My Country Has Been a Dictatorship Before. We Can’t Go Back

Soldiers stood by in Tunis after President Kais Saied of Tunisia dismissed the government and froze Parliament this week. Credit EPA, via Shutterstock
Soldiers stood by in Tunis after President Kais Saied of Tunisia dismissed the government and froze Parliament this week. Credit EPA, via Shutterstock

On the morning of July 26, my colleagues and I — all of us democratically elected members of Parliament — found the Parliament building in downtown Tunis surrounded by army tanks and our access blocked on the orders of President Kais Saied.

In a televised speech the night before, Mr. Saied announced a host of measures, the most startling of which was suspending the work of the elected legislature. He stripped members of Parliament of their parliamentary immunity, sacked the prime minister and consolidated judicial and executive power in his hands. By doing so, Mr. Saied is seeking to overturn the results of an entire decade’s hard work by Tunisians who have fought for democratic reforms. I believe his actions are unconstitutional and threaten Tunisia’s democracy.

I held a sit-in in front of the Parliament building but ultimately decided to leave and urged others to do so because I was worried about any potential confrontation that could result in bloodshed. Nearly a week has gone by and we are still at an impasse. As leader of the largest party in Parliament, I’m writing this in the hopes of finding a way out of this crisis.

Tunisians’ dissatisfaction with the political leadership’s performance is legitimate. In recent weeks, the country has seen a dangerous rise in Covid-19 cases and deaths as the health system struggled to respond effectively to the crisis. We were also faced with a difficult economic situation and a protracted political crisis.

More than a decade ago, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor, set himself on fire and became the catalyst for the Arab Spring protests. Here in Tunisia, his actions helped bring about the end of over five decades of dictatorship, which were marked by endemic corruption, repression of dissent and economic underdevelopment. Today’s unrest is not a quest for freedom, but dissatisfaction over economic progress.

We vowed to never forget what Mr. Bouazizi and thousands of Tunisians of all political persuasions struggled for. We sought to draft a new constitution enshrining the rule of law and separation of powers; to build new institutions to protect individual and collective freedoms; and, above all, we committed to respecting the ballot box. Tunisia’s Constitution of 2014 was hailed as one of the most progressive in the Arab world. But today, it is being ripped up by Mr. Saied.

Mr. Saied said his actions were taken in order to return social peace to the country. He also said his measures are temporary. On the contrary, these decisions follow the playbook for establishing a dictatorial regime. He cited Article 80 of the Constitution, which allows him to take extraordinary measures if there is “imminent danger” threatening the nation. But Article 80 also stipulates that he must consult the prime minister and the speaker of the Parliament before doing so, and that Parliament must be in a state of continuous session to oversee the president’s actions during this period. By suspending Parliament, he has made impossible the condition under which the article can be invoked.

The president’s moves tear up the system of separation of powers based on checks and balances that have been put in place by the Tunisian people and their elected representatives.

Some political opponents are attempting to justify these anti-constitutional measures by resurrecting ideological differences between so-called secularists and Islamists. Neither label neatly fits the two sides. We consider our party, Ennahda, a Muslim democrat party, but what is being targeted here is not any specific political party but Tunisian democracy as a whole.

This attempted coup against the Constitution and the democratic revolution is an assault on our democratic values. Such moves must be met with clear and strong condemnation by the international community. Tunisia is the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring and continues to be, for many Arabs, a source of hope in their pursuit of democracy.

Tunisia has had its fair share of problems. We have faced the colossal task of building a new democratic system while facing deeply entrenched structural social and economic crises. We have struggled with an electoral law that produces a fragmented Parliament and requires the formation of coalition governments. Our progress in building democracy, implementing social and economic reforms and fighting the pandemic have been slow. But these crises are no justification for tearing up the Constitution and endangering the entire democratic system.

One-man rule is not the solution to our country’s economic problems. Dictatorship invariably leads to increased corruption, cronyism, violations of individual rights and inequalities.

I sincerely hope that Mr. Saied will reverse his decisions. There are several constructive steps he can take right now, and Tunisia’s Western and regional allies should support him in taking those steps.

Parliament must be allowed to function in order to vote in a new government and embark on bold economic reforms to address the pandemic and unemployment. I hope that Mr. Saied will embark on a national dialogue to find the best way out of this impasse.

We must build on what we have achieved, rather than throwing out democracy. We have seen in the past how gathering all powers in the hands of a single person led our country to plummet into the darkness and despair of dictatorship. Tunisia has overcome its problems through national dialogue in the past, and we are capable of doing it again.

Rached Ghannouchi was elected as the speaker of Parliament in Tunisia in 2019. He is a founder and the leader of the Ennahda party.

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