‘Learn to Swim’

Layli Foroudi

It was just before three o’clock on Sunday morning in Tunisia when the 18-year-old swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui won a gold medal in the 400 metre freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics. But it seemed as if the whole of Tunisia had stayed up to watch. Videos of his coach’s celebration dance and his cheering family went viral.

Hafnaoui wasn’t expected to win. He had barely qualified for the race and was competing in an outside lane, which may put swimmers at a slight physical disadvantage (from the waves splashing off the wall) as well as a psychological one. He also comes from a country of empty swimming pools. As one Tunisian Twitter user put it, ‘any small Australian or American university has better infrastructure for swimming than the whole of Tunisia.’ (Australia and the US took silver and bronze.) Hafnaoui trains at a fifty-metre pool in the south Tunis suburb of Ezzahra, where he has been allocated his own lane by the national team for the last two years. But there are so few pools in Tunis that lanes are ‘overexploited’, sometimes with forty swimmers at once, according to Hassen Touni, a swimming coach.

There is an Olympic-size swimming pool in Tunis that was built for the 1967 Mediterranean Games. I tried to go for a swim there in 2019 but was told that it was closed for the foreseeable future because they had only one filter, which was used for the smaller indoor pool, where Hafnaoui used to train. I came across a dried-up pool at a hotel in the oasis region of Tozeur, abandoned by visitors as tourism has been hit by post-revolution instability, terrorist attacks and the Covid-19 pandemic. There used to be a deep cylindrical pool in Chenini, Gabès, filled with water from a nearby natural source. But the arrival of cement and phosphate treatment industries in the 1970s led to fierce competition for water; farmers and swimmers lost out and the source is now dry.

Omar Labidi, a 19-year-old football supporter, was running from the police after a match at the Rades stadium in Tunis in March 2018. They chased him to the banks of a river and pushed him in. He shouted that he couldn’t swim. They told him to learn and left him to drown. ‘Learn to swim’ is now an anti-police slogan.

Access to football stadiums is even more restricted now than it was before the 2011 revolution. There are young people who became ultras in 2015-16 and have never been to a match. ‘This is a lost generation,’ according to Jihed Haj Salem, a sociologist who used to belong to the African Winners ultras. ‘They come to the ultras scene with violence and anger and it gives them a subculture and structure, somewhere they can have a voice while all other institutions are in decline.’ Social issues are left unaddressed as the state relies on the security apparatus to deal with problems.

When Hafnaoui won his gold medal, Tunisians posted photos of him next to pictures of Labidi on Facebook and threw the slogan back at the government: ‘Your people learned how to swim and brought you gold.’ Later in the day, anti-government protests took place across the country.

The calls to protest on 25 July, Republic Day, started gaining traction a few weeks ago as deaths from Covid-19 were peaking. Anger at the government’s handling of the crisis was particularly intense after it was discovered that the prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, had organised a meeting over a few days at a hotel (with a swimming pool) in Hammamet, at a time when travelling between regions wasn’t permitted. But the anger went deeper, rooted in dissatisfaction with a stagnant economy, rising living costs, and parliamentarians who seem to be concerned only with squabbling among themselves and lining their pockets, rather than improving the lives of Tunisians.

Protesters calling for the dissolution of parliament gathered in several cities; in Tozeur they broke into the headquarters of Ennahdha, the largest party in the governing coalition. In Tunis, a heavy police presence blocked access to Avenue Bourguiba as well as the parliament building. Protesters threw stones; the police went at them with tear gas.

On Sunday evening, President Kais Saied announced that he was suspending parliament for thirty days, revoking MPs’ immunity from the law, dismissing Mechichi and assuming the prime minister’s powers himself. He has also put himself in charge of public prosecutions and says he will prosecute all MPs with legal cases pending against them. Saied, a political outsider who won a landslide victory in 2019, has long spoken of replacing the parliamentary system with locally elected councils that would ‘invert the pyramid of power’. But much of his energy so far has been spent in a power struggle with the parties in parliament, especially Ennahdha.

‘The constitution doesn’t allow me to dissolve the parliament, but it allows me to freeze its activities,’ he said. The constitutional court is supposed to rule on the legality of such moves, but no judges have been appointed to it. ‘Since it doesn’t exist yet, the president can keep power in his hands, and in the absence of oversight, it pushes the country into the unknown,’ according to Salwa Hamrouni, the president of the Tunisian Association of Constitutional Law.

Yet the atmosphere on the streets on Sunday night felt similar to the mood after Hafnaoui won gold. Cars were honking and people were cheering, in defiance of the curfew. ‘The parliament was doing nothing, they just wanted a place in power, and money, they don’t know what people need,’ said Manel, 33, who works in IT but is currently unemployed. She was out celebrating in Tunis, though she didn’t want people to be sent to prison. Others in the crowd were happy to see the government go but were not reassured by the president. ‘Kais Saied is weird,’ said Amor Kerkenni, a 36-year-old video editor.

MPs I spoke to on Sunday were confident they would be meeting as usual the next day but that changed after Rachid Ghannouchi, the speaker of parliament and leader of Ennahdha, was turned away by the army at the gate in the early hours of Monday morning. ‘This is a coup,’ Saida Ounissi, an Ennahdha MP, told me. ‘There is a rotten political situation that has created popular anger and the president has surfed on this for his own objectives.’ Ounissi sees a parallel with events in Egypt in 2013, when the military took power from the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood. Instead of meeting in parliament on Monday, a few MPs, including Ghannouchi, sat outside in protest but they have since changed their tune and called for dialogue.

‘I’m happy because it will make things more clear,’ Aymen Amayed, a thirty-year-old agricultural policy researcher, told me on Monday. ‘The first thing is that the legitimacy of the ongoing system isn’t recognised by the people.’ On Monday evening, Saied imposed a curfew at 7 p.m. and banned gatherings of more than three people. He met with representatives from various organisations and unions, including the UGTT, which played a mediating role during Tunisia’s political crisis in 2013. ‘I’m so scared about what is going to happen,’ Amayed said. ‘It could be good, it could be really bad.