Yassine Ayari says Tunisia needs big ideas, not big parties

After two months in prison for a Facebook post, dissident blogger-turned-MP talks exclusively to 'The National' about fighting corruption and finding solutions to Tunisia's political deadlock

"We need big ideas. And today political parties don't have them, and Kais Saied doesn't have them." Yassine Ayari at home shortly after being released from prison on September 22. Erin Clare Brown / The National
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The independent Tunisian MP Yassine Ayari was expecting a visit from an old friend on the afternoon of July 30 when 10 unidentified men barged into his home, threw his children and mother to the ground, dragged him outside and forced him into an unmarked SUV.

That was just days after President Kais Saied sacked the government and sent the army to close the gates of parliament, and Tunisia was buzzing with nervous excitement as Mr Saied promised to clean house and lead the country out of its political crisis.

"I was kidnapped. Really kidnapped," he said. "They didn't tell me who they were, why they were there or where they were taking me. I was so happy when the car turned on to the road to the prison – prison is an institution; people can find me in prison."

Mr Ayari was the first of several MPs to be imprisoned for outstanding charges after President Kais Saied lifted parliamentary immunity, which he said was to battle corruption in the legislature. While some MPs, many of whom are still free, had outstanding charges for money laundering or sexual harassment, Mr Ayari's crime was of a different nature: insulting the army in a 2018 Facebook post.

It was not his first sojourn in prison. An outspoken anti-corruption activist and critic of power for more than a decade, Mr Ayari is known for pushing the limits of free speech with blunt, often pugnacious blog and Facebook posts aimed at the country's most powerful. Nine times they have landed him in front of military tribunals, despite being a civilian. Two of those trials led to prison terms.

The Presidency and Ministry of the Interior declined to comment on Mr Ayari's account of his arrest or treatment in prison.

After serving his most recent two-month sentence, much of which was spent on hunger strike to protest against what he said were violations of his rights, Mr Ayari was released last Wednesday. In an exclusive interview, he told The National about the role of independents, fighting corruption, and what it will take to turn around Tunisia's political future.

Diagnosing a sick democracy

After years blogging about the Tunisian government's failings, in 2017 Mr Ayari joined its ranks as an independent in the country's legislature. His seat on the floor of the People's Assembly gave him a new window into the sclerotic institution and its follies, which he regularly documented through Facebook posts.

Mr Ayari is clear about the failings of the legislature, which has not delivered economic stability nor reduced the inequality that sparked the revolution, but says people are wrong to cheer its dissolution. "The opposite of a broken assembly is a good assembly, not no assembly or a dictatorship," he said.

For Mr Ayari, the problem is not the institution, but who people have chosen to represent them.

"Tunisians still choose representatives by emotion. They say 'I'll vote for Abir [Moussi, head of the Free Destourian Party] because she will put the Islamists in prison' or 'I'll vote for the Islamists because they will put Abir in prison'. So we still use the democratic tools, but the mindset is totally off. We want to use democracy to break other Tunisians."

He says this short-sightedness is a hangover from the Ben Ali era, when the sole focus of political activity was to fight the regime, not to create platforms or proposals. "The mindset of politics is 'I have to find an enemy', not 'I have to find a solution'," he said.

"We need big ideas. And today political parties don't have them, and Kais Saied doesn't have them."

Although Mr Ayari holds the only seat for his Hope and Work Movement, he is supported by what he says is a small but dedicated group of young, ambitious Tunisians who help him draft proposals for laws that would create state-run cannabis farms, require MPs to disclose their cryptocurrency holdings, harness green energy sources and make a digital platform for women to register complaints of harassment.

"I'm not saying that I have the best solution in the world, but I'm trying to propose a solution," he said.

Corruption in the cross-hairs

Mr Ayari has also built a reputation for aggressively pursuing corruption in the government, bringing case files against powerful people and companies to the judiciary.

A former cyber security analyst, he used his digital sleuthing skills to bring down Mr Saied's hand-selected prime minister, Elyes Fakhfakh.

Documents brought to the judiciary by Mr Ayari indicated the former prime minister owned shares worth millions of dinars in companies with state contracts, prompting Mr Fakhfakh to resign in July 2020.

"It was just two clicks. And I found that he broke the law, one that I voted for. When you are prime minister you don't have the right to do business with the state."

Other investigations, including an ongoing case implicating current and former executives of the Danish shipping giant Maersk in having helped a client, businessman Tahar Latrous, take foreign currency out of the country illegally, took years of sifting through public records to build.

His work has not been without its failings. A file accusing Hamma Hammami, the head of the Worker's Party, of accepting a luxury vehicle as a kickback proved false and Mr Ayari was convicted of defamation.

Mr Ayari says tackling corruption has become a buzzy topic in politics, particularly after Mr Saied made it his central campaign promise. But he rejects any comparison between himself and the president, whom he says is not interested in doing the work to root out corruption, or the political alienation that can come with it.

"It's easy to say this person or that company is corrupt. It's easy, and it gets you votes. But the real work is much harder."

Indeed Mr Ayari sees the president's recent moves as a form of corruption.

"A corrupt man, in the big picture, is someone who breaks the law. Kais Saied broke the constitution. That is the biggest possible corruption."

Despite the difficulty of his most recent prison term – he claims he was denied medical care, that his letters were kept from him, and that he was video recorded at all hours in his cell – Mr Ayari has not stopped his combative approach to questioning those in power.

On Wednesday, police served him with a notice to appear before military court again, this time for Facebook posts calling Mr Saied's suspension of Parliament and dismissal of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi on July 25 a "coup". President Saied has denied his actions constitute a coup.

Mr Ayari sees these trials as part of his path, and is determined to keep pushing his country forward.

"I won't make the mistakes my fathers did. People under Ben Ali fought against the regime, but didn't create alternatives, so when they were given a platform, they had no ideas on how to make things better."

Updated: October 10, 2021, 4:29 AM