Anti-Saied protest sees unlikely alliance of leftists and Islamists

Thousands gathered to demand a return to democracy at a rally outside the parliament

Protest organizers from both the left and the Islamist party, Ennahda, addressed the crowds on Sunday. Photo: Erin Clare Brown / The National
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Thousands of people gathered near Tunisia's closed parliament building early on Sunday to demand a return to democracy, which they say has been upended by president Kais Saied.

The protest, organised by a group called Citizens Against the Coup, was the largest rally against the President since he closed parliament and consolidated power in July.

As a crowd of several thousand chanted “The people demand the reopening of parliament!” Jaouhar Ben M’Barek, one of the organisers of the event, used an upended police barricade as a makeshift ladder to climb on top of a kiosk and address the crowd.

“We won’t leave until we reclaim our democracy and ensure everyone’s right to protest,” he shouted into a microphone. The crowd burst into cheers.

Jaouhar Ben M’Barek addressing a crowd of about 7000 protesters near the parliament in Bardo on Sunday. Photo: Erin Clare Brown / The National

Mr Ben M'Barek, a longtime leftist organiser, has emerged as an unlikely leader of a movement against Mr Saied supported in large part by a political party long seen as anathema to his political leanings — the Islamist Ennahda party.

Ennahda, which had around a quarter of seats in parliament before the assembly was suspended, has regularly been in the governing coalition since the revolution.

But as the largest party in a fractious parliament, it has drawn the ire of many Tunisians who blame it for the economic and political crisis that led to Mr Saied's takeover. Many celebrated Ennahda's perceived downfall when Mr Saied shut them out of power.

While Ennahda and leftists are regularly at odds in Tunisian politics, for some Mr Saied's actions have created an existential threat to the plurality that enables both sides of the political spectrum to participate, and pushed the two sides to coordinate.

Lamine Bouazizi, another leftist who helped organise the rally, said ideology wasn't at the heart of the movement.

“The initiative was created on the basis of citizenship, not partisanship, a belief that the solution to this crisis is democracy” he said on the sideline of the rally.

Slim Haji, 46, a maths teacher from Nabeul and a member of the Ennahda party, said the coalition “shows that we care about democracy, that only through an alliance can we avert catastrophe".

“Kais Saied hasn't even called for a referendum” on a new constitution, something many posited he would do after consolidating power, Mr Haji said, “because he knows he would fail".

Jaouhar Ben M’Barek, an organizer who is opposing President Kais Saied's power grab, has become a minor celebrity with both Islamists and leftists. Photo: Erin Clare Brown / The National

Many in the crowd criticised the president's lack of decisive action on social issues, particularly a lack of employment and a social safety net.

Mr Bouazizi noted that recent protests over a landfill in the central town of Agareb are turning many Saied supporters against him, and causing people to rise up against the government over social issues as well as political ones.

Mr Bouazizi said that "each component of the street — the social and the political — has a role to play".

Updated: November 15, 2021, 4:17 AM