On 25 July 2021, President Kais Saied suspended the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, the Tunisia Parliament. A 1-month curfew was instituted in Tunisia, banning public movement from 7 pm to 6 am, and gatherings of more than three people at a time. He invoked Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution, which gives the President Emergency powers.
Protesters have called this move by Saied a coup, destroying Tunisian democracy, which has only really existed for 10 years. Saied insists that he had acted within his constitutional mandate, and was trying to maintain order. This move follows mass demonstrations and police suppression that has lasted since the beginning of the year.
2021 also marks a decade from the beginning of the Arab spring. The Arab Spring started in Tunisia. Tunisia is considered one of its success stories, where a dictatorship was successfully overturned and a lasting democracy came to be. These protests have brought this into question. The discontent of protesters and the use of emergency powers to suspend the parliament have exposed weaknesses.
Although the country has technically been a democracy, the major fear of the people of Tunisia is that from independence to the Arab Spring, Tunisia has had only two presidents, each lasting decades. The second came to power in a coup where the Prime Minister deemed the former President incompetent.
Tunisia before the Arab Spring
Tunisia was a French protectorate. When it became independent, in 1956, it transitioned into a republic by 1959. The first, and for a long time only, President Habib Bourguiba, ruled the country for nearly 30 years. He was part of the independence movements, and had won every election he stood for.
In 1987, Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali declared Habib Bourguiba as medically incompetent and instituted himself as the President. Critics of Ben Ali have called this action a bloodless coup. He had won every Presidential election until 2011, though these elections have been subject to suspicion.
Ben Ali’s rule in Tunisia has been associated with Tunisia’s neo-liberal turn, where public amenities were defunded, and pro-market reforms were instituted. Associated with Ben Ali’s rule are the growth of inequality, corruption in the public sector, and growing frustration with the state.
The Fire that began the Arab Spring
In December 2020, in Tunisia, police confiscated the cart of a local vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi. Police insisted that he did not have a permit to sell, but Bouazizi insisted that the police wanted a bribe. He was ignored when he tried to complain. On 17 December 2010, Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest against corruption in the country and died a few weeks later. News of his story spread through social media, prompting protests in the streets by people who demanded an end to Ben Ali’s rule. The protests were leaderless and spontaneous and became a new paradigm of resistance. Similar movements took place all over the Middle East, leading to what is now called, the Arab Spring.
Tunisians protest outside the gates to the French Embassy in Tunis. Arab Spring began in Tunisia when a fruit vendor set himself on fire in protest in front of a government building.
Since the Arab Spring
The fall of Ben Ali portrays Tunisia as one of the success stories of the Arab Spring. Unlike other countries, Tunisia did not fall back into dictatorship or civil unrest as seen in other countries. Ben Ali’s enemies were returning and contesting in elections.
In October 2011, Tunisia held its first elections, and the new government drafted a new constitution. However, the direction was never clear. Both secular and conservative religious movements grew. In 2013, Chokri Belaid, a popular secular politician, was murdered by religious fundamentalist forces. Problems of sectarianism, state repression of peaceful protests, and corruption remained in Tunisia, leading to cynicism in the country.
Covid In Tunisia
Tunisia was one of the worst-hit countries in North Africa to be hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. This was true both economically and in terms of human life. Nearly 20,000 people have died due to Covid, in a country with a population of 1.1 Crore. Nearly a third of the population is unemployed. Like with many other countries, Covid has created a situation where hospitals are overcrowded and public life has become more policed, leading to frustration with the state.
In January 2021, after a video of a shepherd being harassed by the police circulated, protests began anew. The video showed the shepherd being pushed and yelled at for letting his sheep go too close to a government building. The protests focused on issues of corruption, police brutality, and unemployment. The state forbade protests because of the Covid Pandemic, leading to confrontations between the protesters and police.
Protests continued in great numbers despite the police crackdown. Over time, the protesters also began speaking out against growing religious fundamentalism in the country.
Following the declaration of the emergency
Saied, whom the Protesters accused of planning a coup against their democracy, have pointed out that he has had good relationships with fundamentalists groups. Supporters of Saied believe that such methods are still within the Constitutional mandate, and are needed to tackle corruption and build the economy. They deny that Saied will turn Tunisia into a dictatorship.