North Africa’s Last Democracy is Now Officially Suspended
Federica Zoja 26 August 2021

The Presidency of the Tunisian Republic has announced the extension, “until further notice”, of the “state of exception” proclaimed on July 25th. In concrete terms, the activities of the People’s Assembly (the Tunisian Parliament, consisting of a single chamber) and the immunity of MPs remain suspended

As known, this decision made by President Kaïs Saïed was made following days of great social tension with scattered protests in the more important Tunisian urban centres. At these protests thousands of citizens, exasperated by the economic crisis and health emergency, demanded the head of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and his executive branch, a moderate Islamist government with a populist soul.

Summoned to the palace in Carthage to confer with the president, Mechichi finally agreed to resign late on the evening of July 25th; the circumstances of his dismissal remain unclear and the former PM reappeared in public again over two weeks after this event. For days the pan-Arabic press had reported on pressure applied, if not a real beating, by Egyptian secret service agents who were present in the Tunisian presidential palace during that last audience with Kaïs Saïed. All those involved denied any foreign interference, but the ‘accord’ between the Tunisian and the Egyptian president (Abdel Fattah al-Sisi) is well-known in North African chancelleries.

In mid-August, Mechichi was photographed at the Tunisian Authorities Anti-Corruption Offices while handing over documentation concerning his income and his assets.


A coup d’état, yes or no?

President Saïed resorted to Article 80 of the Constitution (the most recent one was approved in 2014), which envisages the possibility of “suspending” parliament for thirty days when there is particular risk involving the country’s security and stability. It also envisages that during this non-extendable period, the Constitutional Court should verify the correctness of the work done by the presidency, aimed at entrusting the task of forming a new government as quickly as possible.

All in all, on paper, legislative and executive power (in this case judicial power too considering that the president dismissed the Attorney General) cannot remain in the hands of just one man for more than a month.

But what happens when, as is happening in this case, the Constitutional Court does not exist and the person inhabiting the palace in Carthage does not appear to intend to return to normality?

Critics of the professor of constitutional law Kaïs Saïed fear that this is the new normal planned by the president and are also starting to make themselves heard.

Writing in the al-Maghreb, one of Tunisia’s most authoritative and independent political authors Zyed Krichen said: “After extending until further notice these exceptional measures, where is the government?”. Indeed, where is the government. There is no sign at all of a new government, not even one of national unity.

During the past month instead, Tunisian justice has instead worked incessantly investigating the leaders of Ennahda (moderate Islamist party with a parliamentary majority), Qalb Tounès (populist party founded by the businessman Nabil Karoui) and Aish Tounès (the political movement that ran in the elections held in the autumn of 2019). The shadow of illicit financing – also of foreign origin – received during the electoral campaign hangs over them and a long list of businessmen, politicians and Ennahda sympathisers have had their bank accounts frozen and real estate confiscated. Leaving the country is prohibited.

Then came the day of new appointments of heads of the Interior Ministry (Ridha Gharsallaoui is the new minister), the Secret Services (the new director general is Sami Hichri) and the National Guard (Chokri Riahi) to quote only the most important ones.

Ennahda, on the other hand, whose offices were attacked and set fire to in various locations at the end of June, has adopted a low profile avoiding further reiterations accusing the president of a coup. Having renewed its executive committee (with its leader Rached Ghannouchi remaining in his position), the party of “Rebirth” is now calling for a return to normality together with other political parties.


The presidency’s non-answers

“A return to the previous situation is out of the question”, says Saïed to political parties begging him to reinstate a democratic framework. Furthermore, “What matters is not the government but continuity in the state’s work.” Tunisians have not had a chance to be informed about the manner in which the state intends to proceed and all economic, political and social objectives and strategies remain enveloped in mystery, while new changed constitutional guidelines are envisaged – at which point the president intends to hold a referendum – as is a new election.

In the middle of all this, presidential eloquence is, to say the least, leaving political observers perplexed. The president’s governing, political loyalty to the president, the president assuming all responsibility bring to mind authoritarian rather than democratic scenarios. Furthermore, if this pseudo-autocratic shift was aimed at resolving serious contingent issues, little if anything has changed one month later if not the press’ less rigid attitude regards to the emergencies.

As far as the epidemic is concerned, after a peak of cases in mid-July, the context remains worrying mainly due to the lack of oxygen, drugs and hospital beds. Medical authorities fear that the already significant flow of doctors leaving the country will increase; as of today, out of 1,200 medical graduates each year, over 50% chose to work abroad.

As for the economic stalemate, there is still no sign of a solution; the Budget Law is far from being approved, while the Presidency of the Republic is still getting rid of all top managers in the Ministry of Economy and Finance and the main national banks.

Uncertainty reigns in the North African country, as also emphasised by the rise in illegal departures from the Tunisian coast to European shores. On August 25th alone, the Tunisian Coast Guard stopped 11 boats loaded with hundreds of irregular migrants, most of them Tunisian citizens.


Free voices at risk

Yassine Ayari is an independent MP as well as an activist and a blogger. Arrested for having described the suspesion of Parliament at the end of July as a coup d’état, he was sentenced to two months in prison. Writing on Facebook his wife describes his detention as “violent”. He has recently started to publish posts on social media again and more recently invited those who voted for him to send him issues to work on since he is “still being paid wages as a member of Parliament.”

Ayari has already had problems with the law in the past. In 2015 he was sentenced to six months in prison for having defamed the Armed Forces. The three months sentence of 2018 for ‘criticism’ of the military, however, was not served because he enjoyed parliamentary immunity. This applied until the suspension of his prerogatives as an MP. On July 30th  he was stopped by secret service agents with no regular arrest warrant, according to reports filed by fellow MPs belonging to the ‘Hope and Work’ party.

In this ambiguous and complex environment, free voices that are intimidated, arrested and hindered are multiplying, while their stories rarely find space in the mainstream media. Reporting is entrusted to local and international NGOs via social networks.

In contrast, the same media provides broad coverage of opinion polls that strengthen the president’s decisions, such as the one carried out by the Sigma Conseil Institute and published in mid-August according to which Kaïs Saïed enjoys strong popular support according to 94.9 percent of the Tunisians asked. If new elections were held today, he would be confirmed in his role by a large majority. And were he to create a new ‘party of the president’, it would be in second place in parliament, behind the renovator Abir Moussi (leader of the ‘Free Desturian’, openly inspired by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s Rassemblement Démocratique).

“Civil society certainly wants to put an end to an Islamist administration that has been a calamity for Tunisia,” commented Krichen, talking to Reset DOC in Tunis, “But without sacrificing democracy and human rights. For the time being, the president has reiterated his respect for individual and collective freedom.” The fact remains that, today, “the temptation to follow an authoritarian path is very strong in the country”.


Cover Photo: Kaïs Saïed celebrating his victory in the Tunisian presidential election – Tunis, October 13, 2019 (Fethi Belaid / AFP).

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