Saïed had Carefully Paved the Way for the Suspension of Democracy. What’s Next for Tunisia?
Federica Zoja 30 July 2021

87 percent of Tunisians support President Kaïs Saïed’s decision to ‘freeze’ parliament’s work for 30 days, force the resignation of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, and suspend the immunity of Members of Parliament according to the Emrhod Consulting poll, commissioned by Attessia TV and Business News, and carried out on a panel of citizens of age, between July 26 and 28 in 24 governorates.  However, a more attentive reading of the data reveals that while 46 percent of Tunisians say they are not worried about the future of the country, 42 percent of those questioned in the survey took the opposite view. In other words, the polarisation of Tunisian society has been taken to extremes by the presidential move made on the 25th of July. A situation as tense as a rubber band that could snap at any moment.

The presidential decision took many, but not everyone, by surprise: “I expected this, considering the way things were going, with the situation progressively deteriorating over the past two years. Parliamentary debates had become a farce; MPs no longer managed to speak, we had gone from verbal to physical violence,” explains Amel Grami, a Tunisian academic and activist. In recent weeks images of the People’s Assembly (the Tunisian Parliament has one chamber) emptied of its members, spoke for themselves, “the only ones on the scene were Abir Moussi’s supporters (MPs belonging to the New Constitutional Liberal Party, the heir to the traditions of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique) and Ennahda’s clan of Islamists. And the Assembly’s President Rached Ghannouchi (Ennahda’s founder and its de facto leader) was unable to guarantee the smooth running of sessions. He should have resigned in favour of someone stronger and more capable. What the president did was not a coup, it was a necessary.”

Omar Fassatoui, associate researcher at SciencesPo-Aix is also convinced that it was not possible to continue as things stood: “Islamists were thinking only about the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, hence following a plan and interests that are no longer those of this country.” At the moment citizens are blaming the ruling class, and in particular the party that had enjoyed majority approval since 2012 (together with the liberals led by Nidaa Tounès between 2014 and 2018, those who reached a historical compromise between Islamists and modernists) which “resolved nothing; they received money from Qatar and did nothing.”

All this is happening against the backdrop of a dramatic health crisis with the authorities estimating that 50% of the population is currently infected in the provinces most affected by the Covid-19 Delta variant. Both ICUs and normal wards now converted into Covid areas for the emergency are all full in the hospitals. There is a lack of oxygen and only a little over 7 percent of the country’s 12 million inhabitants have been vaccinated.


Coup or democratic fence? 

This unexpected sudden intervention by President Saïed, a constitutionalist and university lecturer elected in September 2019, raises numerous questions concerning its legitimacy. It is based on Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, the one drafted by a Constituent Assembly with an Islamist majority, but also supported by the modernist elements.

In recent weeks, the presidency had discreetly leaked its dissatisfaction with a constitution that was not adequate for dealing with the current crisis to the press: “It envisaged the possibility of dissolving Parliament and calling early elections, but that was not possible,” Grami argued, adding that “there were two attempts made, but the buying and selling of votes in the Assembly thwarted them both.”

This resulted in the very risky decision involving the suspension of democracy for a month; article 80 in fact envisages that the Constitutional Court can intervene once the activities of the People’s Assembly have been stopped. Tunisian politics, however, has not yet during the long post-revolutionary years managed to create this guarantor body; in the absence of a control and containment system, there is a real danger of an authoritarian swing.

Saïed has concentrated all executive power (he will have to choose a new premier to form a government), juridical power (he also dismissed the attorney general and appointed himself ad interim) and also legislative power (no MP is permitted to enter parliament and the building is guarded by the army) in his own hands.

In the meantime, the Internal, Defence and Justice Ministers, all Prime Minister Mechichi’s closest advisors, the heads of national agencies and companies partly owned by the state (see Tunisair), the head of the secret services and the director of state television, have all been removed from their positions.


A long cherished plan

But the showdown with the Islamist front is only just beginning. Since mid-July – but we have only just discovered this – magistrates have been examining alleged secret funding received during the 2019 elections campaign, and later too, by Ennahda, Qalb Tounès (Heart of Tunisia, a populist party founded by the media tycoon Nabil Karoui, in turn involved in investigations in recent years concerning international money laundering) and Aich Tounsi (I Love Tunisia, a political movement that ran in the 2019 elections finishing fifth).

These are all delicate files that the Tunisian secret service had obviously been sitting on for some time and the presidency has decided to now contest.

It is likely that the judges will soon be dealing with Islamist-driven local administrations, as posts circulating on social media suggest: “Despite the curfew, many young people have been going out anyway and filmed officials trying to get rid of documents and archive material in some Ennahda-ruled municipalities. It is important that nothing should be lost and that justice should clarify everything concerning crimes committed by Islamists against the State,” emphasised Grami.

The situation is evolving, the rumours in the press are continuous and contradictory not only in regard to President Saïed’s intentions concerning the 30-day ‘state of exception’ (not emergency) but also the dynamics of Prime Minister Mechichi’s forced resignation. Reporting the words of reliable sources close to the former prime minister, the British news website Middle East Eye reported that Mechichi had been accompanied by Tunisian security agents to Carthage, because he had been summoned there by the president.

It was there that he was asked to resign, as had already happened often in recent weeks. When he refused, as he had done numerous times previously, “people who were not Tunisian” allegedly intervened and are said to have attacked him physically inflicting “serious wounds” on the premier.

Who were those who interfered? “Officers belonging to Egypt’s security services”, while the Tunisian officers allegedly remained outside the presidential palace.

According to a source quoted by Middle East Eye, the ‘specialists’ sent by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had arrived in Tunis days earlier to support and advise the president-jurist whose friendship with his Egyptian colleague is nothing new to the pan-Arab media.

Rached Ghannouchi, also summoned to Carthage, is thought to have escaped the ambush because he had just been released from hospital and his absence was therefore ‘justified’. Ghannouchi had been hospitalised after becoming infected with Covid-19.

“I categorically deny that I was attacked,” wrote the 47-year-old former prime minister in a note, who has yet to appear in public since Sunday July 25th. This is certainly not reassuring since, “he had injuries to his face and that is why he has not shown himself in public,” explained anonymous sources close to the former premier to the MEE, adding additional details; “Egyptian soldiers and security men were sent to Tunisia fully supported by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed”.

So is Tunisia to become the new regional battle ground for the eternal opponents ‘Qatar-Turkey’ versus ‘Egypt-Emirates’?

The President of the Republic rejects all accusations involving foreign interference or authoritarianism and anti-constitutionalism, a hypothalso posited by well-known players on the international political stage by well-known players such as Yadh Ben Achour: “Resorting to Article 80 is simply an alibi that can only deceive those who are naïve,” said the jurist on July 27th talking to La Presse de Tunisie.

Ben Achour had already spoken out early in June about Saïd’s behaviour, mentioning a “permanent coup d’état against the Constitution”.

Aymen Boughanmi, an academic at Kairouan University and political analyst said “the words ‘serious violation of the Constitution’ would, for the moment, seem to me more appropriate than the words ‘coup d’état’. And when I say ‘for the moment’, I mean that if this élan (the president’s) is not contained, then fear will be experienced and we will be back where we started”.

That would mean back to a starting point that could sweep away a decade of Tunisian democratic process and once and for all inscribe the words ‘The End’ on the Arab Spring.


Cover Photo: Tunisia’s President Kaïs Saïed appears on TV to announce the dissolution of parliament and Prime Minister Mechichi’s government – July 25, 2021 (Fethi Belaid / AFP).

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