New Political Groups Seize July 25 as Launching Pad

Demonstrators supporting President Kais Saied in Tunis on October 3, 2021. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

New political groupings, parties, and movements have launched or gained prominence in the wake of President Kais Saied’s decision on July 25 to suspend Parliament, dismiss the previous government, and concentrate powers under the presidency. Meshkal/Nawaat spoke with members or representatives of several of these groups shortly after July 25; they said that the president’s decisions created a new political environment with new conditions ripe for making the changes they want to see. All of them strongly criticized or denounced the political system ante July 25 as undemocratic.

Some of these groups uncritically support President Kais Saied while others have expressed criticism of him. Given that President Saied does not have a political party or an organization officially linked to him and his political project, several groups claiming to support him have been gaining press attention to determine, as Nawaat asked of Saied during his 2019 electoral campaign, their political identity.

High Council of the Youth of the July 25 Movement

One very loosely organized group that quickly and uncritically supported the President’s July 25 decisions is one calling itself the High Council of the Youth of the July 25 Movement. By August 7 they had organized a press conference with more than a dozen speakers and booked a conference room at Hotel Africa in Tunis to announce demands and positions.

“They say that the road to democracy is by going back to Parliament. Which democracy are they talking about? The democracy of the past ten years? The democracy of impoverishment? The democracy of the minority because the majority lives in extreme poverty and the minority represents the people?” said Khairi Saidia a 26-year old, an unemployed Arabic lecturer who spoke up at the August 7 press conference but did not sit among the panelists. “I represent you…I take your wealth. This is the Parliament in their mind.”

For Saidia, President Saied made changes that affected daily life within days of his taking full executive powers.

“Simply implementing some decrees and laws a number of commercial sectors and wider entities have decreased prices.  The Tunisian market has been replenished with vegetable oil,” Saidia said, adding that taxis were also inspired to take people to vaccination centers for free as the vaccination program ramped up quickly.

The so-called “Council” is not an officially registered group and one speaker on stage at their press conference who did not identify herself explained that they had not formally structured themselves. She explained that they were a loose grouping who met each other through Facebook & social media groups.

Others dismiss the “Council’s” right to use the title of “High Council of the Youth.”

“I think the Higher Council for Youth is a mere name because the Higher Council for Youth is a Tunisian State project that hasn’t seen the light until now. There has to be  laws and legislation that will govern the Higher Council for Youth, who will be speaking about youth and who will declare themselves to be the Higher Council for youth,” said Nejd Khalfaoui, the executive director of a pro-Saied political party called Al Chaab Yourid [The People Want].

Unemployed University Graduates

While the “Council “speakers appeared to be a diverse group with both old and young and representatives of smaller civil society groups, many of those who spoke under the banner of the council were university graduates who have been unemployed for more than ten years. This group said they support Saied because they think he will implement laws which expand public sector recruitment for university graduates who have been unemployed for more than 10 years (although some of these laws have plenty of criteria for eligibility).

Rahma Kaabia spoke at the press conference and identified herself as a regional representative in Manouba of a group calling for public recruitment of university graduates.

“Our national Facebook coordination, we began our work at the end of 2019. Our first mobilization was with President Kais Saied two months after he became president in November in front of his house in Mnihla. He told us he can’t give us any promises until we get to this day, which we are in today. God willing, the President will implement our law, that he engages with it in a serious way,” Kaabia said.

Kaabia advocated for more investment into public research so that those with higher degrees can contribute to solving some of Tunisia’s problems, a sentiment supported by Sarra Bargaoui, another higher degree holder unemployed for more than ten years.

“Our demands first, are work, and, second we want to build with him; we want to fix things with him. We as youth are all competent; we can build this country and fix it.  We are more important than the class that is now in Parliament, God only knows who they are,” Bargaoui told Meshkal/Nawaat on the sidelines of the “Council’s” press conference.

Asked what they would do if President Saied didn’t respond to their demands, Bargaoui said this was “impossible, because this is the most important demand.”

“If he doesn’t respond to the demands of youth for job, work and dignity, I cannot imagine that.  We have confidence in him God Willing,” she added.

But this trust has also been backed up with action. On September 30, university graduates unemployed for more than ten years held a sit-in in front of President Kais Saied’s office at Carthage Palace, calling on him to implement law 38-2020 (complementary to law 27-2020) to recruit them.

The People Want Party

While Saied has been critical of political parties, one party that explicitly links themselves to him is the Al Chaab Yourid [The People Want] party. “The People Want” is a slogan of the 2011 revolution that President Kais Saied has invoked regularly as one of his guiding political principles. The party claims to be made up of former Saied campaign volunteers and was founded on January 14, 2020 after initial discussions from 2019, according to its website.

For the party’s executive director, Nejd Khalfaoui, Saied’s July 25 decisions fulfilled demands they had been making “calling for the departure of all this political class.”

“All the decisions taken by the President in this context, particularly suspending the parliament, we have endorsed, as even before July 25, the people wanted, voiced the need for the departure of the political class—all of it—because it does not represent the Tunisian people and is not responsive to their needs or desires or aspirations for political, economic and social stability,” Khalfaoui told Meshkal/Nawaat by phone.

Despite this support for the President, there are some points of divergence between the party and the President. In March, Khalfaoui had fiercely criticized President Saied’s most visible advisor Nadia Akacha in a press conference. Even more striking, Khalfaoui said that they “fear that the Tunisian people will be let down badly, in the absence of a clear road map, in the absence of clear trust, in the absence of a clear government, and while all the powers are in the hands of one man, the President.” Khalfaoui’s statements to Meshkal/Nawaat were made before Saied named a new Prime Minister and government on October 11.

“We are with the wishes of the people and with the happiness of the people that was expressed particularly because of the end of Parliament. That is their right. Today the Tunisian people are saying that we are tired, that we are fed up; we want change,” Khalfaoui said. “But the Tunisian people must have sufficient guarantees. We do not change for the sake of change or to raise some slogans; the Tunisian people should not be let down and disappointed.”

Another potential point of divergence with President Saied? Khalfaoui told Meshkal/Nawaat that “The People Want” party wants early presidential and legislative elections—something the President has so far not indicated he will do. Asked about Saied supporters who have called for the dissolution of Parliament entirely, Khalfaoui responded: “What percentage of the people [want this]? Who determines this percentage? Today if you have a referendum, why not? We can go for a referendum to change the regime,” but added that his party will be ready to stand for elections in a legislative election.

Meshkal/Nawaat also asked Khalfaoui why they started a political party when President Saied and many Tunisians have been critical of political parties in general.

“We are for political organization but with a new political class,” Khalfaoui responded. “Today it is necessary for political parties like Ennahda and others to give the opportunity for youth to be in the lead positions. Enough of the old faces that have been recycled and recycled and recycled for over 10 years after the revolution.”

As of mid-September, The People Want party had not been in direct contact or coordinating with President Kais Saied, but they were open to meeting him and participating in discussions about the future of the country, Khalfaoui said.

A New Leftist Party

Another new party that formally announced its founding following President Saied’s July 25 decisions is the Communist Path Party. Although the party had been in formation for more than two years, its first formal announcement came on July 28, according to Boulbeba Makhlouf, one of the party’s founders and a member of its executive bureau.

“We chose to announce ourselves at that moment because we consider we have something to say about political issues; we have a view, and this is a political moment par excellence and it was important that we take a stand,” Makhlouf told Meshkal/Nawaat.

That July 28 statement referred to President Saied’s decisions as a “representing a partial and fragile response to the aspirations of the people requiring from us the highest levels of vigilance,” but there is a need to “open new horizons for a liberatory, revolutionary struggle in our country.”

Despite calling for vigilance in this new political moment, the party’s July 28 statement firmly stated that “the imminent danger appears to us today to be a return to before July 25, 2021,” singling out the Ennahdha party for its strongest criticisms.

Meshkal/Nawaat also asked Makhlouf why they decided to start a new party despite widespread disillusionment with parties in general.

“There is a general atmosphere hostile to parties, and in my view the reason is the political performance of the political parties during the decade after January 14 [2011], which is normal. But we have to push in the other direction,” Makhlouf said. “For us, the issue of establishing the party is a strategic decision, connected to the idea of the revolution, because until now human thought—rather the historic human experience—has not produced organizational frameworks to lead revolutions and revolutionaries better than the party. There are other frameworks, and we in the formal announcement — in search of that flexibility–  and as you said, given the general distaste for Parties, we have suggested the creation of a civil and political network to mobilize a wider citizenship, a citizenship network to revive the revolutionary path.”

This citizenship network that the party launched is called “National Network for the Popular Struggle” or “Nughayir” [We change], Makhlouf said.

Like The People Want party, the Communist Path Party is hoping a slightly younger generation of political actors will take the lead in the new political environment.

“90 percent of members…[are] young; we have perhaps around a dozen over 40 years old, but the majority is under 40,” Makhlouf said, adding that they will “break away from the old left” and previous leftist parties that were “not able to create material force on the ground.”

However, Makhlouf clarified they are not “100 percent” ready to take part in elections if they were held today, but they would not necessarily want to stand for elections at all depending on the circumstances.

“For us, participating is tied to the objectives and also that the people feel that the electoral process this time expresses the will of the people. But if it is a repetition of the past and early elections are called under the same electoral laws, we will most likely not participate, but I cannot confirm the position of the party at this moment,” he said.

“We Do Not Give Up” Movement

A new social movement has also appeared since July 25, calling itself Manech Msalmin [We Do Not Give Up]. While many diverse activist groups had been coordinating since the January 2021 protests and mass arrests of young people in poor neighborhoods in an effort to release those detained, this coordination group didn’t come together into Manech Msalmin until July 25, according to Sarra Brahmi, a member of Manech Msalmin.

“We considered what happened July 25 could be an opportunity for a ‘path correction’ of the revolution,” Brahmi told Meshkal/Nawaat, using a phrase that President Kais Saied’s foreign minister has used to describe Saied’s July 25 decisions. “Then, 25 July, we were still coordinating, looking for common grounds in terms of ideas and actions and discussions. The trigger happened after July 25. We don’t consider it a coup d’état, but at the same time we didn’t bless it.”

In the early evening on August 26, about a dozen from the Manech Msalmin movement went to the Lafayette branch of the Monoprix supermarket chain, a business whose Tunisia subsidiary is one of several big businesses owned by Marwan Mabrouk, the son-in-law of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. They called for accountability for Mabrouk, who had previously had some of his assets seized or frozen by Tunisian authorities for misappropriation of public funds, but successive governments since the 2011 revolution have given him amnesty.

That and other actions seem to take Saied’s anti-corruption rhetoric at its word and are even pushing for action the President has not yet taken.

“These businessmen, we’re not waiting for responses from them. In our opinion the State, they are stronger than the State or they consider themselves stronger than the State. The State needs to take steps to bring them to justice. Until now, the President didn’t give one comment, no assessment or charging with a crime,” Brahmi said on September 2.

While President Saied’s anti-corruption rhetoric has been good, Brahmi said, she is judging him not on rhetoric but on actions.

“What concerns me is action. He hasn’t taken any action for the moment… I want to fight and push in the street. I don’t just have the street, I don’t just have my vote, I don’t just have my friends and my people who agree with me on the petition, and he chooses which side to be on. Either with us and he goes in the path of accountability and puts into effect his words, or he’ll find us in the streets; he’ll find he’s not the only one active in the political scene,” Brahmi told Meshkal/Nawaat.

This article was produced as part of a reporting partnership between Meshkal and Nawaat.