Political Crisis, Regional Power Struggles, and Creeping Presidentialism in Tunisia

Perhaps it was inevitable. The July 15 resignation of Tunisian Prime Minister Elias Fakhfakh—provoked by accusations of financial malfeasance—came only five months after the creation of a fractious power sharing government that was beset by incessant squabbling. These tensions seemed to diminish in the spring as the government struggled—with some success—to contain the COVID-19 crisis. But this moment of solidarity did not last long. Tunisia’s fragile economy could not withstand the shock of a health crisis that also forced the government to ban nearly all foreign flights, thus dealing a severe blow to the tourism industry. In the midst of an economic meltdown, political rivalries reemerged.

This debilitating dynamic was exacerbated by the regional power struggle raging in neighboring Libya. Tunisia’s warring leaders tried to leverage the Libyan situation to their domestic advantage. Predictably, their maneuvering created a toxic environment in the parliament, thus setting the stage for Fakhfakh’s resignation. President Kais Saied has now appointed Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi to be the new interim prime minister. He has one short month to form a new government, and if he fails, new elections will ensue. Such a prospect raises real concerns about the very future of Tunisia’s young democracy.

A Government Fated to Fall?

The government created only five months ago exhibited all the detriments of a power sharing arrangement whose primary function was to manage the conflicts of rival political leaders. Fakhkakh was chosen by the president after the parties failed to agree on a new prime minister. Having run in the 2019 presidential election and received only 0.34 percent of the vote—and lacking close ties to any of the larger parties—Fakhfakh was the perfect candidate for the position of prime minister precisely because he posed no real threat.

The new coalition government  was led by two parties, Echaab (the People’s Movement) and Tahya Tounis (Long Live Tunisia), that had come in sixth and seventh place in the October 2019 parliamentary elections. That they were able to play this outsized role was largely due to the resolve of other liberal and left leaning parties to keep the Islamist oriented Ennahda Party from securing any powerful ministries in the new cabinet. Ennahda received five cabinet positions, which then turned into six1 when the Ministry of Local Affairs and the Environment was divided into two separate ministries. But such numbers hardly translated into influence. From the very outset, Ennahda leaders resented what they dismissed as a numbers game that they believed—with ample cause—was designed to limit their influence. From Ennahda’s perspective, Fakhfakh was no friend and quite possibly an enemy.

From the very outset, Ennahda leaders resented what they dismissed as a numbers game that they believed—with ample cause—was designed to limit their influence. 

To be fair, Ennahda had done much to antagonize its foes. One crucial misstep was committed by its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi. He alarmed his secularly oriented rivals by running in the parliamentary elections and then securing the position of parliamentary speaker. Having long avoided competing for any formal office, Ghannouchi suddenly emerged as the spokesman for Tunisia’s new parliament (though one in which Ennahda only had 52 out of 217 seats). Seeking to break out of its isolation, it cut a deal with Qalb Tunis (Heart of Tunis), a secularly oriented party that Ennahda had previously (and loudly) assailed after its leader, the media mogul Nabil Karoui, was charged with and briefly imprisoned for campaign finance violations. By reinforcing the view of many Tunisian citizens and leaders that Ennahda was far more interested in securing power than in fighting corruption, the Karoui-Ghannouchi deal steeled the resolve of Ennahda’s rivals to exclude Ennahda’s newfound friend, Qalb Tunis, from the new government. Deprived of a potential ally, Ennahda had to fight to make itself heard.

Despite its frustrations, Ennahda did not turn against Fakhfakh. Instead, during the four months of haggling that finally led to the swearing in of a government on February 27, 2020, Ennahda hedged its bets, even supporting the new prime minister when in early January a group of parties, including Qalb Tunis, threatened to push for the prime minister’s resignation. While the proximate cause for these maneuvers was his failure to stem Tunisia’s escalating economic crisis, the deeper political rationale driving these attacks on Fakhfakh was the fear of left-leaning parties that he might cut a deal with Ennahda.

If such fears were probably unfounded, it is worth noting that when talk of an investigation of a potential conflict of interest between Fakhfakh and one of his private companies began circulating as far back as early January, Ennahda’s leaders did not join in the gathering chorus of criticism against him. Instead, they made another plea for “national unity.” What Ennahda apparently wanted was not Fakhfakh’s resignation but rather a cabinet reshuffle that would enhance its leverage in the government. By late June, however, Ennahda shifted positions, thus helping to seal the prime minister’s fate.

Libya’s Middle East Power Struggles Fan the Fires of Polarization

Still, the collapse of the government was not merely a consequence of Fakhfakh’s misfortunes. Rather, his departure was hastened by the unfolding regional war in neighboring Libya, and in particular, by the efforts of Tunisia’s warring factions to exploit the Libyan situation to their domestic political advantage. Such efforts did not sit well with the Tunisian president. Speaking to France 24 following his June 24, 2020 meeting with President Emmanuel Macron, President Saied made a statement that was clearly meant for Tunisia’s political leaders. “There is one state, one head of state … and only one Tunisian diplomacy, led by the head of state.” Directing his message specifically toward Ghannouchi, he cautioned that “I don’t like to be trampled on.”

The collapse of the government was not merely a consequence of Fakhfakh’s misfortunes. Rather, his departure was hastened by the unfolding regional war in neighboring Libya.

Saied’s warning—unusual for a leader who had tried to avoid any appearance of political favoritism—was prompted by Ghannouchi’s much publicized May 24 phone call with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, during which he congratulated the prime minister for the UN-recognized Government of National Accord’s recapture of al-Watiya air base from the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar. This event represented a significant victory for those forces and governments backing GNA (not least of which were Turkey and Qatar) and a strategic setback for the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Thus while Ghannouchi insisted that the call did not violate diplomatic or political protocol, given the widening geostrategic stakes in the Libyan civil war, he must have known that his phone call would prompt a firestorm of criticism, and not only from President Saied. After all, Ghannouchi had already gotten in hot water back in January 2020 by meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Istanbul. That meeting—which in fact occurred just following Erdoğan’s announcement that he was sending troops to Libya—proved enormously costly, as Ghannouchi’s foes in the parliament used the meeting to torpedo Ennahda’s proposed candidate for the position of prime minister, thus opening the door for Saied to choose Fakhfakh for the post. Having been burned once, why did Ghannouchi risk sticking his fingers back into the Libyan flames?

While it is not an easy task to discern Ghannouchi’s motives, his most recent outreach to Erdoğan underscores two deeply held perceptions within Ennahda’s leadership: first, that the war being fought against Libya’s GNA is part and parcel of a wider regional effort to undermine any and all governments that have backing from Islamist political parties; and second, that Ennahda’s most bitter domestic political rivals have been backed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. Thus, Ennahda’s leaders appear to believe that if this coalition—which also has increasing Russian military support—scores major wins in the Libyan civil war, such victories will only embolden Ennahda’s foes. Because the nightmare of being forcefully excluded from the Tunisian political arena always looms large in the consideration of Ennahda’s leaders, they feel they cannot afford to adopt a position of pure neutrality on Libya.

These fears about the impact of the Libyan conflict on Tunisian politics were not misplaced. Indeed, they are mirrored—and animated—by the perception of Ennahda’s domestic opponents that their own political fortunes will be shaped by the forces that prevail (and lose) in Libya. Indeed, Ennahda’s most vociferous opponents—such as parliamentarian Abir Moussi and her Free Destourian Party—have in fact openly courted the support of foreign governments, a fact amply demonstrated as far back as April 2019 when Moussi held a press conference during which the UAE ambassador to Tunis, Rached Mohamed Jomâa Mansouri, stood at her side.2 More than a year later, Ennahda recalled this choreographed diplomacy and the message it effectively conveyed. Nor have more recent efforts by the UAE and Saudi Arabia to interfere in Tunisia’s domestic politics gone unnoticed. Indeed, it hardly seems a coincidence that those efforts intensified in tandem with the recent losses suffered by Haftar’s forces. Reports suggest that Sky News and the Saudi backed al-Arabiya, together with Egypt’s Youm7 newspaper, stepped up their verbal assaults on Ennahda. This campaign seems to have been designed not merely to undermine Ghannouchi but to buttress the Tunisian leaders who were stepping up their own verbal assaults on him.

Reports suggest that Sky News and the Saudi backed al-Arabiya, together with Egypt’s Youm7 newspaper, stepped up their verbal assaults on Ennahda.

On this score it seems politically significant that over the past two months, several civil society groups, including the June 1 Coordination and the Third Republic (an organization led by Mohamed Ali Abbes, a lawyer and former member of the National Salvation Front), have organized sit-ins in Bardo Square during which they have demanded the dissolution of the parliament. Whether they actually have foreign funding is far less consequential than the belief of Ennahda leaders that the UAE and Saudi Arabia are behind these groups. Such concerns have been nourished by the Turkish press, which by design or default had contributed to the further polarization of the Tunisian political arena by spreading rumors of a possible coup.

Things Fall Apart

Despite—or perhaps because of—their fears, Ennahda’s leaders did not retreat from their efforts to support Libya’s GNA. On June 2nd, Ghannouchi himself declared that “if there is a fire at your neighbor, you cannot be neutral … passive neutrality is meaningless.” Instead, he proposed a position of “positive neutrality” while also insisting that “those who protest against our communication” were in fact “contacting unrecognized organizations, which is harmful to the interests of the Tunisian state and the people.” In fact, neither Ghannouchi’s oblique reference to outside interference nor his somewhat unconvincing defense of “positive neutrality” deterred his domestic foes. On the contrary, on May 22nd, a group of leftist parties issued a statement accusing Ghannouchi of trying to “bypass state institutions and drag the country into the Libyan conflict.” Mincing no words, the statement accused Ghannouchi of “behaving like a member of the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, through prioritizing the interests of Islamists at the expense of Tunisia and its people.” These actions, the statement concluded, required that the president intervene to take charge of Tunisian diplomacy.

Whether such statements played a role in Saied’s pointed June 24 warning that he would “not be trampled on” is hard to say. But they certainly provided an additional impetus for Abir Moussi to rally parliamentary support for a vote of no confidence in Ghannouchi. While Moussi’s motion fell only 15 votes short of securing the 109 votes it needed, the 20-hour debate in the parliament gave her and her colleagues ample space to toss more verbal charges at Ghannouchi. Things quickly escalated from there, thus creating an unprecedented scene in the parliament when Moussi’s supporters attempted to physically seize the speaker’s chair. In the resulting melee, veteran Ennahda leader Said Ferjani suffered physical injuries3 for which he blamed (with apparently considerable justification) Majdi Boudhina, one of Moussi’s closest allies. While Boudhina insisted that he was in fact the victim of an attack by Ferjani, the collision of these two members of parliament underscored the gravity of the political crisis that has seized Tunisia during the last few weeks.

Toward “Creeping Presidentialism”?

In light of these serious events, it is hardly surprising to see President Saied asserting his authority. Indeed, while all the key political parties submitted their suggestions for the post of interim prime minister, Saied effectively ignored their suggestions by selecting the current interior minister, Hichem Mechichi, for the position. While this action was technically in keeping with the constitution, it raised the eyebrows of many in parliament. With a president who has previously signaled his own doubts about the utility of Tunisia’s existing political institutions, the prospects for a permanent parliamentary crisis that might open the door to a process of creeping presidentialism is worrying a number of analysts4 of the Tunisian political scene.

While all the key political parties submitted their suggestions for the post of interim prime minister, Saied effectively ignored their suggestions by selecting the current interior minister, Hichem Mechichi, for the position.

These concerns are apparently not shared by Abir Moussi. Although she declared that her party would not be part of any new government (an outcome that is inconceivable since none of the parties would accept her party in any cabinet), Moussi pledged5 to back any government that prioritized reforms but excluded the Brotherhood (as she put it) from the political system. With one recent poll suggesting that she is now the most popular political leader in Tunisia, Moussi has good cause not to overplay her hand.

Tunisia’s wobbly democracy will not survive if Ennahda is excluded or banned from the political system. But nearly a decade into Tunisia’s democratic experiment, many of its leaders appear incapable of putting aside their mutual fears and suspicions of each other. Nor can they—at least for the moment—look to the European Union or the United States for the kind of multilateral diplomatic and economic engagement that Tunisia needs in order to climb out of its deepening hole. Perhaps things will change after the November 3rd US elections. But in the meantime, a political class that is widely viewed as ineffective will have to muster the political will and vision that have thus far eluded the country’s leaders.

1 Source is in French.
2 Source is in French.
3 Source is in Arabic.
4 Source is in French.
5 Source is in Arabic.