Political earthquake in Tunis

Tunisia's President Kaïs Saïed has assumed executive powers in his country in a highly controversial and possibly unconstitutional manner, fuelling fears of an impending authoritarian rollback. Despite strong criticism of his intervention, many still hope for an end to the country's endemic crisis. By Sofian Philip Naceur

By Sofian Philip Naceur

More than ten years after the revolutionary mass uprising of 2011, which forced Tunisia's ex-dictator Ben Ali to step down after more than 23 years in power and paved the way for a democratic transition, the country now has its back to the wall.

The economic crisis, which has been massively exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and is accelerating social inequalities and the parliamentary system's blockade, have led Tunisia into an impasse, making it almost impossible to manoeuvre politically. Although the power struggle between parliament, prime minister and president has been going on for years, it has turned more and more fierce in recent months and has now finally escalated entirely.

With reference to Article 80 of the constitution, President Kaïs Saïed assumed all executive powers in Tunisia on Sunday in a constitutionally more than contentious manner. He now wants to govern temporarily by decree. In a televised speech, the former constitutional law expert announced the dismissal of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, the freezing of the work of the parliament for 30 days and the lifting of the immunity of all members of parliament. Until a new head of government is appointed, Saïed now chairs the government himself.

Mechichi, who is reportedly under house arrest, accepted his dismissal in a conciliatory and de-escalating statement. The very next day after his take-over, Saïed sacked Defence Minister Brahim Bartagi and Justice Minister Hasna Ben Slimane. Meanwhile, the head of state appears to be preparing an imminent purge in the state and security apparatus. Tunisian media outlets have already reported that Saïed plans to replace senior officials, particularly in the Ministry of the Interior, who are said to have been appointed on the basis of partisan ties.

Tunisian soldiers guard the Tunisian parliament (photo: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)
According to Sofian Philip Naceur, "the fear of a return to autocratic rule is omnipresent in the country, but so is the frustration over the state's institutions, which are mutually blocking each other. It remains completely unclear whether this will really only be a temporary assumption of power by the president or whether a long-lasting centralisation of executive and legislative powers lies ahead". Pictured here: Tunisian soldiers surround the Tunisian parliament

Turmoil in the streets

The immediate triggers for Saïed's assumption of power are Mechichi's disastrous handling of the recent wave of coronavirus infections, which is still not under control, but also anti-government protests that were sweeping across Tunisia as recently as Sunday. They have been mainly directed against the Islamist Ennahda party, but also against other political forces that, in the view of countless people in the country, have for years been concerned less with the urgent social and economic problems of the population and more occupied with political power struggles and intrigues. Protesters attacked several Ennahda offices across the country and loudly called for the dissolution of parliament and Mechichi's removal.

Saïed however, did not suspend the constitution or dissolve parliament, and on Monday stressed once more that his intervention could be under no circumstances branded a coup. However, Ennahda in particular – currently by far the largest force in parliament and almost continuously part of the government since 2011 – sees things differently. In a statement, the party framed Saïed's intervention as "unconstitutional" and a "coup against the constitution and state institutions". On Sunday, army units were deployed around parliament and the governmental palace in Tunis. They prevented the acting speaker of parliament, Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, and several Ennahda deputies from entering the parliament building.

While Saïed's supporters gathered in numerous provinces to celebrate his take-over, Ennahda supporters marched in clear opposition to Saïed towards parliament in Tunis. After initial scuffles between protesters from both irreconcilably opposed camps, the situation quickly calmed down. However, the general ambiance in Tunisia remains tense. While Ennahda supporters predict an end to the democratic transition or even a bloody coup, opponents of the Islamist party fear that its followers could resort to violent means. Unsurprisingly, Saïed decreed a nationwide de facto lockdown on Monday and banned any gatherings of more than three people.

People protest outside the parliament in Tunisia (photo: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of both sides – those who support the president and those who support the prime minister have been protesting around the country since the weekend. On Tuesday, the leading Islamist party, Ennahda, moved to ease the country's political crisis, calling for dialogue and urging supporters not to resort to violence after accusing President Kais Saied of launching a coup

Course correction or return to autocracy?

In the meantime, the president is trying to smooth the waters and has reassured representatives of civil society and influential national organisations in several meetings that he intends to abide by the constitution. While numerous parties from all political camps have condemned Saïed's seizure of power and framed it as a clear violation of the law, the influential trade union federation UGTT considers the measures pushed through by the head of state to be legal, but called for dialogue to find a political solution and for adherence to the legal framework provided for in the constitution.

The fear of a return to autocratic rule is omnipresent in the country, but so is the frustration over the state's institutions, which are mutually blocking each other. It remains completely unclear whether this will really only be a temporary assumption of power by the president or whether a long-lasting centralisation of executive and legislative powers lies ahead. It is also unclear how Saïed intends to resolve the constitutional deadlock that has existed for years.

The division of power between the executive and legislative branches of government and between the president and the government, which were not clearly regulated in the 2014 constitution, have been paralysing the country for years. While the hastily passed electoral law is mostly blamed for the unstable majority in parliament, all governing parties in recent years – including Ennahda – have consistently failed to appoint the members of the constitutional court, which remains non operational to this day.

The head of state has now taken advantage of the court's absence and seized power in what has also been called a "constitutional coup". Saïed has yet to dispel fears that Tunisia is heading towards a bloody coup or a sustained return to autocratic rule. However, the fact that he by no means has an established power base in the state and security apparatus and that the army has not yet pursued any clear political ambition speaks against such a scenario.

Moreover, Tunisia's civil society has taken root in the ten years since the revolution and has proven multiple times in the intervening period that it is capable of successfully preventing any authoritarian advances by the respective executive branches of government.

Sofian Philip Naceur

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