Tunisia's "Coup not Coup" In Conversation with Heythem Guesmi

Publication date:
1:04:25 minutes

About a decade ago, Tunisia was the birthplace of the so-called Arab spring, when Tunisians toppled the decades long dictator Ben Ali, heralding momentous changes across North Africa and beyond. To some extent, the Tunisian experience seems to be an exception in the region, because the country did not descend into the chaos  and violence that have affected its neighboring countries since. 


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However, many argue that the popular aspirations of the Tunisian people have been subverted and their demands for dignity, national sovereignty, and social justice have been sidelined by the same disastrous economic policies that led the people to rise up and revolt in the first place. 

Fast-forward to 25 July 2021. After a day of protests across the country, Tunisia’s president Kais Saied announced that he was invoking article 80 of the 2014 constitution, which allows him to instate a state of emergency, following an imminent threat. He sacked the prime minister, closed the parliament for 30 days, and revoked the immunity of members of parliament and declared himself prosecutor general- all this while being backed by the  military. 

 The reactions were swift, especially from western media and pundits. There were headlines about the collapse of democracy in Tunisia, amid assertions that the coup is channeling the country towards dictatorship and turmoil. Saied has been described as a Trump-like populist, and of being inspired by the Egyptian scenario where Sisi orchestrated a coup after popular mobilisations in 2013, which pushed Egypt into a much worse form of dictatorship. We even saw the re-emergence of some orientalist and racist stereotypes about the region of the like, “maybe Tunisians are not yet fit for democracy after all.”  Yet many in Tunisia were celebrating these developments, seeing them as corrective measures to the revolution and the burgeoning democracy. 

Is this a coup or not, and if so, is it a military reactionary coup, or is it a progressive coup to correct the revolutionary process? Is this a useful question to ask? What are the dangers and opportunities emerging from such developments, and what would a progressive agenda look like in this context? 

Our guest, Heythem Guesmi, is a Tunisian researcher and activist based in Tunis. His focus of work is around agrarian questions and land struggles. He currently works with the North African Food Sovereignty Network. He also hosts a podcast on Tunisian affairs, called The Arrogant Monkey. 

Heythem  is in  conversation with Hamza Hamouchene, the coordinator of our North Africa program at TNI. This conversation is part of a series looking at the Arab Uprisings, a decade afterwards.

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