Is Tunisia’s President Endangering Democracy?

Recently, Tunisia has witnessed a political dynamic that is all too rare in the Arab world: Islamists have joined forces with some secularly oriented Members of Parliament to criticize a president whose words and deeds have taken on an increasingly authoritarian hue. These leaders fear that President Kais Saied is trying to impose a strong presidential system that will negate or limit the parliament’s authority and thus send Tunisia reeling backwards into the future.

These concerns could well be overdrawn. Talk of a “constitutional coup” feels more like a partisan maneuver to mobilize support rather than an accurate assessment of Tunisia’s current situation. Still, this is not a moment for complacency. The good news is that Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi still has support from both Islamist and more secularly oriented MPs for a cabinet whose authority President Saied in fact rejects. The bad news is that the president has at least tacit support from several powerful MPs, including Abir Moussi, an old regime politician who has pushed to expel all Islamists from the political system. She and her Free Destourian Party could make major gains if the standoff between Mechichi and Saied leads to the government’s collapse and new elections.

Talk of a “constitutional coup” feels more like a partisan maneuver to mobilize support rather than an accurate assessment of Tunisia’s current situation

The prospect of another election in a society worn down by the ruling elite’s incessant political infighting could produce a massive no-show at the polls. Such an outcome would only benefit extremists from all the key political camps, thus inviting further factional conflicts. Yet what is perhaps most disconcerting is that formation of a new parliament could ensue without the creation of a Supreme Court—the one body that would have the authority to arbitrate conflicts between the president and parliament. Sadly, the president has played no small role in blocking the court’s creation. Although once admired as one of Tunisia’s leading authorities on constitutional law, Kais Saied has not mustered the moral, political, and legal vision that Tunisia desperately needs and deserves to move forward.

The Constitutional Crisis and the Politics of the Missing Supreme Court

Mechichi has been locked in a political battle with the president from almost the very moment he become prime minister in February 2021. This conflict emerged when Mechichi reshuffled the cabinet, a move that involved sacking several ministers who were aligned with Saied. Insisting that the constitution requires that he approve the new ministers, Saied has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Mechichi’s government. While this enduring constitutional crisis ostensibly revolves around the issue of executive versus presidential authority, it is animated by a deeper contest between Islamists and secular leaders to control parliament. A veteran politician from the modernist camp, Mechichi now finds himself opposed by MPs such as Abir Moussi, who rejects his alliance with the Islamist-oriented Ennahda Party and has done everything in her power to sabotage it. Moussi and other anti-Islamist leaders support a more powerful presidency because they believe it will serve as a bulwark against Islamist influence.

Such conflicts help to explain both the importance of the Supreme Court and the failure to create it. According to the constitution, the body was supposed to be set up within one year of legislative elections. But efforts to select the court collapsed following both the 2014 and 2019 legislative elections. This failure was partly due to the procedures established by law to create the court, which provides for a body with 12 members, four each to be appointed by parliament, the Supreme Judicial Council, and the president. Whether by design or default, this procedure has repeatedly invited a struggle between Islamists and secular leaders to produce a court favorable to their ideological interests. Indeed, the parliament has failed eight times to elect four members, thus underscoring the high stakes prompted by the contest over the court.

Saied Blocks Efforts to Appoint the Court

In an effort to avoid yet another failure, on March 25 the parliament passed an amendment to the Supreme Court law that lowered the majority of MPs required to elect four justices, from 145 to 131. Because this change was spearheaded by Ennahda leader and Parliament Speaker Rachid Ghannouchi and backed by a government that was at loggerheads with the president, it provoked opposition from Mechichi’s rivals, not least of whom was the president. Using his constitutional prerogatives, Saied not only returned the amended bill unsigned, but he sent a letter to parliament in which he argued that he had no choice but to reject the bill because the parliament had failed to observe the constitution’s requirement that the court be established within one year of legislative elections, the most recent of which occurred in October 2019.

Saied feared that the real purpose of the amendment was to undermine his presidency by assembling a supreme court whose members might go after him

It quickly became clear that Saied’s actions were based on political calculations rather than constitutional principles. Indeed, in an April 3 speech he complained that “after more than five years, after a deep sleep, they’ve remembered about the Constitutional Court … I will not accept a court formed to settle accounts … Anyone wanting me to violate the constitution is looking for a mirage.” This oblique reference to “settling scores” was telling. After all, the constitution provides that the Supreme Court not only has the right of judicial review but, under certain circumstances, it can also end the president’s term. Thus, it appears that Saied feared that the real purpose of the amendment was to undermine his presidency by assembling a court whose members might go after him.

Whether this concern was justified or not, in the ensuing weeks the conflict between the president and Ennahda escalated. Indeed, after Saied refused to meet with MPs or members of the government, one leading member of Ennahda asserted that the president sought to “obstruct the government work and disrupt the work of state institutions by threatening, intimidating and dividing Tunisians.” Thus, by early April the battle lines between the president and his prime minister were drawn even more clearly.

Saied’s Cairo Visit Widens the Breach

Kais Saied’s three-day visit to Cairo in April 2021, which began barely a week after he had crossed swords with Ennahda, not only offered him the chance to highlight his authority as Tunisia’s chief diplomat; it also provided a timely occasion to signal to his domestic rivals that geostrategic interests would be Saied’s guiding principle when it came to the Maghreb and the wider region.

The symbolic import of his meeting with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi—who, after seizing power in a 2013 coup d’état, used the military and police to violently crush the Muslim Brotherhood—was surely not lost to Ennahda’s leaders. They had often invoked the example of political (and actual) bloodletting in Egypt in making their case for democracy, reconciliation, and power sharing in Tunisia. Still, if televised images of Saied’s formal reception in the presidential palace in Cairo probably elicited feelings of unease and even alarm, Ennahda Party leaders and their allies in the Mechichi government observed protocol by refraining from directly criticizing their president’s talks with Egypt’s autocratic head of state.

The symbolic import of Saied’s meeting with President Sisi—who used the military and police to violently crush the Muslim Brotherhood—was surely not lost to Ennahda’s leaders

As expected, the situation in Libya and the festering dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia, provoked by the latter’s construction the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, figured most prominently in their discussions. Egypt’s press seized upon the occasion to celebrate Sisi’s words, “I wish Tunisia and its brotherly people all good, stability and prosperity, and I renew welcome to your second country, Egypt,” while Saied himself praised Egypt for the “restoration of its effective role at the regional and international levels.” Concluding their talks with a joint press conference, the Egyptian and Tunisian presidents declared that 2021 and 2022 would be the “years of Egyptian-Tunisian culture” as well as a time for strengthening the economic ties between both countries.

Saied’s plane had barely touched down back in Tunis when his Cairo visit took center stage in Tunisia’s domestic politics. While not mentioning Ennahda directly, Saied assailed media reports suggesting that he and Sisi had reached secret agreements aimed at undermining Ennahda. Denouncing these reports as “lies, insults and slander” in a speech marking the beginning of Ramadan, Saied asserted that the “Qur’an was directed to Muslims, not to Islamists.” This distinction between Muslims and Islamists was clearly designed to draw a line between those Tunisians who simply practiced their faith, and those “Islamists” who, the president intimated, used or abused it for political purposes. In ominous tones, Saied warned that, “Some of the actions are religious in appearance. However, they are not without political purposes.” Thus, he effectively questioned the very legitimacy of all Islamist parties.

Striking back, Rafik Abdessalem, a former minister of foreign affairs and Ghannouchi’s son-in-law, stated on his Facebook page1 that “heads of Islamic states usually congratulate their people on the start of the Holy month … Our president, however, insisted on spreading hatred and attempted to hijack religion after hijacking the constitution.”

Saied’s Remarks on the Security Forces Light a Firestorm

Just two weeks following the above dustup, Saied added more fuel to the fire. The occasion was the 65th anniversary of the Internal Security Forces Day. In a speech before national leaders including both Mechichi and Ghannouchi, Saied asserted that the “president is the supreme commander of the military and civilian armed forces. Let this be clear to all Tunisians … I do not intend to monopolize these forces, but the constitution must be respected.”

Saied surely knew that his remarks were potentially incendiary. Article 77 of the 2014 Constitution states that the president is the “Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces” but does not clarify whether this means the military only or the internal security forces as well. The latter are presumably under the authority of the minister of interior, who is responsible to the elected parliament rather than to the president. But the overwhelming language of Article 77 emphasizes that the president’s role is to protect Tunisia from all “internal and external” security threats, “after consultation with the Head of Government,” thus establishing an implicit, if important, division of labor and authority between the government and the president. This arrangement is echoed in Articles 18 and 19, which delegate specific roles to the “republican army” whose mission is to “defend the nation” and the “national security forces,” responsible for “security and public order.”

Even though Saied had denied that he wanted to “monopolize these forces,” his remarks seemed to suggest the possibility of reviving former President ben Ali’s presidential system

This arrangement was meant to preclude any possibility of reviving former President Zine El-Abidine ben Ali’s presidential system, which effectively gave Tunisia’s former dictator power over the entire security apparatus, the most important element of which was the security forces that provided the very foundation of his power. Even though Saied had denied that he wanted to “monopolize these forces,” his remarks seemed to suggest the possibility of reviving a system that most Tunisians assumed would never return. Indeed, when he insisted that his powers covered both the armed forces and the security forces, Saied provoked a firestorm of criticism from both secularly oriented and Islamist leaders as well as some constitutional scholars. But if he surely heard their objections, he did not have to worry because the one institution that might have the authority to arbitrate competing interpretations of the constitution was not yet constituted—in part because Saied himself had helped to block the creation of the much-needed Supreme Court.

Given this situation, it was hardly surprising that Mechichi pushed back. The president’s remarks, he insisted, were “Out of context, and we need a discourse that unites Tunisians in support of the government and the authorities.” Ennahda’s leaders were less diplomatic. Saied’s announcement, they proclaimed on the party’s Facebook page, was a “contravention of the Constitution and the laws of the country and a violation of the political system and the Prime Minister’s prerogatives.” The president, Ennahda insisted, should “refrain from all attempts to obstruct and undermine the functioning of the state.” Abir Moussi did not, of course, lend her voice to this groundswell of criticism against a president who only weeks before had threatened Ennahda and who was now claiming control over the security apparatus in ways that were sure to alarm her Islamist rivals.

Where Next?

Indeed, the Ennahda Party’s greatest fear is that at any moment, the authorities will ban the party and arrest its leaders and followers, thus sending Tunisia back to the era of dictatorial rule. But if this fear is understandable, warnings from Ennahda leaders that the president is plotting a “soft coup” seem premature, if not exaggerated. While he has not hidden his disdain for the very imperfect political system, there is little evidence that Saied has a strategy to create an alternative political order. Moreover, while vulnerable, the institutions of democracy in Tunisia remain intact. Abir Moussi’s theatrical grandstanding inside and outside the parliament has not convinced a majority of MPs to back her quest for a presidential system, one that would effectively exclude a political party that still commands considerable popular support.

But if this fear is understandable, warnings from Ennahda leaders that the president is plotting a “soft coup” seem premature, if not exaggerated

Nevertheless, polls suggest2 that she and Kais Saied remain Tunisia’s two most popular leaders. Their popularity speaks to the chasm between the existing system and major swaths of the populace which, in a context of economic and social crises exacerbated by the continued challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, cannot envision a better future. At the very moment that Tunisia needs a president who can inspire unity, Saied is plying the despair of the country’s youth to flex his own political muscles. This precarious situation might soon invite new elections, but any new parliament would probably have no more authority than the previous one, and it would not, of course, have the benefit of the yet to be created Supreme Court. The only silver lining to this otherwise dark cloud is that Tunisia’s leaders have no military or external power that will mediate their disputes. They must rely on themselves or suffer the consequences.

Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Daniel and read his publications click here

1 Source is in Arabic.
2 Source is in French.