Two telling events unfolded in Tunisia on October 3rd. The first was a demonstration by thousands of flag-waving citizens proclaiming their support for President Kais Saied’s July 23rd suspension of parliament and his September 22nd announcement that he will rule by decree. These protests on Bourguiba Street were surely designed to push back against Saied’s critics, who one week earlier had held their own “anti-coup” rally. The second event was the arrest of an Islamist member of parliament, Abdellatif Alaoui, and a prominent TV news anchorman, Amer Ayad. Accused of insulting the police, both men will be tried in a special military court, a scenario that attests to the security apparatus’s growing political clout. Unfolding in tandem with the October 3rd demonstrations, these arrests suggest that the president believes that the public will support such tough and legally questionable measures.
Telegraphing his confidence, the day before the protests Saied reportedly promised French President Emmanuel Macron that he would now initiate a national dialogue. But if his promise is meant to reassure his critics both at home and abroad that the president will engage with the wider society, Saied has repeatedly indicated that he will not dialogue with “traitors.” Reiterating this threat (or promise), on October 4th the leader of the People’s Party—keen supporter of the president—asserted1 that the Islamist-oriented Ennahda Party will be excluded from this dialogue because it is “part of the problem and responsible for the damage done to the country.” Even if this assessment of Ennahda’s role is debatable, it provides a revealing signal as to which direction the president is taking Tunisia. There probably will be no inclusive national dialogue; instead, it may be a stage-managed dialogue, one that could serve as a first step in creating a new hybrid system. Blessed by a yes/no referendum on a new constitution devised by Saied and his allies—and backed by the implicit threat of state repression—the new order would probably banish Ennahda and other Islamist parties while giving enormous powers to a populist president who is still riding a wave of popular support.
There probably will be no inclusive national dialogue; instead, it may be a stage-managed dialogue, one that could serve as a first step in creating a new hybrid system.
As things now stand, the president should have little trouble advancing his agenda. Given widespread antipathy toward the political elite, deep divisions within and between political parties, the desire of many secularly oriented activists to punish Ennahda, and the expanding role of the security apparatus, there is little chance for forging the kind of cross-ideological, multiparty coalition that might block Saied. Still, the more he seems to succeed, the greater the chances will be for a civil conflict and a complete breakdown of the economy. Saied has promised a corrective revolution, but he may be inviting an intensifying social and political storm.
Presidential Decree 117
That political storm darkened with the issuing of Presidential Decree 117 on September 22nd. Published in the Official Journal of the Republic of Tunisia, the decree, as one analyst notes, in effect creates a new constitutional order, one whose key terms and provisions will be set by a president who will not be accountable to an elected parliament or high court. This ambitious decree had already been presaged by Saied’s manipulation of Article 80 of the 2014 constitution. While giving the president the authority to declare “measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances,” the article also holds that the “Assembly of the Representatives of the People shall be deemed to be in a state of continuous session.” To be sure, Saied’s suspension of the parliament signaled his resolve to impose his will. He has justified this action, arguing that the sovereignty of the people must prevail over a constitution that he claims is “not eternal,” even as he invoked this very document to justify his actions.
Reiterating this arbitrary if self-serving logic, Decree 117 indirectly maintains Articles 1 and 2 of the 2014 Constitution—which holds that the state is “republican” and that the system is based on the “will of the people, and the supremacy of the law.” But the rest of the decree violates these principles by giving the president control over 29 areas, while stipulating that he must consult with a cabinet that he himself will appoint. Reaffirming these powers, Article 21 abolishes the interim constitutional court, while Article 5 (2) gives the president authority over the organization of justice and the courts. Finally, Article 22 holds that the president will draw up “amendments relating to political reforms,” thus making him the master judicial, executive, and legislative authority of any bid to recast the political system.
A Divided and Ambivalent Opposition
It is difficult to overemphasize the gravity of these measures. The 2014 constitution was adopted through a process of debate and negotiation managed by a national dialogue that produced a set of compromises that reflected the pluralistic nature of Tunisian society. The day the constitution was adopted by 200 out of 216 MPs represented a milestone not merely for Tunisia but also for the Arab world. But the constitution enshrined a power-sharing system that gave each group the ability to impede the actions of others. The appealing idea of consensus produced a reality of political and social paralysis. This situation set the stage for widespread disaffection with the parliament. The estrangement continues to fuel support by the public—and in elite circles—for a revision of the political system that will give decisive authority to an executive, one that will rule either by virtue of its own ample powers and/or by its support from an elected majority.
If there is to be a legitimate shift to a presidential system that is effective and democratic, this will require a new bargain that includes all the key parties.
If there is to be a legitimate shift to a presidential system that is effective and democratic, this will require a new bargain that includes all the key parties. Yet Tunisia’s political elite is not only divided; many of the parties and leaders that have assailed Saied have implicitly or explicitly supported the banishing of Ennahda and other Islamist parties from the political arena. Saied has cleverly magnified and manipulated these divisions, not to mention the ambivalence of many modernist parties regarding the rules of the game, for a new—if still to be defined—or reformed political order. With the prospects for opposition unity close to zero, a not insignificant part of the society will probably view the drive to characterize the system as illegitimate and thus oppose it. Polarization, which is already at dangerous heights, will only intensify.
A scan of Tunisia’s unfolding political struggle highlights these contradictions and tensions. Four days following Saied’s September 22nd decree, some 2,000 protesters, took to the streets of Tunis to oppose the president. The September 22nd demonstration was preceded two days earlier by a statement from the powerful General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) declaring that “the president’s monopoly on amendments” posed a “danger to democracy.” But this sequence of events did not signal any consensus between Ennahda and the UGTT, which has long been hostile to Islamist parties. In fact, in the weeks leading up to the September 22nd decree, the UGTT had hedged its bets by refraining from either clearly backing or opposing the president’s July 23rd announcement that he was suspending parliament and firing the prime minister. The far stronger language in the UGTT’s September 24th statement suggests that its central concern was not so much the fate of democracy, per se, but rather the very real prospect that Saied would not partner with the union (or with elected political parties) as he pushed to revise the political system.
Similar contradictions animate the positions of the modernist parties. For example, on September 28th four parties—the Democratic Current, Ettakatol (FDTL), Republican Party, and Afek Tounes—held a press conference to announce the formation of a new bloc to oppose the president’s decree. But only one of these parties, the Democratic Current, held a significant number of seats in the previous parliament, and none of their leaders suggested readiness to widen their coalition to include Islamist leaders. In fact, while the leader of the Republican Party reiterated2 the need for pluralism and insisted that any reforms should be within the framework of the 2014 Constitution and based on a national dialogue, he echoed Saied’s own popular slogan by asserting that there would be “no going back” to the previous status quo. Filling in the blanks, on the following day the party’s leaders claimed3 that Ennahda was largely responsible for the political and economic crisis facing Tunisia. The leader of the Labor Party, Hamma al-Hammami, echoed a similar position and has warned4 that “what Kais Saied is doing reminds us of the dark days of the dictatorship” while also blaming Ennahda for creating the “rotten situation” which made Saied’s “coup” possible in the first place. The subtext seems clear: any alliance with Islamist forces or leaders is out of the question.
Which Way Civil Society?
Civil society groups have played a key role in the debate that unfolded since the issuing of Decree 117. For example, on September 27th, 12 Tunisian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) joined with Human Rights Watch and three other international human rights organizations to denounce the decree in a statement widely circulated in the national and global press. The statement emphasized that the organizations “support any process aimed at overcoming the current political and constitutional crisis,” and thus appropriately avoids taking sides in the political debate regarding which parties should or should not be included in any legitimate reform project. Still, by and large, the local signatories reflect the main contours of Tunisia’s polarized political landscape. They are part of a modernist elite that has not forged significant links with Islamist groups and remains profoundly suspicious of them.
It is worth noting that some of Tunisia’s most important NGOs share the widespread conviction that the previous political system was little more than a “pseudo democracy” that served a corrupt elite.
In addition to these enduring sentiments, it is worth noting that some of Tunisia’s most important NGOs share the widespread conviction that the previous political system was little more than a “pseudo democracy”5 that served a corrupt elite and thus must somehow be replaced. For example, while denouncing Decree 117, the I Watch Organization—the most vocal and active NGO in the fight against corruption—blames6 the previous parliament for bringing Tunisia to this point of crisis. Thus the organization seems intent on squaring the circle: like Kais Saied, it seems in favor of getting rid of much of the previous political order. How this can be accomplished without centralizing political power or resorting to selective acts of state repression is anybody’s guess.
Disarray in the Islamist Camp
Disarray in the Islamist camp has added a further element of uncertainty to Tunisia’s political crisis. On September 25th, 113 members of Ennahda issued a public statement announcing their resignations and, most notably, blaming Ennahda’s head, Rachid Ghannouchi, for the party’s travails. Unhappiness with his leadership among the party’s younger ranks has been rife for several years. But it is also clear that the party is fracturing over how to respond to Saied’s power grab. Ghannouchi’s October 1st call for MPs to resume the work of parliament was a bust. While the virtual no-show at the parliament probably resulted from fears that those who heeded Ghannouchi’s call might become targets of the police, the small smattering of party members who did make it to the gate only underscored the party’s declining fortunes under the umbrella of a once indispensable leader who is now viewed by many as a liability for Ennahda.
Unhappiness with Ghannouchi’s leadership among the party’s younger ranks has been rife for several years. But it is also clear that the party is fracturing over how to respond to Saied’s power grab.
The party’s fragmentation will make it harder to narrow the gap between the Islamist camp—such as it is—and modernist groups. It is unclear whether any of the dissenters who have left Ennahda have the following or legitimacy to reach out to the other side of the opposition, much less propose some kind of engagement with Saied. This situation suits a president whose political leverage derives in part from his capacity to foster and manipulate division within and between Tunisia’s political actors and civil society.
The Costs of Saied’s “Success”
One sign of this divide-and-rule strategy was Saied’s decision to appoint Professor Najla Bouden Romdhan as prime minister. Previously a minister of higher education, her appointment—the first of its kind in the Arab world—was surely designed to curry favor among modernist groups. While this step has been widely applauded by many Tunisian leaders, whatever authority she wields will be at the behest of the president and circumscribed by the very decree that has made her appointment possible. Echoing this inconvenient fact, the Republican Party noted7 that “this appointment and this symbolism would have been stronger … if it were done in respect of the constitution’s provisions based on the separation between and balance of powers.”
For now, the prospects for restoring a meaningful balance seem remote. As Saied pushes his project forward, Tunisian society will become both more fragmented and polarized. The darkening political horizons will not only make it harder to address the dire economic crisis, but they could invite violent confrontations between those forces that fear being cut out of the political arena and those that would welcome this outcome—or at least would do nothing to prevent it. Worse yet, terrorist elements might see in such clashes a chance to wreak havoc. Such a development would only increase the pressure for the security forces—and perhaps the military itself—to insert themselves into the political equation in ways that would be hard to reverse.
Saied has unleashed the makings of a perfect storm that he will not be able to control. There is still time for him and his supporters to save face and nation by pulling back from their effort to impose a political order on the country’s pluralistic society. Tunisia’s neighbors and the wider international community must help by reiterating a common message, namely that Tunisia’s very security, and that of the wider Maghreb, require resisting the temptations and dangers of autocracy and political exclusion.