North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Tunisia’s presidential power-grab is a test for its democracy

President Saied’s ‘constitutional coup’ on 25 July was a dark day for Tunisian and Arab democratization

Larbi Sadiki Layla Saleh
28 July 2021, 2.57pm
Clashes break out between citizens and members of the Ennahda Movement and the Al Karama Coalition, 26 July 2021
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Chokri Mahjoub/ZUMA Press Wire/Alamy

In a shocking move, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied invoked Article 80 of the country’s constitution on 25 July, the nation’s annual Republic Day. Citing “exceptional” circumstances, he sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, froze the Parliament and lifted the immunity of its members, granted himself interim executive powers, and appointed himself the equivalent of Tunisia’s head prosecutor.

The drastic measures followed recent protests against the government and major parties, and Saied referred to divisiveness and failure by both Mechichi’s government and Parliament to address the pandemic, socio-economic stability and social stability as reasons for his actions.

Saied then fired the defense and justice ministers, put in place a mandatory two days off for government employees, and lengthened the country’s curfew (originally enacted for COVID purposes) to 7pm-6am, when previously it had been 8pm to 5am. As part of his ‘anti-corruption’ crusade, he issued a travel ban that prevents business men and women, heads of sports clubs, high-level state officials, former ministers, local government heads and ex-members of parliament from leaving the country. There are likely more measures to come, as he has promised further decrees.

Perhaps removing Mechichi and suspending Parliament defies the traditional conception of a coup. But the recent mayhem and chaos must be explained as a backdrop to what many experts are calling a ‘constitutional coup’. In the Tunisian context, we should question wide-held assumptions or ready-made definitions of the term, rather than getting caught up in semantic and definitional hair-splitting.

What’s happening in Tunisia is not a textbook coup, such as those in Latin America written about by the gurus of democratization. It is also not like that seen in Egypt in 2013, which was the most dramatic military coup in post-2011 Arab politics. Saied is not a military leader, and Tunisia (even under authoritarian leaders Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali) is far from a state whose military is institutionalized within the political system. Yet it is clear that Saied has secured the complicity of the military’s top brass – perhaps with the exception of dismissed defense minister, Brahim Bartaji (which can be read as a sign of non-cooperation on Bartaji’s part).

Protest lead-up

The protests rocking the country in the run-up to 25 July, the commemoration of the founding of the Republic, were in themselves not unusual. Angry and raucous crowds called for the dissolution of Parliament, decrying the country’s largest party, Ennahda, and attacking its offices. They hurled insults and accusations at the party’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, and at Mechichi.

Protest has become commonplace in Tunisia; the escalating COVID crisis has brought to the fore deepening inequalities and a deteriorating economy, and in recent weeks the air has been heavy with expectation. For days, headlines have focused on feuding between the three presidencies: President Saied, Prime Minister Mechichi, and the speaker of Parliament, Ghannouchi.

Disgruntlement and anxiety have seemed to rise with the temperature, in the smoldering heat of an exceptionally hot summer. Over the past few weeks, Tunisians have bemoaned economic hardships; a crumbling healthcare system; early curfews and limited mobility between cities and governorates, which are debilitating for commuting workers and business owners; and a botched vaccine rollout despite the country recently securing millions of donated doses. Palpable discontent with the country’s political class, which, in the eyes of many, reeks of corruption, mounted by the day.

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The army descends to protect the embassies in Tunis, 26 July 2021 | Jdidi Wassim/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire/Alamy

On the eve of 25 July, heavy police presence and barricades were seen across the city of Tunis, primarily in the central Habib Bourguiba Avenue. It was as though the police officers themselves were ‘occupying’ public space, choking citizens out.

As news broke of Saied’s power scramble, and Tunisians began to process the jolt of what had happened, an astounding transformation came over the avenue. Hours after curfew, which is mostly enforced in the capital, the street began to fill as a swelling crowd formed. This time, congregants were jubilant, joyous, celebratory. Anger at Ennahda, at Ghannouchi, at the corrupt political elites turned into exultation over the president’s new decrees.

Saied was a new ‘savior’ for this cross-section of Tunisians. They cheered against Ennahda and for Tunisia. Chanting the national anthem, waving shirts, ululating gleefully, some zooming across the Avenue on their motorcycles. The police seemed to have evaporated – only eventually half-heartedly dispersing the crowd hours later. Then, a few army vehicles crawled in, flanked by delighted carousers.

‘State of exception’

What seems not to have dawned on those celebrating, is the disputed legality of the president’s measures. By suspending Parliament for 30 days, and stripping its elected deputies of legal immunity, Saied is treading on very murky ground. He apparently failed to consult with the other two ‘presidencies’, Ghannouchi and Mechichi, as is stipulated in Article 80 of the 2014 constitution. There is no imminent threat to Tunisia’s stability or its independence, another prerequisite for activating Article 80, from its elected Parliament, its democratic political parties, its diverse polity, or foreign powers, to warrant such actions by the president.

Adding to the chaos is the constitutional void created in Tunisia by the country’s elites, including its president. In theory, the Constitutional Court must verify whether there are ‘exceptional circumstances’ necessitating the triggering of Article 80 within 30 days. Yet, in an ongoing political saga, no such court exists. After years of political foot-dragging by various ruling parties, it was most recently Saied who refused to sign Parliament’s latest attempt to assemble the court back in April.

Saied’s takeover, his amassing of inordinate power in his hands, disrupts Tunisia’s democratic institutions and its very democratic process. These measures are a grave lapse of judgment, akin to what leading legal experts in the country have termed a “constitutional coup” – despite some whooping crowds signaling their approval.

Tunisia’s Political Class Reacts

Tunisia’s political parties are split. Pan-Arabist and populist Harakat Al-Chaab (People’s Movement) has thrown its weight behind the president’s new measures. Elsewhere, Abir Moussi, a former official for Ben Ali’s Democratic Constitutional Rally, has claimed she is “on the side of the people” and has not condemned the moves. Moussi leads the Free Destourian Party, which is a morbid foe of political Islam and Ennahda and draws on the twin constituencies of Bourguiba and Ben Ali (nationalist-conservative). Another opposition party, the Democratic Current (a quasi-social democratic party), has an official position of “disagreement” with the president’s interpretation of Article 80. Yet one of its members, Samia Abbou, made early statements endorsing the move.

Ennahda’s opposition to Saied’s measures, which it considers a “coup against the constitution and [country’s] institutions”, was initially the most stark, along with that of Qalb Tounes (the party of media mogul Nabil Karoui, under investigation for corruption) and Etilaf Al-Karama (a hodgepodge of Salafist-type newcomers to Parliament).

Ennahda’s Executive Office has called on the president to “reverse” his new measures but has also signaled a willingness for dialogue and “consultations” with political and civil society actors.

This is a grave lapse of judgment, akin to what legal experts have termed a ‘constitutional coup’

To varying degrees, other smaller parties have declared either outright rejection of Saied’s power grab or reservations about its scope and time frame, while a critical mass of veteran democracy activists and founders of the post-revolution order are against the move. Many have, as individuals or through their respective parties, issued statements or expressed positions to that effect.

Nejib Chebbi is one of the opposition veterans who failed to secure a political position in post-2011 elections. Old-timers like him, with a long record of anti-authoritarian and democratic activism, may see this as an entry point and an opportunity to re-enter the political scene.

In a statement attributed to him, Mechichi has asserted he will not “cling to any [political] office” but will hand over power to Saied’s new appointee. On the other hand, the Parliament’s Executive Office has declared the legislature is in an ongoing session, disregarding the president’s ‘freeze’. Similarly, the National Federation of Tunisian Municipalities rejected the president’s measures, in a display of disobedience.

No time for a ‘savior’

The political and governance failures of Ennahda are one thing, even when it comes to legitimate criticism of their intra-party democracy or parliamentary performance. Yet the party’s shortcomings are no justification for extra-constitutional measures. Ennahda, and all political players, should be dealt with via constitutional channels in this new democracy.

Some Tunisians – and here people seem split – seem all too ready to welcome a national ‘savior’. Tunisia has tried this before, with Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Among the great many who refuse the status quo, a strong leader seems appealing – even, it seems, if he boasts consolidated powers to the point of threatening democratic checks and balances.

But going back to this notion of al-hakim bi-amrihi (‘the ruler by his command’, in the words of one Tunisian academic, in reference to Bourguiba) is very dangerous. It is many steps backwards in Tunisia and the Arab world’s faltering democratic journey. A president who, standing alone, ‘triumphs for the people’ as the headline of the 26 July edition of Alchorouk paper put it, is an anti-democratic illusion. It feeds on, and is feeding, populist fervor that has gripped democracies the world over, old and new.

The oddity staring everyone in the face is that Saied is a lecturer in constitutional law. Yet he seems all too comfortable acting against political pluralism and party competitiveness. He decries the media for criticizing him, forever warning of foreign plots and conspiracies. Always, always, claiming to speak on behalf of ‘the people’.

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The nation’s young democracy is already at a critical junction. What comes next?

Over the past year or so, Saied has already done much damage by refusing to cooperate with institutions of government. He has held back on signing acts of Parliament and refused to coordinate with the other two presidencies and with those political parties not to his liking. Saied has spoken out against rival parties and has dithered on a national dialogue between different political forces in the country (which the country’s largest labor union, the UGTT, has for months tried to organize) because the list of invitees did not suit him. And so on.

Saied’s end game is as yet unclear. It is hard to predict whether or not he will hold his ground for the full 30 days, or if he will, as he says, end these ‘exceptional’ measures in one month. . It seems that even those within the institutions he leads have doubts about his power grab, as hinted by his sacking of the minister of defense.

Is this Tunisia being led by populism, from above?

Dangers for democracy

Even if Saied restores democratic institutions and processes in a month’s time, Tunisians – as well as those who vouch for democratization across the region and the world – should be concerned. A president who bestows upon himself inordinate powers is not playing the democratic game.

Doing justice to the complex and varied needs, aspirations and positions of ‘the people’ is beyond the capabilities of any one man or woman. That is why democracy exists.

Tunisia has continuously transitioned from one emergency to another since the popular uprising of 2011 brought it onto the path of democratic politics. The principle of checks and balances is at the heart of the intensely negotiated and hard-won 2014 constitution.

A president who bestows upon himself inordinate powers is not playing the democratic game

Article 80, while acknowledging a disruption of normal politics, does couch the ability of any president to launch a state of exception in a language of restraint. The three bodies of the state, especially the prime minister and speaker of the Parliament, should be involved in what could be called a binding shura, or consultation. Kaïs Saeed has not bypassed a legal nicety but a constitutional imperative of monumental importance: the checks and balances needed to avert the possibility of the abuse of executive power.

Tunisia's fledgling democracy necessitates restraint by political actors. To play a zero-sum game will erode the trust so badly needed in such a politically diverse society. The solutions to its political, economic and social problems require the continuation of consensus and compromise in the national interest.

What next?

The dismantled democratic institutions and the inordinate powers claimed by President Saied on 25 July are now in doubt. It remains to be seen what will happen in the next 30 days – summer is a sluggish time for government offices and the bureaucracy and Ennahda will have a hard time with the new measures. One might venture that the party is the main target, having made many enemies over the past decade, particularly since the 2019 elections. The question now is what happens to the democratic process.

But there are a few things to bear in mind.

Those advocating for early elections may be skipping over a key loophole: institution-building is incomplete. New elections cannot be held given the current “constitutional void”, according to Nabil Buffon, head of the country’s election commission. Political decisions are being made within a legal-juridical vacuum of sorts.

What’s more, new elections are very costly. Tunisia is currently undergoing one of the worst series of crises (the pandemic, the failing economy, etc.) and negotiations with the IMF over another loan package have stalled.

Police stand in front of clashes between citizens and members of the Ennahda Movement and the Al Karama Coalition.photo
Protest has become commonplace in Tunisia amid deepening inequalities and a deteriorating economy | Chokri Mahjoub/ZUMA Press Wire/Alamy

The voices calling for a national dialogue have grown louder as trust in democratic institutions has declined. The political role of civil society actors such as the Nobel Quartet, and its members, are democratic gains that may help restore the democratic process.

However, some elites and other non-Islamist power-holders and actors, such as the UGTT appear to be speaking with two tongues. They seem divided, refraining from condemning the president’s move. Instead, the union has asked for “guarantees” that Saied will abide by the constitution and that the country will eventually return to the democratic process. Some of its apparatchiks have no qualms about lending full support to the president’s actions, as revealed by daily newspaper Al-Sabah on 27 July 2021.

Abir Moussi, rising claimant to the mantle of power and the Bourguibist heritage, appears buoyant on the back of favorable opinion polls placing her at the forefront of electoral intentions. Hers (especially her Facebook page) is a space to be watched in Tunisian politics.

There appears to be slowly mounting international pressure on the president: US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, stressed “adher[ance] to the principles of democracy and human rights” in a phone call with Saied. Meanwhile, the US’s ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, emphasized “full compliance with [Tunisia’s] constitution and democratic principles”. The EU has called for the “resumption of parliamentary activity”.

Civil society is demanding legal guarantees and a timely return to the democratic process

Diplomatic pressure on the president to resume the functioning of democratic institutions should not punish Tunisians desperate for protection from the COVID pandemic. Clearly, it should not take the form of using vaccines as “leverage”.

Tunisians are disagreeing, and that is what democracy is about. But they are not looking for external intervention or punitive measures.

The Road Ahead..

There is growing talk of a ‘roadmap’ and a ‘National Salvation Government’. Amid the mayhem and uncertainty, the next few days will be consequential. Saied has ‘shot, asking questions later’. Unless he is a Superman capable of addressing the country’s colossal problems (political, economic, social, public health), the president has placed himself in a huge quandary. In the weeks and months ahead, he may find himself a victim of his own anti-democratic encroachments.

Tunisia’s is a constitutional coup but it seems to have military backing. Saied has (mis)interpreted the law, taking it into his own hands. Some have given him the benefit of the doubt, insisting on the legality of his actions. But, as we know, what is legal is not always right.

Saeid is single-handedly taking it upon himself to remake the country’s political system according to his own presidential image. His statements over the past 18 months indicate that he envisions a new system not necessarily operated by political parties, instead populated and popularized by some version of citizen-led ‘popular committees’.

Saied does not have the final word: civil society is demanding legal guarantees and a timely return to the democratic process. Long celebrated as the region’s clearest hope for democratization, Tunisia’s incipient democracy faces a huge test for the resilience of its civil society, as well as the cooperation and ingenuity of its political class.

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