July 25: An Exceptional Day in Tunisia with Many Connotations

2022-01-25    |   

July 25: An Exceptional Day in Tunisia with Many Connotations

The day of 25 July 2021 – the anniversary of the republic – wrote a new chapter in Tunisia’s complex and prolonged crisis, becoming another foundational date in the country’s political and constitutional history. While it was preceded by circumstances, events, and details and followed yet by others, the day itself was, with its multitude of events, an encapsulation of a complex crisis. It decisively reflected an old wavering between demise and restoration and a vague new that is still taking shape, all amidst growing fears that the spring of a nascent democracy is withering.


The Protests: The Context and Details


The events of that Sunday morning were merely the catalyst for the evening spectacle. Widespread protests, the details of which we will examine later, took place in the capital in front of Parliament in Bardo and in some regions. These protests came in response to calls by Facebook groups. The calls were spearheaded by “NON aux indemnisations aux nahdhaouis” (No Compensation for Ennahda members). Established on 16 July 2021, this private group currently has approximately 200,000 followers. However, its owners say that the original group had 700,000 before it was made private. Additionally, statements circulated from legally unregistered organizations on Facebook, such as the Supreme Youth Council and the Salvation Front – i.e. limited and unknown youth groups occasionally inlaid with minor political figures.


In reality, the call for protests on July 25 was not novel. Activists and bloggers usually call for protests on this day because of its twofold symbolism: it is both Republic Day and the anniversary of the 2013 assassination of opponent Mohamed Brahmi. The novelty of this year’s call was the context: Iit occurred amidst a political and institutional crisis that had reached the point of a rift between the presidency, on one hand, and the government and parliamentary majority, on the other, as well as the escalating COVID-19 crisis. The theme of the call – as reflected by the aforementioned No Compensation for Ennahda Members – was also new.


In early July, a video had spread widely on social media showing the president of Ennahda’s Shura Council Abdelkarim Harouni addressing a group of victims of the authoritarian era. Harouni criticized the government’s obstruction of the launch of the Dignity Fund allocated for redressing these victims’ material damages as part of the transitional justice process. This video provoked widespread anger, especially because it coincided with record levels of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the country. The Harouni video appeared amidst a wave of videos from the regions showing the sick in hospital corridors without oxygen. The headlines contended that Harouni was demanding that the government “disburse compensation amounting to TND3 billion [USD1.04 billion] before July 25”. Amidst the anger and indignation, Harouni appeared in the media to mitigate the video’s impact and respond to its use to bolster the calls to take to the streets on the set date. He said, “The word ‘compensation’ is a lie”, “the notion that the compensation fund contains TND3 billion is a lie and I demand an investigation”, and “I called for an office to be provided for the Dignity Fund before July 25”. On July 12, Ennahda spokesperson Fathi Ayadi stated, “The Ennahda Movement is not demanding compensation – this is a rumor”. The following day, the party issued a statement declaring that it was opening the doors for its members to donate to combat the COVID-19 crisis. On July 16, Ennahda even held a press conference “to clarify some of the movement’s policies”, which included an affirmation that “the compensation matter is incorrect in form and substance”. The party announced that the movement’s leader, Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, had donated TND80,000 [USD28,000] to procure medical equipment for the hospitals. It was clear that, internally, the party had realized the effect of raising the issue of compensation for victims of authoritarianism on public opinion and in driving people into the streets and was therefore conducting damage control. Leaked information about prime minister Hichem Mechichi and some ministers spending weekends in a luxury hotel in a tourist town while the health system was collapsing during the summer days of July was another factor precipitating an outburst of anger seeking to topple “the system”. Hence, the atmosphere was ideal for rousing the street.


But did people take to the streets on the set day in large, unprecedented numbers? No. Rather, hundreds assembled before Parliament demanding its dissolution, and the security forces prevented them from advancing to the main gates. Videos also showed marches containing dozens or a few hundred people in some cities, some involving clashes with security forces, as occurred in Nabeul. However, the new and remarkable development was that the marches in some cities headed to Ennahda’s offices. Its office in Tozeur, in the south, was stormed and vandalized. Protesters also assembled in front of the party’s offices in Sousse and Kairouan, where its signboard was destroyed. Remarkably, the office of the Free Destourian Party in Siliana was stormed too. This opposition party had disassociated itself from the calls for protests on July 25 in advance. Two vital questions arise in this regard: Did the protesters head to the parties’ offices spontaneously, or were they directed? And were these field developments a surprise to the security agencies, which ultimately did not confront the instances of “disorder”? While the answer is not definitive, the presence of a leadership encouraging the protesters to head to the party offices is probable.


In this regard, sociologist Maher Zoghlami, in an interview with the Legal Agenda following a field observation, concluded that the expressions of protest, including the arson of the offices, were more politically instigated than they were a voluntary or spontaneous act. He adds that this action was socially accepted to a certain extent, i.e. it met with neither widespread support nor clear opposition in practice. In this sense, the community’s response to the political instigation was limited and relative. This point calls to mind one of the cornerstones of the president’s discourse, namely his fierce opposition to the party system as a representation of a political elite that does not respond in the slightest to the people’s aspirations and has broken promises and betrayed the people. Kais Saied’s rise in autumn 2019 was a clear expression of the populace’s distaste for the parties in their entirety, not a particular party. This was confirmed by opinion polls showing that the parties lie at the bottom of Tunisians’ ladder of trust.


Moreover, the Parliamentary fragmentation in the 2019 elections resulted in balances incapable of producing a stable and aligned government majority, creating a state of political and governmental instability. The result was an alienating spectacle as the parties in Parliament failed to manage their disagreements because some invested in squabbling. This caused Parliament to be seen as a “circus”. It was not difficult for any nonpartisan protests, such as those on July 25, to be redirected from the centers of sovereignty to the offices of the parties, which reflected an escalation of the protest from words of dissatisfaction and demands to acts of anger and escalation.


An Exceptional President Declares a State of Exception


Though the protests were in reality limited, they constituted the ideal impetus for the president to invoke the phrase “imminent danger” in order to apply a state of exception. Hence, on the evening of July 25, Saied called military and security-force leaders to a meeting to make the declaration. Since the political crisis escalated, Saied had opted to convene meetings with these leaders without inviting the National Security Council. He thereby sought to exclude his adversaries within government, namely the prime minister and parliament speaker (who are members of the aforementioned council), from participating. In his speech, the president touched on the “arson and looting”, warning of “paid infighting in some neighborhoods”. He thereby seemed to be concocting a danger that would pave the way for him to apply a state of exception. Saied’s declaration that he should have made the decision to suspend Parliament “months ago” reinforces the suspicion that he fabricated the danger, as well as the idea that the state of exception was born not of an exceptional day but an entire exceptional situation.


However, the remarkable component of the president’s speech was its celebratory tone concerning that day’s events and portrayal of them as an endorsement of his opposition to the government, Parliament, and parties. This tone intensified with his statement that “the people continue their revolution with legality”, which is reminiscent of the phrase “the people want” by portraying him as merely responding to the people’s revolution in the name of salvation. The president also digressed into manifestations of the crisis such as the “breakdown of public utilities” and the “toying with the state and its capacities”, speaking clearly about “rescuing the Tunisian state and Tunisian society”. Saied, as the state’s top representative and the protector of its interests against those who administer it like “their own property”, contended that the people are calling for a protective state, represented by the president, in the face of a dilapidated authority represented by the parliamentary majority, constantly reinvoking the legitimacy-legality dichotomy. Likewise, he did not squander the opportunity to stress that the laws issued did not express the public will. In this regard, Zoghlami says that the president’s political discourse, by enumerating the crisis’s manifestations, was akin to an official affirmation of the social factors that instigated the protests. He also called it a political response and an allusion to an end to the crisis and radical break with it. The exceptional situation, by suspending Parliament and dismissing the prime minister, i.e. by changing the constitutionalized rules of governance, was a surprising maximalist action that not only changes the balance of power but also shifts the responsibility of the crisis.


However, the speech declaring the state of exception reflected, from the outset, a lack of planning. The president announced his decision to take over the Public Prosecution only to retreat from it later. While he stressed that the decisions would be issued as decrees, all were subsequently issued as presidential orders. It is unlikely that the professor of constitutional law initially mentioned decrees by mistake. He also said that the decisions would be put into effect “in the coming hours”. In reality, the decision to suspend Parliament was issued four days later in the official gazette (the 29 July 2021 issue), and approximately two months later, no new prime minister had been appointed. Hence, while a desire to declare a state of exception with these measures was evident from the president’s statement that the decisions should have been made “months ago”, there was no plan for presenting it and shaping its administration.


From Protest to Delight: What Significance?


Following the announcement of the exceptional measures, the squares and streets in most cities became host to crowds welcoming and celebrating the decisions despite the nighttime curfew. The scenes of protest during the day thereby transformed into scenes of delight at night. The reaction was unsurprising, and the question of the decisions’ constitutionality and legality did not arise among their supporters. It was viewed not only as a secondary matter but also with suspicion because it was being raised by the decisions’ opponents. To those celebrating, suspending Parliament, lifting immunity from MPs, and dismissing the prime minister were a response to the demands of “the people” against a “corrupt” elite.


Ironically, the celebrations on the night of July 25 resembled the celebratory atmosphere following Kais Saied’s win in the second round of presidential elections, as though it were a second victory for the same person against the same front. Sociologically, Zoghlami interprets the nighttime celebrations as undoubtedly an emotional response to the suggestion (which was not necessarily understood at the same time) of a radical termination of the crisis. Many factors intersected in this response, the most important including the sense of isolation resulting from the long lockdown and the elevated tension resulting from media pressure relaying an equally tense political discourse, which produces a dissonance that disdains all political action. Zoghlami reinforces his assessment by saying that the night celebrations reflected the breaking of a psychological barrier more than they reflected a clear understanding of a political event.


The state of exception event represented a recalibration to the public. It was a foundational event like the revolution or election results, the likes of which kick-starts optimism about the imminent future now that the page had been forcefully turned on the past. The political poll that the company Sigma Conseil periodically conducts shows that the level of optimism in mid-August, i.e. after three weeks of the state of exception, was 77.1%, a record level not recorded since 2012. The rate is not entirely surprising as it represents the peak of the celebratory atmosphere over the decisions. The decision to lift MPs’ immunity was the most popular, with absolute support at 87.3% (more than six points above the decision to suspend Parliament). This indicates that the negativity is first and foremost directed at the MPs, not the Parliamentary institution itself. It also confirms the conviction that Parliamentary immunity has become a vehicle for corruption and impunity. From another angle, the lack of democratic culture in society, and hence the connection in the public imaginary between the post-revolution democratic constituent process and the lack of socioeconomic progress, contributed to the population’s limited embrace of the democratic choice and assimilation of its conditions over the past years. In turn, the population became more receptive to the choice of breaking with or turning the page on the past, irrespective of declared intentions and whatever the price may be. Populism found an ideal environment not only to spread, but also to proceed to its most extreme choices with a street that generally wants to punish authority and all its manifestations, not just the traditional political authority but also financial and media authority and even civil society.


Voting trends over the past decade show that most Tunisians do not care about platforms. Or rather, there is no evidence that they care about platforms or voted based on them previously. They favor those who make grandiose promises, far removed from any measurement of performance. Ennahda represented the theme of change or “purging the state” in the 2011 elections. Nidaa Tounis represented the theme of the “prestige of the state” in 2014, and Saied appeared with the theme of “moralizing the state” in 2019. He later exploited this theme to target the governance system from within by continuing to portray himself as distinct from it before launching an assault on the rules of the game. His conflict with his adversaries developed from a struggle for influence following the 2019 elections into a struggle over powers in the Constitutional Court’s absence and then, with the state of exception, into an existential conflict as suspending Parliament was a neutralization of the party elite in power. Though temporary, this neutralization could be perpetuated through constituent choices concerning the constitutional structure or the anticipated electoral law.


It is no wonder that 25 July 2021 was a decisive day in Tunisia’s contemporary political history in general and in the decade-long course of democratic construction in particular. Its events, from the morning to the evening, reflect the depth of the complex crisis in the country. The political crisis is only the tip of the iceberg, under which lie socioeconomic and cultural crises that may be more impactful. Ambiguity still dominates a state of exception declared by an exceptional man, paving the way for an exceptional outcome. Contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben considers a state of exception to be a point of imbalance between public law and political fact, and all indicators suggest that the state of exception is not an intermission preceding a return to the previous constitutional situation but the beginning of a new transitional stage that will result in a different situation. The question remains, how radical will this difference be, and what effects will it have on the future of a nascent and fragile democracy?


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

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