is that the Islamist efforts to overturn his decision fizzled: despite ten years in power dispensing patronage, carrying out missionary activity, and using the state to shape the society in a more Islamist direction, the Ennahda leader Rashed Ghannouchi failed to mobilize any serious opposition. To the contrary, Ghannouchi was forced to concede that these efforts had failed and has tried to make a compact with Saied to participate in the next phase.
In the last few weeks, Afghanistan has provided a strong demonstration of what happens when political transitions are rushed, with the Americans not properly planning the handover to the Afghan government—indeed, withdrawing key capacities that sustained that government—opening the way to chaos and a jihadist takeover of the country that immediately threatens Afghanistan’s neighbors and will present problems for the entire world.
In just the past week, Tunisia has recovered more than 100 would-be migrants whose boat capsized in the Mediterranean, a reminder that the country is at a crossroads of irregular travel into Europe, a legal and political problem for the European Union in itself, which has within it the potential for greater dangers of organised crime and terrorism. Ensuring a functional, stable Tunisian state is vital for security on both sides of the Mediterranean and President Saied must be given time to lay the groundwork for this, rather than forcing hasty decisions on arbitrary timetables.