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Saied of Tunisia, the Savior of the Arab Spring or the Last Nail in its Coffin

Tunisian security officers outside the parliament
Tunisian security officers hold back protesters outside the parliament building in the capital Tunis on July 26, 2021, following a move by the president to suspend the country’s parliament and dismiss the Prime Minister.
FETHI BELAID / AFP

Iheb Jemel

On the night of the country’s 64th Republic Day, and despite anti-government protests taking place in different major cities, Tunisians were not ready for the political earthquake that was about to take place.

In an unexpected move, president Kais Saied, froze parliament, lifted parliamentary immunity,  dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, and took over executive, legislative, and even judicial power through presiding over the public prosecution. The president cited article 80 of the country’s 2014 constitution, which states that “The President of the Republic, in a state of the imminent danger threatening the integrity of the country and the country’s security and independence, is entitled to take the measures necessitated by this exceptional situation, after consulting the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Cabinet”. The article, which limits the period of such measures to 30 days, allows a continuation to be decided by the Constitutional court. The court, which should have been established as of 2015, never saw the light of day due to the lack of political consensus and the enhanced majority needed to elect its members. Its absence adds a new layer of uncertainty on the current events.

In a televised speech, which saw Kais Saied surrounded by army generals and security officials, the president warned those “ who think of resorting to weapons … (that) whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets.”

Following the speech, thousands of Tunisians took to the streets in the country’s major cities, mainly Tunis, Sousse, and Nabeul; to celebrate the president’s decisions despite the COVID-19-related curfew. Car horns, ululations, chants, and even fireworks were heard throughout the first hours post-announcement. Kais Saied himself joined the celebrating crowd in Tunis’ symbolic Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the biggest of the country, which saw the January 14th major protests that put an end to Ben Ali’s rule. These celebrations do not come as a surprise considering the general feeling of distrust towards the current political scene. In a poll conducted within the next two days, a staggering 87% of Tunisians approved of the president’s measures. 

However, not everyone was on board. Rached Ghannouchi, the parliament’s speaker, and leader of the Ennahda majority party, accused Saied of launching “a coup against the revolution and constitution”, considered his decisions void, and asked his supporters to join him in defending the revolution in front of the parliament. A shy crowd showed up, only to disperse a few hours later after Ghannouchi himself, and other parliament members were denied access to the building. 

This rejection of the president’s move is shared by some of the country’s politically engaged youth. Mariem L’heni, an activist and the youth speaker of ex-president Moncef Marzouki 2014 presidential campaign, considers the decisions, “a breach to the core essence of democracy” and “a threat to the country and the region’s stability.” Although shocked by the president’s decisions, she believes that they do go in line with the presidents’ longtime “rejection of the constitution” and his “obsession with conspiracy theories.” Indeed, the president who was long considered a political outsider has clashed with the PM and the parliament on more than one occasion. This culminated in a political deadlock when he did not allow parliament-appointed ministers to take the oath, and hence, take office in February 2021. Moreover, he often accused the political parties of corruption, and of plotting against the revolution, and even against his life. 

“This is a coup, and the president is leading the country through a very dangerous path. All political parties, and NGOs, should make their stands clear and stand against this unconstitutional seizure of power”, she concludes.

In contrast, Khalil Abbes, a researcher in political sociology, a member of Kais Saied successful 2019 presidential campaign, and author of “Democracy now: an analysis of the Kais Saied phenomenon” sees the measures as necessary to “correct the course of the revolution.”

He notes that the president gave multiple opportunities to the current political scene to work together towards the country’s best interests, which they never seized, and that the president had a moral and constitutional obligation to interfere. As a matter of fact, the country has indeed been going through a political, economical, and social crisis. Moreover, Tunisia had a surge of COVID-related cases and deaths in the last couple of weeks, surpassing 18000 deaths, according to the Ministry of Health. In a country of 12 million people, this made Tunisia rank among those most heavily affected by the pandemic. This high death toll has been heavily blamed on the government that failed in establishing preventive measures and had a slow, sometimes chaotic, vaccine rollout. This led the Prime Minister to dismiss the minister of health on July 20th, in an attempt to address the people’s frustration.

Tunisian demonstratos
Supporters cheer outside the army-barricaded parliament building in the capital Tunis on July 26, 2021, after the president dismissed the prime minister and ordered parliament closed for 30 days. YASSINE MAHJOUB / AFP FETHI BELAID / AFP

“This is a step back on the revolutionary path that started in December 2010.” adds Khalil “The political parties have failed Tunisians, and the revolution, in the last 10 years.”  He also believes that the measures, which are temporary, will focus on combating the prevailing impunity, revive the national economy, and fix the hybrid political system which “had never, and will never be able to produce a strong national government.”

In fact, the Tunisian electoral system, which came after over 50 years of dictatorship, has made it almost impossible for any party to gain a parliamentary absolute majority. In 2014, Nidaa Touness came first with only 86 seats out of 217. In 2019, Ennahdha ranked first in the parliament, despite only gathering 52 seats. “This creates hybrid alliances, unnatural ones, in order to create a majority government. We have seen alliances between parties that were on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum such as Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha. These alliances are fragile, unable to bring change, and only reinforce corruption and backdoor deals.”

Saied, himself has long called to change the electoral law and the current dual executive regime that failed to produce lasting governments. In the 10 years post-revolution, Tunisia had 8 different Prime ministers and countless cabinet reshuffles. “We believe that Kais Saied will give Tunisians the opportunity to choose a better representative regime” concludes Khalil.

Most Tunisian NGOs have been careful in addressing Saied’s measures. A group of major actors of civic society mainly, The National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists, the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights, The Tunisian General Labor Union, The National Bar Association of Tunisia, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, the Tunisian Judges Association, And Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights released a joint press release “adopting the legitimate demands of the Tunisian people”, “warning against any illegal and unjustified extension of the disruption of state institutions”, and “calling on the President of the Republic to set a road map according to a clear calendar that does not exceed thirty days and in a participatory manner with all civil forces.”

Khayem Chamli, Member of lawyers without borders and coordinator of the Tunisian coalition of defending transitional justice, says that “the Tunisian civic society knows that these measures came as a natural result of months of political and economic instability, and yet, they are careful in choosing how to address it.” Kais Saied, who is no stranger to civic society, is aware of this initial worry. In back-to-back meetings on January 26th, he met with different representatives of national syndicates and NGOs to give them the reassurance they seek. “In the current absence of the constitutional court and the freezing of the parliament, there is a lack of a clear legal framework on how this will unfold. At the moment, we need to trust, but most importantly, stay vigilant,” concludes Khayem.

This seems to be the general case in Tunisia, the country is on standby. Will Kais Saied restore the political stability Tunisians have been longing for, or will the opposers warning of a new Sissi become reality.

In an atmosphere of uncertainty, Khalil Abbes for one seems to be sure that there is only one possible outcome.  “Tunisia will never go backwards. We have a double safety net. First, Kais Saied himself, whom we have known and worked with for years, who proved time and time again his unconditional alignment to the people’s will, and more importantly, the Tunisian people itself. We have reached a level of political consciousness that makes it inconceivable to fall back into any sort of dictatorship or despotism.”

For the sake of Tunisia’s democracy, we hope Khalil is right. Meanwhile, most Tunisians will “trust, and stay vigilant”.

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written by
Mattia Yaghmai
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