News | Social Movements / Organizing - Economic / Social Policy - Political Parties / Election Analyses - North Africa “Tunisia’s President Will Not Be Able to Respond to Popular Demands”

An interview with Tunisian researcher Mohamed-Dhia Hammami


Mohamed Dhia Hammami

On 25 July 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 second entry in the series, Sofian Philip Naceur spoke to researcher Mohamed-Dhia Hammami about why Kaïs Saïed’s intervention is likely to fail in meeting the people’s aspirations, the impact of Tunisian and international financial institutions on Tunisian politics, and why the parliament cannot be considered the core component of the political system.

Mohamed-Dhia Hammami is a PhD researcher at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

There has been a lot of optimism and hope after 25 July that Kaïs Saïed’s intervention might lead to actual change in Tunisia. Can he facilitate the change people are hoping for?

The direct response to Kaïs Saïed’s announcement was a positive one. Regarding the direct reactions, there were divisions between those who openly supported him, like nationalist parties such as Al Watad or Al Chaab, and those who called it a coup and opposed it, like the Islamist Ennahda Party and Hamma Hammami’s Workers’ Party (formerly the communist PCOT). So even among the Left there is some level of opposition.

Others were sceptical or divided, including the Tunisian Trade Union Federation (UGTT). The UGTT leadership, the executive council, was not able to reach an immediate agreement or decision. Several factors such as internal ideological divisions prevented UGTT from taking a quick position regarding what happened and whether to support it or not. Some UGTT leaders avoid using the word “coup” ever since because they think that this debate is irrelevant and not constructive. Calling it a coup would prevent UGTT from mediating and entering negotiations.

So the immediate reactions were not only about announcing positions of principle, or showing some commitment to formalities, laws, and regulations. Positions came because of rational deliberations. Additionally, we saw positive reactions by many people going to the streets to celebrate on 25 July, especially in urban centres. However, in governorates of the south, in Tataouine for instance, the protests appear to have been not as important as in Tunis. Hence, we should not extrapolate from the reactions we saw in urban centres.

Saïed’s takeover still triggered hope. Can he deliver?

We have to distinguish between elites and masses. Elites, interested in political wins and driven by ideological positions, would like to see either a “correction of the revolutionary path” or a more radical push towards the elimination or eradication of the system from its roots. Others were more interested in getting rid of Ennahda, like Al-Chaab members who are still reproducing the eternal conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and Nasserists.

The masses, however, are not necessarily acting on the basis of a relatively coherent ideological position. Their reaction is an expression of their grievance and suffering. They reacted from their social positionality and how they feel, not due to the failure of the parliament or economic policies.

It is not the parliament who designs the economic policies, and it is not the parliament that implements them or distributes wealth. But that is what people feel and think and what they are being told. Here I am referring to those people who took to the streets on 25 July and called for the dissolution of parliament, attacked Ennahda offices, and expressed their discontent with political parties and what they consider a non-representative parliament. They see it as “the system”. But it is not the system. It is only a proportion of it. In fact, framing Tunisia’s political system as a parliamentary system is an overstatement because the parliament does not draft laws or hold the government accountable. Discussions and deliberations on economic policies are not that serious. In fact, when we look at laws on major economic regulations or the budget, the parliament has absolutely no room to modify them substantially.

But people are being told in the media that the core of the problem is the parliament. I do not think that the parliament represents the main component of the system or is actually even in charge of the design of policies. The parliament does not have any say regarding the loan agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These agreements are signed by the head of the Central Bank and the Minister of Finance. On 25 July, people did not protest in front of the Central Bank, the Ministry of Finance, or the government’s headquarters El Kasbah. We saw people expressing their grievances toward what they think is the root of the problem.

Nevertheless, the level of optimism in Tunisia appears to have skyrocketed. I think most Tunisians were optimistic after 25 July. They were expecting Saïed to take radical measures. In a meeting with representatives of the financial lobby, Saïed said that he does not understand economics. As a constitutional law expert, the only thing he understands is law. Hence, he is acting from an idealist and not a materialistic position. And that is what prevents him from being able to respond to the grievances of the masses that are caused by the deterioration of their materialist situation.

The problem here is that politicians and the media are discussing the political system, laws, the constitution: the supra-structure. But the masses have been acting from their material reality. They are not idealists. What I mean by idealistic is that these masses are not interested in discussions on laws, parties, types of regimes, or political systems. They care about their material situation in the first place.

However, people could see clearly over the past ten years that key demands of the revolution in 2011, such as dignity and an improvement in living conditions, have not been met and that the current system was not able to deliver. So saying that people are only acting from a purely materialistic point of view is a bit of a stretch.

I don’t think so. When I talk about idealism, I am referring to idealism as a current of thought that is opposed to materialism. When talking about materialism, I am referring to living conditions, the economic reality, and the everyday situation of many people shaped by the infrastructure. Kaïs Saïed referred more than once to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was in favour of social justice but he thought that social justice can be achieved by having a representative parliament based on individuals and not corporations and interest groups. It’s not enough.

We also need to raise the question of whether people in Tunisia are really familiar with the constitution, the complexity of the political system, or the activities of the parliament. They are not—they do not know how the parliament functions in reality. They do not know how the division of political work between the different branches of government works in reality. In Tunisia, the executive drafts laws, not the parliament. Additionally, many laws are outsourced to private law firms. It is not the parliament and the political system that led us to the current situation.

Hence, the reason why Saïed and his supporters will fail to respond to popular demands and to the high optimism of Tunisians is their focus on the supra-structure, e.g. laws, regulations, the constitution, procedures, and the form of government. So far, we did not see any measure taken by Saïed towards the key components of the system.

What are the key components of the system?

My research shows that the most central components of the social and economic system in Tunisia are banks and financial institutions. Saïed explicitly said that he does not understand economics. He invited representatives of the Tunisian financial lobby composed of CEOs and the top managers of Tunisian banks to the presidential palace just a few days after his coup, called on them to collaborate and, naively, expected them to reduce interest rates.

What was even more ridiculous, and at the same time revealing, was that one of the representatives of the financial lobby said after the meeting that he would take Saïed’s “recommendations” into consideration. He did not consider this as an order or a request. Saïed is not even trying to signal that he is willing to dismantle the system. He is willing to work with corrupt oligarchs who are concentrating wealth, are directly involved in designing economic policies, and who collaborate directly with the IMF.

This is why I do not think that he will be able to respond to popular demands. As Saïed does not understand economics, his concentration of power will not lead to an improvement of the people’s living conditions. He is in favour of social justice and has good intentions. He is advocating for the poor and the oppressed. But he is an idealist, who focuses on the supra-structure and genuinely believes that this will lead to change.

For Saïed, political parties are a problem. You said in an interview that he regards them as “anti-revolutionary tools of power-grabbing” and “political machines that provide access to power to ‘phony’ candidates”. We are witnessing now the arrests of MPs, but not of businessmen. Could we assume that Saïed is trying to eliminate one of the tools that business elites are using to exert power?

That argument makes sense, yes. But let’s look at the turnover of MPs in Tunisia since 2011. How many MPs succeeded in getting re-elected? The turnover rate is extremely high. MPs are marginal in this system; their systemic power is marginal. Political parties are tools to exercise power and MPs use this tool to access power. Political parties allow access to power for non-elite actors, but they do not guarantee their stabilization within the elite. They do not provide financial capital, or cultural capital, or symbolic capital. They may provide some social capital. Some MPs succeeded in using their ties with businesspeople to get well-paid jobs in the private sector or international institutions after leaving parliament.

Getting rid of MPs will not prevent the emergence of others. Most of today’s MPs were not members of the elite, the old aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, or the intellectual elite before 2019. It would be more accurate to frame them as legislative workers within the capitalist division of labour. They are paid to vote for laws prepared by others.

As for the relatively low salaries of MPs in Tunisia, they do not have the means to be fully functional MPs and to be politically independent from corporate interests. The only power they have is to block a law, to slow down legislative processes, and to push for non-substantial modifications of laws, which were presented by the executive branch of government.

What could Saïed do to actually tackle structural issues?

As the president, Saïed has three prerogatives. He has control over the armed forces including the allocation of resources. It means he could have acted on the rapid expansion of the army and reallocated the funds—for military equipment acquired to improve the interoperability with other armies—elsewhere. He did not do it.

Military courts are not supposed to prosecute civilians, but they have the right to prosecute members of the security forces, including the police. He could have used the military justice to hold the Ministry of Interior accountable. He did not do this either.

He also has control over external affairs. But there is no specification in the constitution about whether external affairs should be considered political or economic or both. Knowing Saïed’s willingness to use the law in his favour, he could have intervened in bilateral and multilateral economic relations, for example in the negotiations with the IMF, the World Bank, or the EU. Those international financial institutions play a big if not the most important role in shaping the economic policies in Tunisia which are directly impacting the living conditions of Tunisians. He could have reduced the margin of manoeuvring of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He could have done that with the Ministry of International Cooperation too. But he did not do this. Additionally, the president has the right to present laws to parliament and they have priority when they are presented to parliament. But he did not do that either.

After 25 July, he could have reactivated already-existing laws about the confiscation of assets of people who benefited from their ties to the Ben Ali family, or confiscated banks that were developed under the Ben Ali regime based on the connection of their owners to the regime, including big players such as BIAT, one of Tunisia’s most powerful banks, owned by Ben Ali’s in-laws. Instead, Saïed insisted that there will be no confiscations. So he is not dismantling the system nor preventing capital flight or pushing for the arrest of corrupt businesspeople.

Can we still assume that we are dealing with someone who is well aware of the political setting, who knows that he has no political base and that he needs a certain level of support either from the streets or from certain institutions such as UGTT or parts of the elites?

Saïed did not act promptly. There was a critical moment when the support for him was at its peak during which he could have done things. But right now, the momentum might have gone. The level of uncertainty is very high, and political elites don’t like uncertainty. You might attract support from more radical currents and activists who are more willing to take risks. But you do not get the support of key institutions like UGTT with this level of uncertainty.

Additionally, Saïed aligned himself with certain non-progressive regimes, e.g. the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Algeria. Even UGTT is complaining about this. More and more organizations and parties are getting sceptical about these alignments. Business elites are also sceptical about Saïed because of his inconsistency. He has sent some positive messages in their direction, but he doesn’t like privatization, and opposes free trade with the EU. He wants to work with them, but they don’t seem interested. Even Western powers do not trust him. He does not have strategic allies, and he is already losing support.

In fact, the current situation does not appear to support any radical change. Neoliberalism is still hegemonic; the Tunisian Left is extremely weak and does not have a coherent narrative. The Left also does not have any alternative to present and there is no critical mass behind them to facilitate a radical change. To put it in Antonio Gramsci’s words: it is too early for the Left to move from the war of position to a war of manoeuvre.