Opposition hopes democratic ideals can return in Tunisia

As overseas voting begins, voter apathy is palpable and begs the question if the spirit of democracy in Tunisia is dead.

Tunis, Tunisia – “Vote? What elections?” said shop assistant Emna, while taking a break with her friend outside the health food shop she works at.

They look at each other and shake their heads, “how can we have elections when there’s no milk, no butter, no sugar… no money?” Like many Tunisians, Emna sees these elections as a distraction from solving what she sees as the real issue at hand, the country’s ongoing economic crisis.

The lack of enthusiasm on the streets has not dampened the mood of President Kais Saied’s supporters. That enthusiasm is necessary – most of the opposition will be boycotting Saturday’s elections, which will vote in a new parliament after the previous opposition-dominated one was suspended and removed by Saied in July 2021.

The Tunisian opposition sees the elections as the latest step in what they describe as a “coup” carried out by Saied, taking the country back to the dictatorial system it had overthrown in the 2011 revolution, which inspired the Arab Spring uprisings across the region.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Sayida Ounissi, one of the former members of the dissolved parliament, representing the Islamist Ennahdha party, dismisses the politicians backing Saied.

“[They’re] very comfortable with authoritarianism and tyranny, and very uncomfortable with pluralism and democracy,” said Ounissi.

Saied’s moves over the past 18 months, which also involved sacking the government and replacing it with one that supports him, have seen several of Ennadha’s leaders arrested. Its longtime leader, and the former speaker of parliament, Rached Ghannouchi, has been interrogated several times by the country’s counterterrorism unit.

Ghannouchi has dismissed the moves against him and his party as “tyranny” and evidence of what they call Saied’s “coup”, a characterisation the president rejects.

Ounissi described the past year as a “living hell” for Ennahdha supporters. “It feels like the party has been effectively criminalised, we can’t speak,” Ounissi said, before adding that many party members had been “traumatised and afraid”.

“Many [of the Ennahdha party members] would rather live overseas than live in an authoritarian state,” Ounissi said.

While Ounissi believes the next steps involve educating Tunisians further about democracy to entrench it within society, her fellow Ennahdha member, and former Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh believes that the response needs to be more radical.

“Saied has dismantled all the democratic institutions that were built after 2011, we are back to where we were under the dictatorship of [former President Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali,” he said.

Consolidating power

Despite widespread opposition, Saied has been able to push through a new constitution, which changed Tunisia’s political system from a hybrid-parliamentary system to a hyper-presidential one.

The parliament has significantly less power than before the constitutional change, with power entrenched in the hands of the president, with little oversight.

That has been cited as one of the reasons for the lack of interest in the parliamentary elections.

But Saied’s supporters continue to back him. They see his moves as necessary in the fight against what they perceived to be the corrupt political elite who had run Tunisia post-2011. It was Saied’s populist narrative, amid the backdrop of a widespread economic crisis, that won the former law professor the presidency in 2019.

Oussama Aouidit, a member of the Saied-supporting Echaab party, explained to Al Jazeera that, despite the new constitution, the parliamentary vote was still necessary.

“MPs can still propose new laws, the only thing now is that it [the government] will be directly under the president’s control,” Aouidit said.

His enthusiasm wanes when asked about the reception on the campaign trail.

“It’s not door-to-door campaigning because Tunisians aren’t happy with the current situation, they’re not bothered about the elections,” Aouidit said. “They’re waiting for the president’s social-economic recovery plan.”

The opposition is hoping to be able to take the general disenchantment felt by Tunisians and channel it into a return to democracy, as they would see it.

“People are very depressed right now, they’ve suffered a lot,” National Salvation Front leader, 78-year-old Najib Chebbi, told Al Jazeera.

Chebbi said that he remains optimistic about Tunisia’s democratic future. “It’s quite normal for a country in a democratic transition to go through these periods of reversal,” Chebbi said. “It’s very difficult to kill the spirit of democracy. Tunisia is a pluralistic society with diverse opinions and media.”

Chebbi explained that Saied’s success in pushing through his changes to Tunisia’s political system “happened because of the failings of the political class that led us to Saied’s take over”.

“We need to not make those mistakes again, learn and move on.”

Hope from young

What happens after the parliamentary elections will depend on Tunisia’s younger generations.

At a debate on youth and the future of Tunisia’s democracy in the Lafayette district of Tunis on Thursday evening, the room is full of young political activists and politicians, even if everyone on stage speaking was more than 35 years old.

Activist Karim Jelass, aged 26 with the centre-left party Joumhouria sighed. “It’s a statement about the lack of easily identifiable, high-profile young political actors now,” he said.

The 2011 revolution had been a youth-led uprising, but in recent years prominent young activists have left the country and gone into political exile overseas.

For those who remain, the battle is on to keep the post-2011 democratic gains.

“Democracy is in crisis around the world right now, not just in Tunisia,” said Oumaima Ben Abdullah, a 24-year-old medical student and member of the Democratic Current party.

Ben Abdullah points to the still strong civil society movement in the country as evidence that things can improve.

“Young Tunisians are very active in civil society,” she said. “[Things are] very lively in Tunisia.”

Source: Al Jazeera