Violence marks new low in Tunisian parliamentary politics

The sorry state of affairs has discredited the assembly and renewed calls for its dissolution.
Monday 07/12/2020
A file picture shows Tunisian MPs arguing during a plenary session, last June. AFP
A file picture shows Tunisian MPs arguing during a plenary session, last June. (AFP)

TUNIS - A violent brawl inside Tunisia’s parliament’s building on Monday shocked the country, prompting the public to launch an online campaign calling on President Kais Saied to dissolve the assembly and end what many called an “unprecedented disgrace.”

Violence broke out in parliament Monday when members of the far-right Al Karama Coalition reportedly assaulted deputies from the Democratic Bloc (centre left) before a session examining next year’s finance bill in the presence of Finance Minister Ali Kooli.

According to witnesses, earlier statements by Karama deputy Mohammed Affes were the source of contention.

Last week, Affes equated women's freedoms with debauchery and asserted that "single mothers are either sluts or raped women."

The Karama deputy, who affirms that his only source of reference is Sharia (Islamic law), also said that “the problems encountered by families and children today are the result of the freedoms advocated by defenders of women's rights.” He claimed that “the so-called rights achievements have undermined the dignity of Tunisian women.”

On Monday, some deputies pushed back against Affes’s remarks, which led to insults and eventually to violence.

Democratic Current MP Anouar Bechahed, who received a head injury in the brawl, called the attack by three Karama MPs “an act terrorism" and said he would file a legal complaint against suspected members.

Also assaulted in Monday’s brawl were women deputies Samia Abbou and Amal Saidi. They singled out Seifeddine Makhlouf,  Zied Hachemi and Affes as the perpetrators of the assault against them and their colleagues.

Saidi said the Karama MPs first verbally attacked their detractors, before throwing water bottles at their faces, pushing them aside and then punching them.

“I found myself in a fight with which I had no connection to […] We were trying to protect our colleague [Bechahed] whom they flooded with insults and who found himself alone against all the deputies of Al Karama,” Saidi said.

“We were sandwiched between Al Karama deputies and Bechahed whom they were beating,” she added, explaining that the incident started because the Committee on Women decided to go to the parliament speaker’s office to discuss Affes’s misogynistic statements.

Dereliction of duty 

Following the brawl, Tunisian Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who also leads the Islamist Ennahda party, denounced "any form of violence,” while expressing solidarity "with the deputy of the Democratic Bloc, Anouar Bechahed, who was attacked this morning in parliament.”

Ghannouchi called on parliamentary blocs and deputies to show restraint and indicated that an investigation will be launched into the incident and that measures will be taken against the attackers.

MP Anouar Bechahed after injury. (Facebook)
Tunisian MP Anouar Bechahed after being injured in parliament. (Facebook)

"The Presidency of the Assembly condemns the aggression and the incident which took place today in parliament and calls on parliamentarians to overcome their differences, turn to dialogue and avoid being drawn into violence,” a statement released by the parliament speaker said.

The Islamist leader, however, has been accused by several deputies of bearing responsibility for the mounting political tensions and escalating violence in parliament.

In his statement on Monday, Ghannouchi did not identify the accused attackers or say they are among the elected members of Karama, Ennahda’s political allies.

Ghannouchi also failed to mention several other deputies, including men and women, who were allegedly assaulted. It not the first time the speaker has been accused of dereliction of duty or mismanaging parliamentary affairs. At the end of the country's last legislative session, he barely escaped a vote of no confidence over inept management and alleged abuse of prerogatives to carry out a partisan agenda.

Hours after the violent brawl, the injured deputies and their colleagues held a press briefing to denounce the assault and the deteriorating climate in parliament, vowing to take legal action.

"Rached Ghannouchi is responsible for this situation,” they said during the press briefing, accusing him of tolerating “the practices of political allies, who have been exerting pressure and practicing violence for a very long time.”

Later, the Democratic Current, the People's Movement, Qalb Tounes, the Islah bloc, the Tahya Tounes bloc and the unaffiliated deputies represented by Maryam Al-Laghmani signed an unprecedented joint statement in which they called on Ghannouchi  to lift the parliamentary immunity of the accused Karama deputies and file an assault case against them by the time the budget is approved.

The parliamentary blocs threatened to take further action if their demands are not met, according to a statement read by MP Zuhair Maghzawi during a news conference.

-- Calls to dissolve parliament --

Since early 2020, fights, disputes and now brawls have tarnished the image of the Tunisian parliament and political parties and formations in general.

The conduct of deputies, who are supposed to set an example for the Tunisian public by exercising appropriate health precautions, including social distancing, during the coronavirus pandemic, has been a source of embarrassment for many.

The live broadcast of the parliamentary sessions have exposed the misbehaviour, excessive rhetoric and lack of substance of many MPs.

November opinion polls have shown public confidence in the parliament to be the lowest among all political institutions.

Monday’s incident triggered renewed calls for parliament to be dissolved, with many Tunisians blaming the legislative body for stalling reforms while being caught up in political disputes.

There have been accusations of MPs of abusing their immunity for personal interests.

While Ghannouchi is not unlikely to take advantage of divisions in parliament, the outcome has so far shown how out of touch he is with the political climate and the threats looming over it.

In July, a dispute between Ennahda and the opposition Free Destourian Party (PDL) prompted Saied to issue an implicit warning that he might have to use his constitutional powers to dissolve parliament in order to prevent political institutions from "crumbling."

“Today, this situation cannot continue and we have the legal capabilities to safeguard the state,” Saied said in a video recording published on the presidency’s Facebook page at the time.

“I will not remain idle in the face of the collapse of state institutions,” he said.

The country’s political disputes have caused serious instability, prompting hundreds of foreign and local businessmen to leave Tunisia for safer investment opportunities. Foreign investors are dissuaded by the unpredictable climate from venturing in the Tunisian market.

The country’s social climate has also worsened due to state neglect and fraying authority. In recent months, protests in the south have hindered production in the vital phosphate and oil sectors, with political parties resorting to populist stances to absorb the unrest.  The unrest has led to the emergence of "tansiqiyat" (coordination committees) as substitutes for elected representatives, trade unions and civil society activists.

The sidelining of political parties, especially those that bear responsibility for the country’s economic and social crisis since the outbreak of Tunisia’s uprising in 2011, especially the Ennahda Islamists, has become a common demand of most politicians and opposition party representatives.

Those in favour of marginalising Islamists, or at least keeping partisan politics outside government's management of public affairs, argue that the country cannot deal with more disputes and instability. They argue that the country faces too many challenges for parties to continue their internal wrangling.

For them, Tunisia’s priority should be to resolve its multiple socio-economic crises, even if that means the depreciation of partisan roles in government affairs.

For others, the risk is to see the type of violence witnessed in the parliament become the country's new normal.