Tunisia: On Moments of Political Uncertainty and Attempts to Negotiate the Meaning of Democracy

What is dangerous is not the uncertainty; it is the desire to not speak to those with varying opinions that is dangerous.

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Tunis: On the evening of July 25, 2021, a large crowd gathered, cheering, singing, and waving large Tunisian flags with pride on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in downtown Tunis. Earlier in the evening, President Kais Saied had made a televised announcement that he was sacking Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, suspending parliament for 30 days, and removing immunity from ministers.

There was joy to this impromptu gathering and everyone around was euphoric; there were cars honking and fireworks. At the same time, social media began to fill up with scepticism about what we were witnessing; many were calling it a coup d’état. The president was concentrating the power into his hands – the comments read.

There was no doubt that what we were witnessing was a major event in the political landscape of Tunisia. It was the 64th anniversary of the proclamation of the Tunisian republic and, back in January, Tunisia had celebrated its 10-year anniversary since the removal of an authoritarian regime through mass protests that came to be termed as “Arab Spring” in international media.

Avenue Habib Bourguiba was the very site where a mass protest against the Mechichi regime had been called in the morning of July 25, 2021; the intense police barricading of the site as well as the rest of Tunis meant that the protest was not held only at this site. Mechichi, who had been designated the prime minister by the president a year ago, had come to be seen as incompetent in the face of economic and health crisis in Tunisia, and as someone who supported the use of security forces against protesters. In the evening, the avenue was filled with a cheering crowd whose main demands seemed to have been fulfilled.

Avenue Habib Bourguiba on the evening of July 25, 2021. Photo: Shreya Parikh.

Between the joy and scepticism that the events of July 25 had generated, there seemed to be no reconciliation. These two emotions came to be linked to two political ideologies: one is a secularist ideology and agrees with the president’s decision, while the other one calls it a coup and sides with the Islamist Ennahda party which had come under attack through suspension of parliament by the president (Ennahda has the largest presence in the parliament of all parties in Tunisia).

I had known this binary framing of politics in India as well – either one is a secularist and votes for the Congress or one is a Hindu nationalist and votes for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

To choose neither of the two political ideologies meant that we were choosing uncertainty. To sit with both the emotions at the same time, to live in this unnamed sense of time, was choosing uncertainty. To choose uncertainty over the certainty of the presented binaries of ideology was itself a political act of resistance.

Also read: Explained: Tunisia’s Political Crisis and What It Means for the Nascent Democracy

The contested uncertainty

In the coming days, the uncertainty settles in, deeper. Life returns to its rhythm of normal, but uncertainty lingers like a cloud. Over the radios, in the cafes, on the streets, over social media – everyone is talking, debating, discussing. Everyone seems to have an opinion. Opinions are presented, defended, sometimes changed. This sharing of opinions is a conversation.

The uncertainty is a gap that creates space for a conversation.

The contestation over naming this historical moment in the present, over interpreting it, and projecting what this moment would lead to, can itself be seen as a democratic act as long as the contestation gives equal space to varied groups to debate. In these conversations, there is an attempt by everyone to understand and negotiate the meaning of democracy itself; a democratic conversation of what democracy is and could be.

What is dangerous is not the uncertainty; it is the desire to not speak to those with varying opinions that is dangerous. This uncertainty brought people to talk.

When uncertainty gets appropriated

There are no objective narratives of events, and the naming of an event – as a coup or as a moment of democratic transition. This represents a subjective position taken either by the individual or the group in question. The position itself reveals what might be at stake for the group.

In the midst of this conversation that I am witnessing among my Tunisian comrades, there was a sudden appropriation of the conversation by the so-called “MENA experts” (MENA as in Middle East and North Africa), usually scholars or journalists, many among them in privileged socio-economic positions. As Tunisian scholar Mohamed-Salah Omri writes, “Tunisia has been a living, social and political laboratory on which to test ideas, build careers and promote profiles across the spectrum of disciplines and ideologies,” especially since the 2011 revolution. Tweets or journalistic pieces from these “experts” feel like a violent gaze, with an assumption that us, the “third world,” could never really do democracy right.

For example, a piece written by Shadi Hamid from Brookings Institute criticises the Biden administration for not “doing enough to thwart a coup in Tunisia”. The trope of the United States bringing democracy to the Middle East is omnipresent in this piece, like in many others published in the US and the UK media; a criticism of the governance of Tunisia as undemocratic is made not in a way that seeks a conversation with those on the ground. The solution to the constructed “problem” is instead present top-down. The United States knows how to do democracy, and we should listen to them for our own good – this, we are told again and again.

The position of objectivity is assumed by these so-called experts, and it is this assumption that makes their interpretation of the events dangerous. For example, some of these “experts” have gone to the extent of calling for a vaccine ban on Tunisia if the “coup” is not reversed. This is at a time when Tunisia is experiencing an increase in COVID-related infections and deaths. This assumption implies that a certain version of democracy needs to be put in place even at the cost of pandemic-related deaths.

Avenue Habib Bourguiba on the evening of July 25, 2021. Photo: Shreya Parikh.

The fixation over calling the events on July 25, 2021 a coup or not follows the long tradition of reproducing “fetishized binaries of Islamist versus secularist, modernist versus traditionalist, and democrat versus anti-democrat”, as Ouiem Chettaoui notes. What this fixation overlooks is that the event does not exist on its own; rather, it lies in the context of long-existing structural inequalities made worse in the face of the pandemic, increasing police brutality, and a sense of loss of agency.

Also read: From Farmers’ Stir in India to Tunisian Protests, It Is a Story of Masses Left Behind

Towards a space of solidarity

Assumptions that someone should be excluded from local conversations because they are not Indian or Tunisian, or that they lack legitimacy because they are from the outside, can be dangerous as well. For example, scholar Audrey Truschke who works on South Asian history and who has been active in calling out the Hindutva nationalist nature of the Modi government has been attacked on the grounds that she is not Indian. Discourses about the violence of colonial and imperial gaze have also been appropriated by right-wing groups in India to delegitimise any criticism of Hindutva politics made by a non-Indian individual.

I have often wondered if there can indeed be a political conversation between those who are in the global North and those in the global South as equals, especially when the conversation concerns the global South. During a recent conversation, a friend from Norway suggested that “maybe we should think of doing no harm,” instead of looking for ways to “do good” from the position of privilege. This would require a reflection on the positionality of the power and privilege linked to one’s position in the world.

Maybe the “experts” can start by examining how their own position and the position of their home countries produces harm in the Middle East and North Africa region. Maybe we can all embrace the position of uncertainty and the doubt it creates, and sit together and talk as equals.

Shreya Parikh is a sociologist studying race, religion and secularism in France. She speaks Gujarati, Hindi-Urdu, French and Arabic. She tweets @shreya_parikh