Food for thoughtMiddle EastPolitics

Tunisia, July the 25th, or the 18th Brumaire of Kaïs Saïd

By Wednesday 8 September 2021 No Comments

By Hassouna Mansouri

Every historical fact contains a rebound mechanism. The recent events in Tunisia illustrate the law of History in the Hegelian meaning as recalled by Karl Marx in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte[1]. July 25th, 2021 seems to be, so to speak, repetition and a continuation of January 14th, 2011. However, one could object that different perspectives view the context differently. Nevertheless, if we analyze the situation more broadly, we would establish that the mechanism underlying the course of the events is quite similar: the society reaches an impasse that strangulates itself. In this paper, I would like to illustrate how the two events repeat the same historical trajectory; Moreover, I will explain how viewing the circumstances in Tunisia from a historical context can re-install the revolutionary process and proceed to its reorientation.

Let’s go back to the dictionary’s definition of the word “rebound” which is the keyword of my reflection. For the first definition, I choose the description from the perspective of the people. The rebound then means “to bounce back after hitting a hard surface”. January 14th, 2011 offered hope for a new democratic and prosperous Tunisia. However, the year progressively changed into a nightmare after the rise of a new parliamentary dictatorship. A branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were called the Ennahdha party, ruled the country for ten years and were accused of being responsible for political assassinations (Chokri Belaïd, February 2013 and Mohamed Brahmi, July 2013) and terrorist attacks during their reign (Bardo museum in march 2015, hotels in Sousse in June 2015). Furthermore, the country’s prosperity parameters all exemplified a rapid decline. As a matter of fact, in this decade, external dept and unemployment reached their highest level ever.

The country reached the bottom of its deepest crises. It could not be worse, and the feeling that it had to end was growing. Under the weight of the suppressed atmosphere, a glimmer of hope appeared in the 2019 presidential election. To everyone’s surprise, Kaïs Saïd, the actual president of Tunisia and a former constitutional law teacher at the University of Tunis, was elected even though he had been an outsider, had no political party, and had no budget for his campaign, contrary to all other candidates. His plan and aspirations were to get rid of the political system installed since 2011 in Tunisia. In fact, one of his main mottos was: “they should leave, all of them!”. To put it simply: After hitting the bottom of the crisis, voices started to rise demanding the parliament’s dissolution.

Let’s now consider the word “rebound” from the opposite perspective; one of the ruling parties in the last decade. In this context, I will refer to another definition of the word according to the same Cambridge Dictionary: “if an action rebounds on you, it does not have the effect you hoped for but has an unpleasant effect on you instead”. Since the 2011 elections, it was clear that the Islamist party Ennahdha, although they were the biggest winner back then, was not welcomed anymore. The party was elected for a one-year term. However, it took three years and many demonstrations to force the party to abdicate its power and to organize new elections in 2014. Its popularity was declining and the party had to join forces with another faction in order to maintain control over the most important institutions: the departments of administration and justice. It was becoming obvious that the alliance did not hold.

In the 2019 elections, the number of its deputies diminished once more. The party had to ally with a couple of other parties in order to form a coalition behind a completely unsuccessful prime minister. The latter was appointed by the president, but after his volte-face, he turned against him and joined the opposite camp. In one year, he put the country, which obviously was never so badly ruled, on its knees. This happened during the covid-19 crisis and confirmed the magnitude of the policy’s failure. Nevertheless, Ennahdha and its allies continued to support him without the slightest hesitation or the smallest amount of criticism. Once again, the party missed the mark and was unable to be on the right side, that of the people. The reaction of the population was unsurprisingly “unpleasant”.

On July 25th, many demonstrations took place in most cities, all of them having one main claim: the dissolution of both the parliament and the government and hence, Ennahdha. Blinded by the obsession with power and having other aspirations than the people, the Islamic party primarily focussed on regional scheming around the situation in Libya to serve hegemonic visions of Turkey and Qatar, the sponsors of the Muslim brotherhood in the world. As a result, the party could not estimate the seriousness of the county’s despair or listen to the roar of the social movement. Yet, it was clear that the party was responsible for the impasse. Activists rushed to its headquarters, but its representatives out, revealed secret/internal documents, and burned banners. The scenes easily resemble those of January 2011 when demonstrators did the same to the former ruling party of Ben Ali.

I started this analysis by referring to what I called the “law of History”. It seems that big changes seem to happen at moments of impasse as a consequence of miscommunication between the ruler and the people around the concept of legitimacy. On the one hand, the ruler claims its legitimacy according to the elections within a so-called democratic process. It doesn’t matter then if this process is frauded. On the other hand, the people consider that there is only one legitimacy, the one that expresses its own and only will. The latter is not always in accordance with the result of the elections, especially when these are deeply manipulated. An official inquiry proved that Ennahdha is guilty of many infractions in the last elections.

Quite the same situation occurred in Egypt’s recent History in 2013 and in Tunisia in 2021. In both countries, the Muslim Brotherhood branches were brought to power without having developed a real and authentic closeness with the people, therefore unable to respond correctly to its claims and incapable to build a faithful relationship between ruler and ruled. As a result, they broke with the principle of representation which is a fundamental principle to democracy’s core. Consequently, they proved to be fake when they stated that they have adapted their religious demagogy with modern democratic values. This originated in a deep miscommunication that led to troubles and rebellions calling for the intervention of a civil peace establisher. General al-Sissi played this role in Egypt and president Saïd did the same in Tunisia. Both of them put an end to the stranglehold of the Muslim brotherhood on their respective societies. However, one could notice a fundamental difference between the two leaders. General al-Sissi is a military man and was not democratically elected, and thus, his action could be recognized as a “coup d’Etat” that lead to the deposit of an elected president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi. The position of the Tunisian president is completely different as he was democratically elected in 2019. Moreover, his initiative intervenes with one of the constitution’s articles.

Article number 80 stipulates that in case of great danger threatening the country, the president is allowed to temporarily take full powers to run the country until the end of the threat. What Kaïs Saïd considers as a big danger can be summarized in a couple of elements: social instability culminating in the riots of July 25th, an unmanageable health situation due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a corrupt political machine paralyzing attempts at reform reflected in the way the parliamentary sittings turned into a daily unpleasant spectacle and how the economy proceeds to worsen day after day and worse, a general institutional dysfunction putting the government and the country out of service.

The response initially contained a few measures that concerned the main institutions: suspending the work of the parliament; sending the head of the government home and lifting the immunity for all people’s representatives and high officers. This last one was especially and highly appreciated by the public opinion because of the impression of predominating general impunity. Many deputies and high officials were involved in corruption cases but impudently not pursued or arrogantly refused to show up in court and collaborate with juridical establishments. Since July 25th, many of them are summoned and others have a travel ban or are in house arrest. This was not the result of any presidential decisions. These were pending cases because of the corrupt system of parliamentary immunity or political manipulation of the juridical processes. It illustrates how the political system was conceived in order to benefit a corrupt elite despite the interests of the people.

In fine, it was obvious that the political elite lost all credibility and hence all legitimacy if the latter is considered from the perspective of the people. As we mentioned above, the dissolution of the parliament was one of the slogans of the 2019 elections. Since then already, the way Kaïs Saïd was sustained shows that the discredited process against the rulers started. What happened on July 25th was as if each one of the people and the president did one step towards the other. The people started the demonstrations and showed how essential their demand for dissolution was. The president had to prove that he listened to the people and he had to seize the moment and margin to improve. According to the president, the margin offered the constitution in a wide and, one has to admit, a not exempt from any criticism interpretation. This explains why some perceived it as illegitimate and called it “coup d’État” and why some recognized it as an interpretation of the constitution and hence, perfectly legitimate. As for me, I prefer to go beyond this opposition between the two references to the legal text. July 25th is a reiteration of January 14th. In a moment of impasse in historical context, constitutional interpretation cannot be sufficient. One needs to refer to “supra-constitutional” arguments to make changes. You can’t make a revolution by obeying laws made by a ruler in order to oppress his people and/or to perpetuate his power. January 14th was the beginning of the revolutionary process, the rebound on July 25th is its rectification. It reminds the clue idea behind any political system: a constitution is made to serve people not to enslave them.

Let’s go back to this day. It’s characterized by three major moments. First, the call for demonstrations that preceded the D-day culminates in a general movement all over the country which exemplified its urgency and how unanimous the call for change was. Second, the moment when the president invited high-security officers to an urgent meeting in the evening and announced exceptional measures according to article 80 of the constitution. I can’t imagine that a lot of people started to think about whether these measures were constitutional, legitimate or contained any legal base. I think, like a lot of others who overrun the streets of all big cities, that the most important thing at that moment was that, finally, something happened after ten years of futile expectations. What really mattered was that a breach was opened in the middle of the impasse which was imposed by the badly made constitution. This feeling appeared in the last moment through the jubilation showed by the people after hearing the president’s announcement. It is this apotheosis that many commentators call “supra constitutional”. It shows how the leader can fuse with his people when he listens and responds to their claims, although that means to go beyond the constitution. On the contrary, others stuck to the constitution because they are blinded and deafened by the obsession with power and by a matter of dogmatic ideology which is not in the best interest of the people.

Al-Sissi in Egypt and Saïd in Tunisia are somehow avatars of Napoleon Bonaparte at the end of the eighteenth century. The 18th Brumaire (1799) was also a rectification of the french revolution (1789). The Egyptian president is the military side of the French general; the Tunisian is his legal part. After the Brumaire 18th, Napoleon continued the process of the revolution. We could argue the same about general Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, who ostensibly claims to respond to the will of the people. Despite that he hadn’t been elected when he grabbed the power, contrary to Kaïs Saïd who, as previously stated, was elected.

To conclude, I would argue that the rebound is the historical mechanism that has the ability to reorient the flow of the change. The last decade in Tunisia cannot be perceived as isolated from the evolution that the country followed since its independence in 1956. The first decennia were dedicated to building the national and independent state. The 23 years under Ben Ali, which ended in the uprising of December 17th, 2010, were somehow the continuation of the same trajectory. However, the last decade marks the beginning of a real change that develops the country towards a state with democracy, as claimed Mohamed Mahjoub, Tunisian philosopher and member of Beit al-Hikma, the Tunisian Academy of Sciences, Letters and Arts. January 14th was an attempt to make a compromise between political Islam and democracy.

Nevertheless, similar to many other countries, the “Arab Spring” started its uprise, starting with Algeria at the end of the 1980s, going through other countries and ending in Tunisia, in July the 25th, the political Islam missed again, and probably forever, the appointment with History. The hope now is that Kaïs Saïd follows Napoleon the 1st and not his nephew, Napoleon the 3rd. The first (1799) contributed to the implantation of the 1789 revolution’s spirit in France. The second (1851) was a parody of his uncle’s spectrum since, reactionary as he was, he restored the former regime by establishing the Second Empire after the “Révolution de février” of 1848. As Karl Marx argues, the first coup was highly prized, although it was seen as a tragedy. The second was depreciated and seen as a farce of History. It is now up to Kaïs Saïd himself to decide how History will remember him and his 18th Brumaire: like the revolutionary Napoleon the great, or like the reactionary “Napoleon le petit”[2].

[1] This idea is mentioned by Karl Marx at the very beginning of his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte written between December 1851 and March 1852 commenting on the “coup d’état” of Louis Bonaparte (also known as Napoleon the 3rd), the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte in December the 2nd, 1851.

[2] So was Napoleon the 3rd called by Victor Hugo in his lampoon which title is precise, “Napoleon le petit” (Brussels, August 1852), Back then, the writer was exiled in Belgium.

Africiné - North African Cinema: Leadership and Specificities

Hassouna Mansouri writes for many newspapers, all over the Maghreb: Le Renouveau (Tunisia), Libération (Morocco) and Liberté (Algeria). He also contributes to film magazines: Septième Art (Tunisia) and de Filmkrant (Netherlands). 

Hassouna Mansouri

Hassouna Mansouri

Hassouna Mansouri is a Dutch film critic and writer born in Tunisia. He graduated in French literature and philosophy at the University of Rouen - France. After working as a teacher of literature and cinema he decided to devote his time to writing. He collaborated on many publications on well-known filmmakers like Pasolini, Truffaut, Fassbinder and Sembene. He published two books on African cinema: De l'Identité ou pour une certaine tendance du cinéma africain (Sahar Editions, Tunis, 2000) and L’Image confisquée (From the South, Amsterdam, 2010). Currently he is a columnist at Eutopia Institute – Amsterdam, and writes for many other newspapers and magazines such as Nation Media Group - Kenia. As a researcher he is interested in cultural studies with a focus on theories of Interpretation and Hybridity. His new book about the Cinema of the South is coming soon: They will not represent themselves...(Africavenir, Berlin).