Outside Tunisia, the president’s sacking of the prime minister and shutdown of parliament looked like a coup. Inside, however, activists and journalists are still struggling to define what is happening to their country – and what to do about it.
“The day after the president acted, we had a conversation in the newsroom about whether it was a coup,” said Thameur Mekki, the editor-in-chief of the influential media platform Nawaat. Other news outlets aired programmes debating the “coup” question, and activist groups started worrying. But then, said Mekki, the president, Kais Saied, personally called leading civil society groups and “gave assurances about their freedom to operate”.
“I don’t know what that is, but it’s not really a coup … People living through a coup don’t get to debate it on television.”
For Mekki, the international approach to looking at Tunisia’s crisis has been lazy. The key context to the power grab, he said, was the dire situation in parliament. The president’s intervention was “risky, he said, “but we couldn’t continue with the parliament as it was. For Tunisians, it was a joke, incapable of respecting even its own laws.”
Allegations against multiple lawmakers are widespread and longstanding. IWatch, the local anti-corruption watchdog, has published a list of MPs subject to outstanding legal action, or who have had prison sentences deferred because of their parliamentary immunity, which Saied has now withdrawn.
On the list was Zouheir Makhlouf, who was photographed by a 19-year-old woman while parked outside a secondary school with his genitals exposed. Makhlouf has denied all subsequent charges, saying he was urinating into a bottle because he has diabetes.
Saied, meanwhile, says he acted under the constitution, which allows the head of state to take unspecified exceptional measures in the event of an “imminent threat”. The president acted after violent protests against Tunisia’s biggest party, the moderate Islamist Ennahda movement.
Al Bawsala, an independent parliamentary watchdog, has backed what it said was the president’s legal right to assume his extraordinary powers under the constitution, but not to suspend parliament. Other leading civil society groups have given the president their cautious support, saying his actions remained within the law but that he urgently needed to present a route out of the crisis.
Still, there have been worrying developments since the president’s move on parliament. A media union, the Syndicat National des Journalistes Tunisiens, (SNJT) reported a marked increase in assaults upon reporters, and protested about a raid on Al Jazeera’s office in Tunis.
Human Rights Watch, writing two days after the president’s intervention, said it was dangerous, while Amnesty, which has a significant presence within Tunisia, urged Saied publicly to commit to protecting citizens’ rights.
Activists in Tunisia bristle at reports of complicity, or indifference, to a crackdown on rights and freedoms. “We haven’t gone anywhere,” one activist, Emna Mizouni, said. “The most [commented on] Facebook page in Tunisia right now is that of the president’s. Whenever something happens, or they go too far, groups call it out.”
Her comments refer to Tunisia’s civil society legacy that produced the Arab spring revolution a decade ago and steered it through another crisis in 2013, with four of its organisations being awarded a Nobel prize. Tunisian activists routinely protest against political corruption, police brutality, unemployment and continuing economic decline.
Activists will be aware that public sentiment falls firmly in Saied’s favour. An opinion poll conducted just days after his move gave 87% support.
Even Ennahda, whose leader, Rached Ghannouchi, was the first to call the intervention a “constitutional coup”, appeared to be rowing back, on Wednesday framing it as “a stage in the democratic transition”.
Still, questions are circling over the president’s promise to limit his suspension of parliament to 30 days. On Tuesday, Tunisia’s powerful UGTT trade union urged Saied to form a new government quickly.
But, for now, suggestions abroad of a return to dictatorship or a loss of appetite for democracy are not being taken seriously in Tunisia. “It’s bullshit,” said Mekki. “It just makes it easier for their readers and harder for Tunisians.”