The last remaining democratic gains of the Arab Spring are under threat, ten years later, in the country where it all began.
With the protection of the army and the police, Tunisia’s president Kais Saied launched a coup last week.
He sacked the prime minister and several top officials, froze parliament, and handed himself a raft of new powers. Perhaps most tellingly of all, he immediately banned all public gatherings of more than three people and imposed night time curfews until the end of August.
The coup is apparently backed by the regimes in Egypt and the UAE—two forces of counter-revolution.
And yet the coup has been successful partly because it tapped the anger of people who made the revolution in 2010. A decade later, many of them now feel betrayed—as Tunisian socialist Jawhar Tounsi explains.
“People don’t feel that parliamentary democracy is delivering anything,” he told Socialist Worker. “There’s been a long-running political crisis. The government was failing economically and the Covid situation has been very bad.
“The parliament is very unpopular and the government is probably at its least popular.”
Saied’s coup came after a day of anti-government protests. They were apparently called by a new group called the July 25 Movement.
This group’s demands—such as the dissolution of parliament, more presidential powers and an investigation into parties that received “illegal” funding—chimed with Saied’s coup.
But in reports from the demonstrations, many protesters had their own demands—unemployment, poverty and police brutality. These had already fuelled a series of protests earlier this year.
Protests in 2010 began among the poor and unemployed in smaller cities and towns, where the rate of joblessness was even higher than the national average of 13 percent.
They soon became a revolt against the regime of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
His free market reforms had impoverished ordinary people, while his police force hit them brutally.
As the revolution spread, it was joined by other sections of Tunisian society, including some of the better-off whose main demands were democratic reforms.
After the revolution overthrew Ben Ali, parts of the movement wanted to end the process with the setting up of a new parliamentary regime.
The revolution stalled without taking on the wider system responsible for poverty in the first place.
The Islamist party Ennahda, banned under Ben Ali, led a new government. But it was faced with an economic crisis and caught between the demands of the rich and poor. Ennahda has been part of every government since Ben Ali’s fall. But the parliamentary regime has been plagued by economic crises, shaky governments, punishing austerity, and outbursts of resistance.
Investors attracted by the poor workers’ rights that existed under Ben Ali’s regime began to pull their money out after his fall.
So Tunisia’s governments have taken three “bailout” loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in ten years. Before the coup, the Ennahda-led government was trying to negotiate a fourth.
Each loan came with strings attached—demands by the IMF that the government “restructure” its economy to benefit private big business.
In other words, at the demand of the IMF, Tunisia’s governments pushed through more of the neoliberal policies that helped to make life miserable under Ben Ali.
Corruption spread and unemployment is now closer to 18 percent—rising to 36 percent among young people. It was all propped up by a police force using violent repression against protests and strikes.
Meanwhile, Tunisia’s economy plunged deeper into crisis—with growing debt on one hand and Covid-battered tourism and manufacturing industries on the other.
To cap it all off, Tunisia has a worse Covid death rate per 100 people than any other country in Africa. Some 18,000 Tunisians have died of Covid.
It has relied on vaccine donations from other countries and has struggled to roll them out efficiently. Just 8 percent of its population are fully vaccinated.
And its health service is breaking. The Tunisian health minister warned in early July “the boat is sinking” as hospitals ran out of beds and oxygen.
All of this led to last week’s coup.
The new regime has been in a long-running crisis, to the point where it could no longer govern.
This crisis played out in a split between Saied, the prime minister Hichem Mechici, and the speaker of parliament, Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi.
Under a constitution adopted in 2014, state powers are supposed to be split between the parliament and the president.
But Saied openly wants more power concentrated in the president’s hands.
In April he insisted, as commander of the army, he should also be in charge of the police and internal security services. That came after he refused to approve a new interior minister—responsible for the police.
Saied coupled this with attacks on the government over its handling of the pandemic. Just days before the coup, he declared that the military would take charge of the health crisis.
He won popular support for all this by dressing it up as a challenge to Tunisia’s failed parliamentary system.
Saied was elected president in 2019 as an independent, without the backing of any political machine. Instead, using his reputation as a professor of constitutional law, he presented his planned reforms as a way of culling corruption and fixing the system.
Jawhar says this had traction among ordinary people still angry at the betrayals of the government long after the revolutionary process ended.
“Up to the coup Saied benefited from relative popularity despite the fact, he hasn’t done anything meaningful for the people. The main thing about him is he is described as someone who is not corrupt.”
“The anger against the regime and the hopes for social justice have been diverted,” he added. “It’s been converted into an anger mainly against the Islamist party, and also the incapacity of parliament to achieve anything for the Tunisians.”
Less forgivably, much of the left in Tunisia—as well as the leadership of the large, hugely powerful UGTT trade union—have also fallen in behind Saied.
After the revolution, most of the organised left put their hopes for change in parliamentary alliances with what they saw as progressive liberals and nationalists against Ennahda.
That failed. Despite large protests against the Ennahda government in 2013, the left’s Popular Front alliance did miserably in elections.
Now many—though not all—of the organisations involved in the Popular Front back Saied against Ennahda instead.
For its part, the UGTT leadership hopes, under Saied, they’ll have more influence at the top of the government and the state.
Yet Saied has his agenda—to rescue the state and end the crisis for Tunisia's ruling classes.
His method for doing that is overturning a democratically elected government and strengthening the army and police in its place.
“Saied gained the support of the ruling class through the coup,” said Jawhar. “The political class is in crisis and he’s offering them a way out. The president is ending a political fight between him and Ennahda with the support of the army.
The anti-democratic forces are very happy. They think that maybe this is an opportunity to solve the crisis of the ruling class and punish the Islamists by taking away democracy.”
That’s why Jawhar says it’s a big mistake for the left to go along with the coup, hoping for a return to some new form of democracy. In reality, it’s likely to lead to further attacks on the left and ordinary people.
“Saied is going to continue the same neoliberal policy,” said Jawhar. “The left think they can get close to the people by supporting the coup. But this is exactly the sort of situation where right wing ideas get traction.
“If you accept stopping democracy now, for the purpose of protecting the state, why wouldn’t Saied continue stopping democracy?
“The forces are clear, they support the coup because they’re against democracy—they will gain traction.”it gradually strengthen its influence.