The day Tunisia stood still

The one-day crisis shocked Tunisians into realising to what degree politics has overtaken and decimated traditional ethics.
Friday 05/07/2019
 Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi surrounded by his doctors, Mustapha Ferjani (R) and Moez Belkhouja (L) on July 1, 2019 before leaving the Tunis Military Hospital. (AFP)
Sigh of Relief. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi surrounded by his doctors, Mustapha Ferjani (R) and Moez Belkhouja (L) on July 1, 2019 before leaving the Tunis Military Hospital. (AFP)

Tunisia has never felt on a more shaky ground than in recent days.

June 27 is a day likely to be long remembered by Tunisians as “Black Thursday” -- the day the country stood still. No business was conducted that day, except for tuning in to radio and TV stations and reading the latest Facebook posts.

That sunny, summer day Tunis was jolted by two suicide attacks targeting the police. About an hour later, there was a greater shock with the presidential palace announcing the transfer of President Beji Caid Essebsi, in serious condition, to the Tunis Military Hospital.

The announcement was quickly followed by a social media tsunami. Swirling rumours couched in false certainty claimed the president had died.

The episode revealed a collective state of mind, both strange and worrisome. People seemed to expect the worst and wanted confirmation of that. There were political operators seemingly with a stake in doing just that.

The one-day crisis shocked Tunisians into realising to what degree politics has overtaken and decimated traditional ethics. In a culture where a halo of sacredness usually accompanied the passing of older members of the family, there was an unusually shocking competition to partake in the morbid announcement.

The other realisation was that the propensity to accept conspiracy theories at face value did not dissipate with the relatively unfettered freedom of expression experienced by Tunisians and their media during the last eight years.

The lack of trust by the public in political actors has accentuated the anguish over possible plots, domestic and foreign, supposedly lurking in the shadows. Distrust within the political class in the still-evolving democratic transition has led certain partisan moves during the crisis to be interpreted as plain "coup attempts."

But above all, it is the unbecoming attitudes that showed political actors in a quite unflattering light.

On Facebook and beyond, too many politicians and public figures fell for the rumours. Some even seemed to have had their share instigating them.

There was a rush among some to draw conclusions about the "incapacity" of the president, even if it was only a few hours since he had been admitted to the hospital. Many were acting on the suspicion that "rivals" were trying to take advantage of the "constitutional void."

Ultimately, there was the realisation that political parties and their representatives in parliament had, for years, forgotten to agree on a bill setting up a constitutional court, the only institution entitled to declare such a major vacancy in the power structure.

In this context, the political class was embarrassingly caught naked.

French newspaper Le Monde was not tender in its criticism, writing: “The political elite is the only one responsible for this legal infirmity. The president of the republic, the government and the political parties are all to blame for having failed to set up a constitutional court.

“By wavering as they did, they exposed themselves to the suspicion of trying to maintain a legal blur that could enable them to preserve a level of unaccountability.”

As the president started to receive visitors, the rumours fizzled. More broadly, the crisis had betrayed the precariousness of political life and the fragility of the constitutional framework that was supposed to buttress it.

Expedient concerns were rife across the political divide. Questions persisted about whether Caid Essebsi would sign into law the call to voters for the October and November elections. Some wondered whether he would ratify or veto the amendments to the electoral law passed by parliament to exclude certain candidates.

The irony is that the 92-year-old president, whom many presidential contenders did their best to sideline in the exercise of power and from the race to the Carthage Palace, seemed to receive a second lease on (political) life from the days of drama.

Past the flurry of fake news about his supposed death, Caid Essebsi became the subject of unexpected adulation. The Facebook posts that had indulged in the June 27 rumours were soon exchanging pictures of the smiling president as he left the hospital. The denial of past deeds was clearly helping ease the sense of collective shame over the questionable judgment of too many during the episode.

Their country faced with so many uncertainties, many Tunisians were somehow unwilling to let go of Caid Essebsi.

"As soon as they realised that they could lose him, Tunisians in their overwhelming majority realised the place he held in their hearts and how much he meant for the country," wrote Tunisian commentator Raouf Ben Rejeb.

For politicians, the grandfather figure was surprisingly not the spent force he was thought to be.

Now, as parliament debates -- and probably investigates -- exactly what happened on "Black Thursday," the tarnished lustre of parliamentarians, party leaders and other public figures will only make it harder for the Tunisian political class to regain the trust of voters it so badly needs in a crucial election year.

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