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An interview with Tunisian activist Nawres Douzi

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Tunisian president Kaïs Saïed. Photo: picture alliance / abaca | Monasse Thierry/ANDBZ/ABACA

On 25July 2021, Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, froze the activities of parliament, and lifted the immunity of its deputies. Saïed’s takeover is considered controversial and unconstitutional by many, but also raised hopes across the country that this intervention might end Tunisia’s long-lasting political gridlock and pave the way for authorities to finally tackle the serious socioeconomic struggle faced by large segments of society.

To follow developments more closely, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s North Africa Office is launching a series of interviews with Tunisian activists, civil society, and academics about the recent events and how things could evolve in the months to come. For the first entry in the series, Sofian Philip Naceur spoke to Tunisian activist Nawres Douzi about why Kaïs Saïed’s intervention is likely to fail in meeting the people’s aspirations, the role of the Ennahda Party, and what left-wing forces could do to regain ground.

After 25 July there has been a lot of optimism and hope that Kaïs Saïed’s intervention might actually lead to an end of the political gridlock and change something, especially for those strata of society whose socioeconomic demands have been effectively ignored in recent years. Can Saïed deliver on what people are hoping for?

Nawres Douzi was previously active in the students’ union UGET and political campaigns such as Hasebhom and Fech Nestanew.

I think that he won’t be able to deliver because the aspirations of the people who went out to protest on 25 July are not purely political, but rather socioeconomic. However, Saïed does not have an economic programme. He will not be able to deliver on that, even if he intends to. People will be disappointed by him sooner or later.

Many people want an end of the regime of the Ennahda Party, but this is a highly aspirational goal. It is nevertheless a good thing to have someone in charge who protests and counters Ennahda and shook their regime. This is what made many people celebrate on 25 July. But the main reason why people are now satisfied is how Saïed dealt with the coronavirus pandemic. The vaccination campaign has been done in a well-organized manner since he took over.

But the protests on 25 July and the political and socioeconomic frustration in Tunisia is not only directed against Ennahda. It’s more complicated.

No, it’s not. But this frustration surfaced indeed as a political issue on 25 July. People have been protesting socioeconomic matters for a long time. Even the 2011 revolution was based on the socioeconomic front, as the main slogan of the revolution—“work, freedom, national dignity”—shows. Even though people have demanded political liberties and freedoms, socioeconomic demands have been the pillar of the revolution.

Now, ten years later, Saïed intervened [at] the right moment because people have had enough. Ten years of Ennahda’s rule resulted in two political assassinations [the assassinations of Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013], a failure on the economic level, and a failure on the political front. We had similar political blockades when President Béji Caïd Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed were in charge. It was Ennahda that blocked the formation of a government led by Habib Jemli in early 2020 and it was Ennahda that blocked the government of Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh in spring 2020. We have had these blockades of the political system with almost every government since 2011, they have all been blocked by someone.

Additionally, the people had the opportunity for years to evaluate the semi-presidential and semi-parliamentary system in which everyone is ruling, but no one is ruling at the same time. When we wanted to have someone responsible for all the misery, there was no one to blame. Ennahda was always saying that they are not ruling alone. When you blame the president, he said that he does not have much power as the constitution limits the power of the presidency. When you blame the prime minister, he said that parliament is not coherent with what he wants to do. These institutional flaws fuelled the frustration, but the only party constantly involved in the government was Ennahda.

You said Saïed doesn’t have an economic programme. He still tries to tackle socioeconomic issues on a symbolic level, like when he offered a reconciliation to businessmen and that the state will forgive their crimes when they invest in Tunisia’s marginalized regions.

We do not need or want symbolic actions, we need real actions. Actions that clearly tackle the economic situation. We already had a reconciliation act in 2016–2017. There was also no kind of punishment involved in the initiative.

If wealthy businessmen are building their fortune on tax evasion and the misery of others while not respecting the law, I cannot reconciliate with them. First, they should pay their debts and then we can negotiate. But the president just told them that they are free. We are opposing this kind of reconciliation that makes the state forgive their crimes if they build a factory somewhere. They should be punished and pay their debts and only then can we start negotiating conditions for them to avoid being imprisoned. I don’t have a desire to imprison these people, but they should be punished for what they did. If there is any kind of negotiations between the state and these businessmen, it has to be done in a court of law.

But what is the sake of this when you have a lot of coffee shop and restaurant owners right now who are in jail or face charges because they went bankrupt during COVID-19? Why have a reconciliation with corrupted businessmen who did not pay their taxes and benefited from all former regimes for financial gains, and now have a reconciliation act with them and not have something similar with people who went bankrupt due to the pandemic? The state did not help these people, there was no support. At least give them the chance to reopen and repay their debts.

Saïed appears to take his promises regarding corruption seriously. He did not tackle economic and structural issues yet, but advocates for a certain kind of justice. Will he maintain support like this for a long time?

I don’t think so. He only promised to intervene for 30 days, but so far he did not do anything. He will ask for an extension of course, but it is only a question of time until he will do something wrong. Having one man holding executive, legislative, and judicial powers and not having a lawful judicial structure that could actually control his actions is scary. I am also not fully convinced that Ennahda can be overthrown democratically.

At the same time, Saïed appears to not have a very strong programme, cabinet, or staff that will advise him to do the right thing. It is worrying that he did not do anything yet. Additionally, I assume that Ennahda will reshuffle its own cards from the inside. For now, everyone opposes Rached Ghannouchi [Ennahda party leader and speaker of Tunisia’s parliament], even within Ennahda. I believe that Ennahda will replace Ghannouchi soon by someone who will look more moderate, which will make Saïed negotiate with Ennahda again.

You said Ennahda cannot be overthrown democratically. Ennahda is indeed the most stable political force since 2011 and the party was part of almost every government, although they lost significant voter support over the years.

But they are still the major power.

Yes. But they lost a lot of ground and have been heavily weakened within the democratic system because they could not deliver what they promised. More and more people do not believe them anymore and consider them responsible for what went wrong. Isn’t this forcing them to adapt?

In 2011, people really believed in them. Ennahda had real supporters and sympathizers. In 2014, their whole election campaign was based on the promise of not forming a coalition with figures from the old regime. But they did nothing but forming a coalition with figures from the old regime. They lost a lot of support back then.

The same happened again in 2019 when Ennahda promised in the election campaign to not align itself with Nabil Karoui’s Qalb Tounes Party and the Salafist Al-Karama Alliance. But right after the vote, Ennahda aligned itself with both. They did not keep the promises they made to their own voter base. The latest setback for Ghannouchi was when he called supporters to stage a sit-in to protest Saïed’s takeover. But people did not show up.

Saïed also aims to reform the political system and transfer power from the parliament to the regions. Will he actually try to do this?

He will try, but not this time. I do not believe that Saïed is powerful enough. He is supported by the people for what he has done against Ennahda, but his programme is purely political. That is the only promise he made.

It’s good to have this kind of vision, but this is not the democracy we want. We want a parliament for sure, but I also want to be able to control that parliament and to charge that parliament when it does something wrong. People become MPs because people voted for them based on their programmes and based on their demands, so MPs need to reflect on these demands.

Additionally, we cannot speak about democracy when we are facing these large amounts of money being spent by political parties. We cannot talk about equity in electoral campaigns when someone is spending a million dinar while others are spending 20 million dinar. This is not equitable and it will certainly reflect on election results.

At the same time, not prosecuting electoral crimes is a real problem. Authorities said in 2019 that Ennahda had a huge influx of foreign funds, which is deemed an electoral crime. Not holding Ennahda responsible for this is a danger to Tunisia’s democracy.

Saïed promised to reform the political system and indicated after his takeover that he intends to include civil society stakeholders in the drafting of a roadmap.

Some civil society organizations such as LTDH or UGTT said that a civil society unit should monitor and control the president right now and remind him of respecting the law, including civil and collective liberties and freedoms. This kind of monitoring unit is civil and it is symbolic, but it is not covered by the constitution and therefore not legal. However, this kind of pressure is good.

Is Saïed listening to civil society? Is he serious in including civil society in the process?

Yes, he is. The fact that he invited key civil society actors to Carthage Palace and spoke to them is a sign of goodwill. I believe that he is not negotiating or taking their advice, but he is consulting with them. That is good so far. On the other hand, he did not do anything until now. Having some MPs arrested is not much. This is not what we want. Many MPs have been charged and even sentenced by courts and they should face judicial procedures.

Left-wing forces are divided right now on how to position themselves. They also failed to develop a counter-narrative that reflects the people’s demands and could adequately tackle socioeconomic and political issues. How could this gap be filled?

That isn’t an easy task. I identify myself as a leftist but there is no [longer a] political party or politician who actually represents me. I have been involved in party campaigns as a volunteer, but today I see a discrepancy in how leftist parties are exercising politics. Their approach damaged the perception of the Left—a Left the country and the people need.

The Left was the third force in the political scene in Tunisia. The problems and disputes within the Left from the 1980s resurfaced in 2019 in a hysterical and stupid way—some of these parties had the same fights already in the 1970s and 1980s. Having the same fights again and again is depressing and stupid at the same time, and actually the result was that we all lost.

The Left must clean itself of the opportunists and unite on the basis of a programme that is loyal to political views of the leftist family. What unites us is much more than what divides us, yet the left-wing family refuses to unite. One must learn the lessons from what happened, and not seize every opportunity to raise a conflict and push for further divisions.

Is this due to partisan hierarchies?

The Left has been led by the same figures for years, this is a big problem. People in the streets consider certain leftist leaders as part of the system, although they have been in opposition since they were born, because they belong to the collective memory of the Tunisian people. They should hand over their responsibilities to the youth, transfer responsibilities to new and young people who come from different contexts, and advocate by different mechanisms and different ways regarding how to exercise politics. We live in 2021 after all.

One can understand their stances especially for those who witnessed Ben Ali’s coup over Habib Bourguiba, but the current situation unfortunately differs by all means and it needs a different “lens” to analyse it, a different discourse to tackle it, and new figures to defend it. Whether what Kaïs Saïed did is a “coup” or not, it is still a shame that those young people who consider themselves leftists do not find themselves represented in these leftist parties. It’s a waste. All these different leftist forces gathered together could achieve a lot of things in Tunisia. But they are not able to regroup themselves and find a way to work together. What is holding leftist parties back to negotiate? Yes, their political views differ a lot, but at least develop a joint political programme you can all agree upon.

A strong alliance, such as a strong Popular Front that we had back in 2014, could be a major force for those people who refuse Kaïs Saïed, Abir Moussi [leader of the Free Destourian Party], and Ennahda altogether, but at the same time fight for a socioeconomic and political programme that reflects key demands of the people. I do not agree that much with their stances on Saïed’s takeover, but at the same time I can agree on their socioeconomic programme that is calling for social justice and equality. It’s okay that we cannot agree on everything, but we can still work together.