Late in the evening of 25 July 2021, Tunisian party elites were scrutinizing the details of the presidential announcement that had taken most of them by surprise. They were searching for an appropriate narrative to present to their support bases, the media, and a public eagerly awaiting positions. The event had to be analyzed and a narrative interpreting the facts, circumstances, and complications produced. However, the entire event had emerged with no input from political parties and was prepared under the oversight of a president who has long thought and acted outside party and organization norms and whom most party elites see as an obscure political phenomenon with an unclear heading.
The pressure of the situation and fear of not appearing on the stage prompted most parties to search for a political narrative that accommodates the event’s sudden nature as part of their previous positions and choices. Hence, the parties sought to situate themselves as part of an event in which the voice of the president and his supporters drowned out the other voices. In the wake of July 25, the parties faced the test of defending their political existence by constructing narratives fit for mass consumption and satisfying their bases.
The old parties most inclined toward political centralization and authoritarianism sought to show that democracy is rotten by repeating the “spring of ruin” narrative, broadly calling for the termination of the 2014 Constitution. Social democrats tried to take refuge in the “deficient democracy” narrative and interpret the exceptional measures as a necessity imposed by political, social, and economic deadlocks. As for the Islamists, who were stripped of their positions in Parliament and government, they found themselves on the frontline of the clash with the president. Hence, they were initially forced to resort to the “tanks usurp democracy” narrative. However, the failure to promote this narrative prompted the Islamist movement to turn inward and search for new rhetoric that does not place it in confrontation with the president and a significant portion of society.
The Old Guard: The Second Republic Was Born of Sin
Since the remarkable rise of the Free Destourian Party, which is considered an extension of the old ruling party, a perception that the democracy the revolution inaugurated brought ruin to the state and society has existed. In the view of the authoritarian era’s heirs, the original sin lies in the revolution itself because it was antithetical to the “nationalist state” project. Part of this analysis argues that the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia and other states were planned abroad by influential intelligence agencies and were ultimately a global conspiracy against “nationalist regimes”, one aimed at dismantling states and undermining societies’ security.
From this original sin – i.e. the revolution – emerged the 2014 Constitution as the legal and political contract governing the nascent democracy. In the old guard’s view, this constitution is tailored to the “new rulers” and fragments the executive authority, and the very parliament that drafted it was a partner in the conspiracy against the “strong state”. When Free Destourian Party leader Abir Moussi was asked why she ran for a parliament that she considers part of the “system of ruin”, she simply said that she was working to sweep Parliament in order to rewrite the Constitution, change the political system, and transition to a third republic.
In reality, the desire for a third republic is a desire to return to the First Republic because the last half-century is the primary source from which the supporters of old derive their political, economic, and ideological conceptions. Hence, their political discourse restored the mythology of Father Bourguiba’s republic, wherein the leader’s image blends with the images of the party and state, and invoked the symbolisms of the past in search of legitimacy in the present. However, the public’s receptivity to the “revolution of ruin” narrative was fueled primarily by a socioeconomic collapse whose roots extend into the old era and which the new era failed to confront with revolutionary boldness.
Disposing of the 2014 Constitution constituted a framework of political action for a broad current of the old parties, which found themselves on the margins of the democratic transition system but were forced to work within its institutions. On this basis, Free Destourian Party MPs worked to project a stale image of Parliament in order to extract evidence for the ruin argument from within. The president’s closure of Parliament was an act of political one-upmanship not beneficial to the Free Destourian Party as it bypassed the small steps it had made in this direction. Hence, the Free Destourian Party went along with the closure on the pretext that the people support it, but the party still considers itself the fittest to inherit the post-2011 system. It will soon find itself forced to construct a salvation narrative that competes with the president’s new aura as the leader who will deliver Tunisia from ruin.
Social Democrats: The “Deficient Democracy” Narrative and Spectre of Ambivalence
Over the past decade, the social-democratic current has not been an independent and influential political trend. Democracy tied to social justice was an idea diffused across many political parties, and this party diaspora did not manage to penetrate the centers of power, which Ennahda split with some remnants of the old system. The idea of social justice receded occasionally – particularly in the period from 2011 to 2014 – in favor of the battle for freedoms and rights. Some tried to distance themselves from the freedoms debate in the name of the battle for higher justice but found themselves on the sidelines.
Most parties that adopted the social-democratic discourse engaged in parliamentary life but struggled with weak electoral performance and an inability to confront the political monopolization. From within this experience, they attempted to construct their conception of the period. On the morning of 26 July 2021, most had to present a narrative of what exactly had occurred and what the future holds. Was the era of democracy, in which they had waged their battles and left their marks on some of its texts and institutions, over? Would they defend a period that had proven itself unable to change socioeconomic conditions? What remains of a transitional past that most agree is irreversibly over?
It was easy to demonstrate that the democracy was deficient by citing the socioeconomic failure, particularly the major failure to manage the health crisis. However, that alone was not enough to justify or support the state of exception that the president had introduced. The deficiency had to be proven from within democracy itself. Hence, the discourse of social-democratic parties cast doubt over electoral legitimacy. According to them, democracy was poisoned at the ballot boxes, which were influenced by corrupt political money, economic lobbies, and foreign powers. They used the latest report by the Court of Accounts on electoral campaign funding as evidence to condemn the ballot boxes and call into question the results of the 2019 legislative elections.
To complete the “deficient” or “fraudulent” democracy narrative, as some wish to do, they had to address Parliament – the legislative institution that had been the arena for most social democrats’ battles. Most are yet to present a clear stance on the institution’s fate, but they more or less agree on describing its suspended incarnation as having become a “hotbed of corruption”, in the words of Democratic Current MP Samia Abbou. In their view, the parliament that was dominated by Islamists and Islamists’ allies was the framework in which all the conspiracies against democracy were hatched via the adoption of financial laws tailored to the lobbies and ruling parties and the delivery of a fraudulent reconciliation at the expense of due accountability. Hence, a return to Parliament in its old incarnation would be a reproduction of the crisis.
Within this view, July 25 became a pivotal moment in contemporary political history. But social democrats will need to answer the question of how democracy can resume its course or reconstitute itself, especially as most of them recognize that it existed in one form or another. What is the 2014 Constitution’s fate? And why is there cold silence over the issue of how to escape the constitutional predicament triggered by the president?
Those most enthusiastic about the presidential measures may call for suspending the 2014 Constitution on the basis that it is “tailored to the Muslim Brotherhood”, in the words of People’s Movement MP Haykel Mekki. However, others are openly fearful of a “constitutional adventure” that could devastate the few gains achieved and lay the foundation for new autocratic rule. Hence, they call for a process of broad political accountability – without liquidating the 2014 Constitution – as the only way to end the state of exception. However, the social democratic parties seem to lack a clear conception for solving the democratic transition system’s predicaments. They do not hold the reins of the political process, and the president – who to them constituted a gamble – does not give much weight to the party voices around him. He sees the future through his own perspective, a perspective that is unclear to many political actors and has thereby caused many to resort to a wait-and-see approach.
Islamists: From the “Conspiracy Against Democracy” Narrative to “Self-Critique”
Even though the Islamist Ennahda Movement had been in the midst of a political conflict with President Kais Saied over powers and the interpretation of the Constitution, it was just as astonished as others when he sacked the government and suspended Parliament on July 25. The movement that had come to power via the ballot box did not expect to be toppled from outside the ballot box, and as far as many of its leaders were concerned, the mechanisms whereby power is managed, transferred, and shared with others were virtually settled. The Islamist movement had managed to reposition within centers of government in previous dark periods, particularly in 2014, when Nidaa Tounes rose as a party power competing with and threatening it.
25 July 2021 was a harsh test for the Tunisian Islamist movement. It was besieged by popular condemnation and an inflammatory political discourse directed against it. From within, it faced opposition by a significant portion of its base over the performance and political deviation of its leadership. Much anxiety about the movement’s fate and how to manage the confrontation and absorb the anger of its base and the people seeped in. Hence, the movement had to construct a narrative that could repair its own crumbling house and help confront the mounting external pressure.
Initially, the movement sought to identify with the idea of democracy. In a speech delivered in front of Parliament late in the evening of July 25, Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi interpreted the closure of Parliament as an armed coup against democracy and the Constitution. To him, the army’s decision to bar him from entering Parliament was enough proof. But would defending democracy by standing in front of a parliament facing all kinds of condemnation help to rally supporters and convince those most attracted to democratic life that an actual conspiracy against democracy had taken place?
The idea of reclaiming democracy from the tanks clashed with the support bases’ lack of faith in this course and a spreading discourse hostile to the experience of the past decade and most of its figures. Hence, the Islamist movement had to reinterpret the event and formulate a new political narrative that its base and a portion of the public could accept or believe. The less influential voices inside the movement stressed the need to tell the truth and apologize to the people.
The leadership had to abandon victimhood and explain the facts without becoming embroiled in a total condemnation of the movement. Hence, it adopted the argument that Ennahda had partially contributed to the failure. “The Ennahda Movement is responsible in proportion to its size in the country and in government”, Ennahda vice-president Ali Laarayedh stated. This argument was a means of distributing responsibility for the failure across all components of the post-2011 system, including President Saied, who came from within – not outside – the democratic transition system. Ennahda assigned him a significant share of the blame for the failure, the political crises, and the obstruction of government institutions. As for Parliament, which has been one pillar of the crisis throughout the past period, Ennahda deemed it a victim of “systematic distortion” by certain political forces that do not believe in parliamentary democracy, such as the Free Destourian Movement.
The “shared failure” discourse allowed Ennahda to shift from a confrontational position to a position of negotiation, which was especially necessary as it found itself facing the effects of July 25 alone after most allies of yesteryear abandoned and turned against it. On this basis, Ennahda chose to take a step back so that it could escape its political isolation and the idea of returning to constitutional life can win new supporters. In the meantime, doubt and disappointment may seep into the camp supporting the July 25 measures, especially as the shape of the future so far remains obscure.
Keywords: Tunisia, July 25, Democracy, Islamist movement, State of exception, 2014 Constitution
 This current includes centrist and leftist parties and parties belonging to the pan-Arab nationalist current. Among them are the Democratic Current, the People’s Movement, the Popular Current, the Democratic Patriots’ Unified Party, and the Tunisia Forward Movement. The Workers’ Party was a notable exception within this current because it described the July 25 measures as a coup and called for the entire system to go.