On July 25, 2021, the eve of Republic Day celebrations, Tunisian President Qais Saied took charge of the executive authority and dissolved the parliament, taking advantage of the Covid pandemic and the country's deteriorating economic situation. Do you think that President Saied has succeeded in achieving his goals?

He only succeeded in increasing polarization within Tunisian society. His actions escalated the social disintegration and political instability that are the root causes of the country’s economic derailment. This volatile political environment has led to a decline in economic growth, in investment and consumption alike, and resulted in increased poverty among fragile groups which also led, eventually, to the collapse of the middle class. Soon people will realize that what they perceived as their salvation is, in reality, their greatest downfall.

President Saied dissolved the parliament and arrested a number of MPs. He then seized control of the country’s election commission and replaced most of its members in a move that will cast doubt on electoral integrity. Saied also dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council and replaced it with an interim one supportive of him. Do you think that such decisions may accelerate the failure of his regime, or will they strengthen his control over the state apparatus?

In effecting his coup, President Saied has followed the well-trodden path of dictatorship. His course of action may temporarily work, but as history teaches us, a coup is usually a recipe for disaster. All the measures he has taken to ensure that his coup will yield “positive” short term results are guaranteed to backfire in the not-so-far future. His gamble will not survive long, especially in this accelerated era of history. And if the dictatorships of the 1950s managed to survive for decades, a dictatorship today can only last for a few years, or sometimes even a few months.

How do you assess the reaction of the Tunisian elites and political parties to the decisions of the president? Has the division of these groups aggravated the situation and contributed to the return of authoritarianism?

There is no opposition coalition in Tunisia today but rather a number of fragmented and ideologically divided parties. There are the centrist parties, the Salvation Front, the old regime party (Ben Ali's orphans party), the Tunisian General Labour Union, and some civil society associations. Nothing brings these varied groups together except the fear of the return of an authoritarian regime. The only option these scattered groups have is to either forget their ideological differences and work in unison to ensure the return of a democracy that would allow them to exist, or to continue operating in a zero-sum and scattered fashion under a dictatorship that their division created. 

The only body that could adjudicate whether Article 80—which the president claims to have acted in accordance with to enact his betrayal to democracy—is the Constitutional Court. Who, in your opinion, was responsible for the stalling of the formation of this Court?

Responsibility falls with all the parties that governed the country after the revolution. When President Beji Caid Essebsi assumed power, he was not too enthusiastic about the presence of a constitutional authority that might hinder his attempts to install his son as his successor. As for the country’s other political actors, either in the opposition or in the government, they were all intimidated by the court, and because everyone wanted a court aligned with their own orientations, Tunisian democracy suffered a tremendous blow. We were dragged into a vicious cycle, and now we are all paying the price. 

At the end of last year, you announced a road map proposal to bring Tunisia out of this crisis. Can you outline your proposed plan?

I suggest that the Tunisian army and the national security apparatus disengage from any association with the president who lost all legitimacy when he executed the coup and announced the fake referendum with its pre-planned outcomes. The disassociation of these two entities with the president will allow the coup d'état to be reversed and will subsequently ensure the trial of the perpetrator and the launch of a rescue plan that entails the following:

  • The return of parliament. 
  • The immediate resignation of Rashid Ghannouchi from his position as head of parliament. This step is necessary to avoid appointing Ghannouchi as head of state in the event of the resignation or exemption of the elected president as the constitution stipulates. No one would want Ghannouchi as president of the country!
  • The appointment of Samira Al-Shawashi, the new president of parliament, as an interim president of the country.
  • The amendment of Tunisian electoral laws to avoid producing an ineffective fragmented parliament, and to ensure the production of a clear majority that can rule with accountability and protect democracy.
  • The legislative and presidential elections should be held according to the constitutional deadlines.
  • A government of national unity should be formed to blend the political expertise present in sovereign ministries with the technical competencies present in service ministries. The government should rule for five years and should immediately embark upon long-delayed radical reforms, particularly the restoration of economic efficiency. Otherwise, it's hell for everyone.

Many human rights organizations say that some of President Saied’s populist speeches, in which he uses vocabulary and concepts popular among the extreme right, promote conspiracy theories and counter the values of democracy and human rights. How do you explain the fact that some of the left-wing forces—in Tunisia and the broader Arab world—have supported his coup? How do you explain this contradiction?

One of the advantages of the increased national political awareness that marks this phase of our history is that people are more able to identify and expose climbers and opportunists in all political spaces whether they are Islamists, democrats, or leftists. Blessed be the adversity that brings out the best and the worst of people and exposes the true colors of men and women.

Many state media platforms in the region—particularly in Egypt, the UAE, and Morocco—are propagating the idea that democracy is not suitable for the Arab peoples. They are citing the current demise of democracy in Tunisia to gloat and prove their point. Do you think that what happened in Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring, will cause other Arab nations to be disillusioned with their dreams of democracy? 

There is no doubt that crushing democracy in the cradle of the Arab Spring is greatly symbolic and will inevitably have a negative effect on the morale of the Arab peoples. People will look at what happened in Tunisia with frustration and disappointment. But the Arab Spring will be renewed in Tunisia and will be launched once again from Tunisia. I honestly believe so. The only question I do not yet have an answer to is: when will this raging volcano erupt?

Your active history in fighting authoritarianism is known to all. Before the revolution, you stood up to the regime of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and as a result, you suffered defamation, close surveillance, arrest on trumped-up charges, and finally, exile. What do you want to say to President Saied’s opposition? 

Unite or disappear.

Finally, how do you see the future of the country?

Looking at the history of Tunisia—and the history of all Arab nations—we realize that the path to liberty is strenuous, uneven, costly, and full of pitfalls. Despite continuous struggles, we have accomplished great achievements. In 1846, we became the first Arab country to officially abolish slavery; in 1861, we wrote the first constitution in the Arab World; in 1929, Tahir al-Haddad—the pioneering Tunisian feminist—published his masterpiece, Muslim Women in Law and Society; in 1956, we achieved our first independence; in 1977, we established The Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights which enabled the surge of civil society; in 2010, the Jasmine Revolution took place; in October 2011, we held the first real elections in the history of the country; and in 2014, we wrote the first participatory constitution created by Tunisian citizens. 

Our march to liberty was not hindered by the coup of 1987, and neither will it be hindered by the coup of 2021. No matter how grave the difficulties we encounter, the march to liberty will overcome them all.  

Abdellatif El Hamamouchi is an investigative journalist and political science researcher from Morocco. He is a member of the Central Office of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights. He writes for The Intercept, Open Democracy, and The New Arab. He is also the author of Moncef Marzouki: His Life and Thought, co-written with Maati Monjib and published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha. Follow him on Twitter: @AHamamouchi.