The demonstrators who burst into the streets of Tunis and other Tunisian cities this week chanted “The coup must fail,” and “Saied, you coward, the parliament won’t be humiliated.” A coup, no less, is how opponents of President Kais Saied described his decision this week to dismiss the prime minister and several other ministers, suspend parliament and impose a 30-day curfew.
In contrast, supporters of the president and his latest moves flooded social media with calls to establish a strong presidential system of government, oust the Islamist Ennahda (“renaissance”) party from power and start running the country more aggressively.
Arab and Western media, meanwhile, raised the obvious questions. Is Tunisia, the only country that managed to establish a democracy following the Arab Spring revolutions, moving backwards? Is it returning to the dictatorial regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled the country following the 2011 revolution? Is this a watershed event that could destroy the country, or just another crisis, however severe and dangerous, that could be resolved with an agreement?
Over the last two years, the same conditions that fed the 2011 Jasmine Revolution have come to fruition. Unemployment has soared to the frightening level of almost 20 percent overall, and to 40 percent among young people. Tourism, one of the country’s strategic revenue sources, has still not recovered from the blow dealt to it by the coronavirus crisis. And its political leadership hasn’t offered real solutions to either of these problems.
Through its failures, the government has turned Tunisia into the African country worst hit by the virus, with about 574,000 cases and 19,000 deaths in a population of roughly 12 million. It needed the donation of a million vaccines that arrived from the United States this week.
Preparations for the protests began months ago. Marches traditionally take place in December, in memory of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor who set off the Jasmine Revolution when he set himself on fire that month. This year, the unrest was relatively muted because of the coronavirus, but the protesters apparently decided to set the country ablaze on a no less important anniversary – July 25, the day in 1957 when the newly independent country abolished its monarchy and became a republic. This day has been a national holiday ever since, and it was on this date that the president chose to take the dramatic steps that shook the country.
July 25 is also the day when Tunisia’s previous president, Beji Caid Essebsi, died. Two months later, Saied won the election, and entered office in October 2019. That was the country’s second democratic election (the first was in 2014), and it seemed that Tunisia had fortified the walls against the return of the dictatorship it lived under before the revolution.
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But videos posted on social media this week showed police beating demonstrators and dispersing them with enormous quantities of tear gas, raising new doubts. These scenes recalled the huge demonstrations that erupted in 2013, which threatened to dismantle the fragile government set up after the revolution. That same year, two prominent public figures were murdered – attorney Chokri Belaid and politician Mohammed Brahmi – which sparked riots. The assassinations took place against the backdrop of Islamist terror attacks in Tunisia, exacerbated the possibility of a civil war.
Façade of reconciliation
Through a political agreement between the heads of the parties, the government was able to reestablish calm, hold elections and set up a national dialogue between most of Tunisia's political movements.
That national dialogue culminated in the Carthage Agreement, which was signed in July 2016 by all the parties in the governing coalition as well as most of those in the opposition, the country’s strongest labor union and the manufacturers association. That pact laid the groundwork for the way the country is run today.
Formally, Tunisia has a “semi-presidential” system of government. This means that power is divided between the president, who is directly elected for a five-year term, and the prime minister, who is chosen by the president from the party that won the majority of the vote. The prime minister must then form a government, which has to be approved by parliament.
According to the constitution, the president is the commander in chief of the military. He also controls foreign policy and internal security, and under “exceptional circumstances,” he can suspend parliament. He can also demand that parliament revise laws that, in his opinion, are unconstitutional.
The prime minister is responsible for all other areas of governmental activity and derives most of his power from parliament. This system was meant to create a governmental consensus that would prevent ideological disputes between the right and left and between the religious and secular – the kind of disputes that caused the unrest that had erupted three years earlier.
This system of government ostensibly ensures political calm, and therefore ensures that the government can do its job. But the fact that the prime minister has been replaced three times since the Carthage Agreement was signed shows that the political reconciliation is just a facade.
The system’s biggest flaw is that the government hasn’t managed to enact the reforms needed to get the country back on its feet. Dozens of laws have been submitted to parliament for approval, but because they haven’t obtained “consensual” agreement, they continue to gather dust.
No economic reform that could hurt either workers or manufacturers, two groups represented in parliament, can be passed. A reform of the military, which has been greatly weakened in recent years in favor of a stronger police force, isn’t being implemented because of objections from the president. And a legal reform that was supposed to include establishing a constitutional court is also languishing in the cage of consensus.
Saied announced this week that he was suspending parliament and dismissing ministers in accordance with Article 80 of the constitution, which grants him these powers under “exceptional circumstances." Legal experts charged that he was distorting the language of the constitution. This is the kind of dispute the constitutional court was supposed to resolve, but in its absence, Saied can stick to his own interpretation without any other statutory body authorized to contradict him. Consequently, Tunisian politicians and journalists can only hope that the president, a lawyer by training who was a law professor before entering politics, will also prove to have a professional conscience and reconvene parliament at the end of the 30 days specified in the constitution.
Saied is trying to calm these fears by saying he took this unusual step only because the prime minister and his cabinet ran the country’s affairs so poorly, and particularly during the coronavirus, causing an outbreak of public protests that threatened the country’s stability and the public’s safety. But these arguments don’t convince his opponents, who say he could have replaced the prime minister and fired the ministers without suspending parliament, and certainly could have consulted the parliament’s speaker first.
Yet this argument, too, is disingenuous, because the speaker is Rached Ghannouchi, the founder of Ennahda. He is a disciple of the Muslim Brotherhood who was persecuted for years by Ben Ali’s regime and returned to his homeland only after the dictator fled. Ghannouchi is the main supporter of the ousted Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, so even if the president were to consult him, it’s unlikely he would give a green light to the ouster.
On Monday, the 80-year-old Ghannouchi joined a group of Ennahda supporters holding a sit-in outside parliament to demand that it reconvene. Despite the burning heat, he sat with them for 12 hours. But his hopes of thereby mobilizing a mass protest movement were dashed.
Ghannouchi had thought the West, particularly France and the United States, would also mobilize against this anti-democratic measure and press Saied to reverse course. But here, too, he was disappointed. When the leaders of these countries said they were following events with concern and demanded that democratic principles be upheld, but refrained from issuing condemnations or threats, Ghannouchi understood that it was time to retreat. Two days later, he announced that he would seek to reopen a dialogue with the president to get parliament reconvened.
Tunisians saw Ghannouchi’s announcement as the end of the protest, at least by the Islamist movements. Senior government officials are already making guesses about who the next prime minister will be and predicting Saied’s victory in the current political battle. But the issue of appointing a new prime minister is secondary to the question of the president’s intentions.
Public opinion polls show growing support for amending the constitution to make Tunisia's governmental system a fully presidential one, in order to escape the political impasse the current system has created. But if Saied seeks to acquire more power for himself, he will need support from parliament. He is not guaranteed a majority there, since the parties comprising the governing coalition have managed to secure economic and political advantages for themselves under the current system.
On the other hand, it’s possible that precisely because they fear losing these advantages, the shockwaves Saied generated will lead some of these parties – first and foremost Ennahda, which fears a fate similar to that suffered by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – to grant the president more power as long as the current system isn’t dissolved.
A no less important question is how the public will respond to Saied’s next moves, and in particular, whether he will offer human rights groups greater participation in the government and its institutions. If he does, not only will he neutralize their protest, but he’ll build another political base for himself that could serve him well during his remaining time in power.