Tunisia’s Presidential Coup: Circumstances, Characteristics, and Potential Outcomes

On Sunday, July 25, 2020, Tunisian President Qais Saied dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and promised to appoint a replacement, took over judicial authorities, and suspended the Chamber of Deputies, the parliament, lifting parliamentary immunity on its members. These steps came after a day of demonstrations and riots in a number of cities that included attacks on offices of the Islamist Ennahda Movement. The protests were used as a pretext for the president’s unconstitutional coup so that he can consolidate power in his hands. Indeed, they came in the context of his struggle with Parliament and Ennahda that began since his election in 2019.

Background of the Crisis

President Saied’s decisions cannot be separated from the context of the political crisis that has gripped Tunisia for two years. Following the legislative and presidential elections in 2019—that gave Ennahda the largest number of seats in parliament, but not a majority, and Saied the presidency—a struggle began over presidential powers between him, on the one hand, and parliament and the prime minister, on the other. Tensions increased after Saied chose Mechichi as premier to take over from Ilyas al-Fakhfakh, only to do a quick about-face and ask parliamentary blocs to decline to grant the government a vote of confidence. Mechichi refused to abandon his constitutional prerogative to form his own cabinet—and in effect become a mere “first minister” to Saied. Tunisia’s is a parliamentary system and Saied has been trying to change it to presidential.

The crisis escalated when Mechichi reshuffled his government, in essence firing Saied’s ministers, an act rejected by the president who also refused to swear in the new cabinet appointees despite parliament’s granting them confidence. Saied’s unconstitutional excuse was that some of the new appointees were corrupt and should not be appointed. In fact, swearing in is only a formality since parliament is the ultimate arbiter by granting a vote of confidence. Saied made things worse with parliament and the government when he refused to sign legislation concerning the election of members of the Constitutional Court. He had appointed himself commander in chief of the police, national guards, and customs forces, and that was in addition to his constitutional title as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.

Additionally, the majority in parliament could not muster legislation as political parties bickered while the president was gradually taking over executive and legislative authorities. The presence of a party in parliament that is openly against the revolution, advocates for the return of the old authoritarian regime, and is totally unserious about its mandate allowed the president to paint the entire chamber as unconcerned about people’s daily troubles and contributed to his populist rhetoric and support.

Preparations for the Presidential Coup

With this evident tension between the president and the Speaker of Parliament Rachid al-Ghannouchi and Prime Minister Mechichi, there appeared on social media calls for demonstrations on July 25, which coincided with the 64th anniversary of the establishment of the Republic of Tunisia. The protests were set to demand the dissolution of parliament, dismissing the government, suspending the constitution, abolishing the current political and electoral systems, and sanctioning officials—particularly from Ennahda—militarizing the bureaucracy, and launching a transitional period under Saied’s leadership. Social media publicized the demands that received wide coverage from television stations broadcasting from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. No political or party identification was clear, but there was consensus about excluding President Saied from the political establishment as if he were not a politician.

And sure enough, on July 25th, protesters gathered in front of the parliament building in Tunis, and in some other cities such as Sousse, Tozeur, Kairouan, Sfax, and Nabeul. While the numbers were not large, some of the protests were violent, and specifically around Ennahda party offices. In Tozeur in the southwest, protesters broke into Ennahda’s local office and destroyed its contents, while in Kairouan and Sousse they only tore up its banners. In the capital Tunis, some protesters tried to get close to the main party headquarters after Saied announced his decisions, but they were stopped by the police. It appears that the protesters against the movement were planned so that the president’s conflict with parliament would look like it is with Ennahda in order for him to consolidate all power in his hands despite the parliamentary nature of the political system.

Justifying the Coup against the Constitution

President Saied called a group of military and security leaders to an emergency meeting the night of July 25th in the presidential palace in Carthage. Following the meeting, the president announced that he was taking his measures “to save the state and society after consultations with the prime minister and speaker of parliament.” He also threatened “any person insulting the state or its symbols or firing one bullet to be faced with a hail of bullets,” accusing his detractors of lying, betrayal, and theft.”

Following his speech after the meeting, the presidential office publicized the decisions, except for that of Saied’s taking over judicial powers. Parliament was to be suspended for 30 days. On the next day, the president dismissed the minister of defense and the acting minister of justice, in addition to dismissing Mechichi, suspended work in the administration for two days that could be extended, imposed a night curfew for 30 days, and declared gatherings of over three persons unlawful.

Saied declared that his actions were sanctioned by Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution that says that “The President of the Republic, in the event of an imminent danger threatening the homeland’s integrity or the country’s security and its independence, in a way that results in the impossibility of carrying on with the normal functioning of state institutions, may take the measures necessitated by that exceptional situation, after consulting the Prime Minister and Speaker of the Assembly of the People’s Representatives [Parliament] and informing the President of the Constitutional Court.” It also stipulates that “the Assembly of the People’s Representatives is considered to be in permanent session throughout this period. In this case, the President of the Republic may not dissolve the Parliament or present a censure motion against the government.” Saied was indisputably in violation of the article: instead of consulting with the prime minister and the speaker, he dismissed the former and suspended the work of the latter. Additionally, the article does not state that the president has the right to usurp the duties of the Attorney General, which in reality puts the whole judiciary under his command.

Constitutional Professor Ayyadh bin Ashour considered the resort to Article 80 “meaningless in the current situation; in fact, it clearly violates the constitution because of the absence of conditions of substance and form.” As for substantive conditions, bin Ashour denied the existence of a real threat to the nation’s security and independence that would necessitate the suspension of the normal functioning of the state. On form, there was no consultation with the premier or speaker, neither did the president inform the president of the Constitutional Court because the body does not even exist.

On the other hand, the Tunisian Association for Constitutional Law issued a statement that said that the president’s decision to suspend the work of parliament “is not part of exceptional measures.” The statement added that Article 80 stipulates that the parliament remains in session throughout this period, which contradicts its suspension, and that “an exception, by definition, is a delicate matter that opens the door to many interpretations.” The association expressed its fear of consolidating all powers in the hands of the president of the republic.

Despite Divisions, a Consensus on Rejecting the Coup

Despite their ideological and political differences, nearly all political parties announced their rejection of the president’s decisions. Large independent civilian institutions criticized the actions while most legal scholars rejected the president’s interpretation of the constitution. Ennahda Movement considered what happened “without base in law and constitution” and its leader Rachid Ghannouchi described the actions as “a coup against the constitution, revolution, and public and private freedoms.” Ghannouchi emphasized that “parliament still stands and remains in session.” He also said that the president consulted with him about extending the state of emergency and not about the decisions enunciated.”

Al-Karamah Coalition’s position was similar to Ennahda’s, considering Saied’s decisions “a dangerous and flagrant coup against constitutional legitimacy,” and expressing its “deep astonishment about the use of the military and security services to impede the work of constitutional institutions.” The Democratic Current avoided calling Saied’s move a coup, although it differed with the president’s interpretation of Article 80, saying that the current “rejects all decisions that are contrary to and outside constitutional norms.” The leftist Workers Party saw the actions as “a clear violation of the constitution,” considering them a ruse “…for the president to consolidate all executive, legislative, and judicial powers in his hands for the purpose of reestablishing absolute one-man rule.” The Republican Party saw the move as “outside the constitution and an obvious coup against it, a declaration of a return to one-man rule, and a betrayal of Saied’s oath of office.”

Only the People’s Party (nationalist party) supported Saied’s decisions and considered them “necessary to correct the course of the revolution that was violated by counterrevolutionary forces, including Ennahda and the entire governing elite.”

The Tunisian General Labor Union, whose leader met with President Saied following the latter’s decisions, took a middle-of-the-road position. It supported “the popular and social protests” but insisted on “protecting constitutional legitimacy in any action taken during this delicate period in the country.”

Difficulties Facing the President’s Coup

So far, the Tunisian president has not named a new prime minister to succeed Mechichi. This may signal difficulties in choosing a successor, especially that the new premier is expected to be a mere employee under a president who wants to manage the government team himself. This comes as fears increase of more violations of the constitution, such as granting confidence to a new government while the real parliament is suspended.

Saied also faces difficulties passing other decisions since the higher judicial council has rejected the president’s desire to control the attorney general’s office. In a statement, the council emphasized “the independence of the judiciary and the need to distance it from all political considerations.” Additionally, most political parties and civil society organizations have rejected Saied’s move and insisted on respecting the constitution, adhering to the timetable he announced, and respecting civil rights and individual and collective freedoms.

These responses to Saied’s unconstitutional decisions have resulted in slowing down the rush that has characterized the president’s conduct from the beginning and his hope to employ security, military, and judicial assets to throw his political enemies in jail. Thus far, there has not been any arrests and security forces only dispersed crowds from Saied’s supporters and his detractors alike in front of the parliament building. Army units were deployed only at the entrances to the prime minister’s office and parliament. Commanding officers only said that they were following orders from higher authorities, a signal that the army command supported the president.

The army has not yet announced its position on events but the fact that Saied issued his decisions following a meeting with security and military officials is a clear indication that he received their consent to suspend constitutional life. Still, the army’s approval does not necessarily mean that it has changed how it deals with issues in the post-2011 revolution. It has distanced itself from political disputes and machinations. In fact, its present position may be a mere outcome of its being under the command of the president who has dismissed the minister of defense just as he dismissed the prime minister.

Then again, there is the position of regional and international actors on what is happening that may play an important role in the success or failure of Saied’s putsch. Perhaps the European Union’s stance calling for a quick return to constitutional life and reviving parliament’s work, as well as the American call for a resolution of disputes according to the constitution are indicative of the absence of a desire by the international community to abort Tunisia’s democratic experiment. Indeed, the American position has been clearer than the European, which impacts the Tunisian army’s conduct. Still, international positions are no substitute for a strong stance by Tunisia’s civil and political forces rejecting the coup against the sole democratic experiment in the Arab world.

Conclusion

A few days after the presidential coup in Tunisia and the internal and external calls for a return to constitutional and institutional life, and for protecting freedoms and human rights, there are indications that it will be difficult for Saied to emulate the Egyptian model and recreate authoritarian rule in the country. There is no doubt that Tunisians are subjected to economic difficulties that were made worse by the failure of Tunisian democracy to satisfy expectations for successful development. Moreover, political shenanigans and mutual accusations, as well as clear attempts to subvert government efforts at any price, helped get the country to where it is today. Yet, this does not justify reversing the democratic gains over the last decade or allowing the populist president to subvert them and recreate the conditions for a new authoritarianism.

Democracy is a solution to the plight of authoritarian rule and a guarantee for civic rights. It is not a panacea for economic or social ills. This is what should be protected within the confines of a democratic system of government. The alternative is a repressive regime that suppresses freedoms while failing to offer any solution to socioeconomic problems.

This article was first published in Arabic on July 28, 2021 by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar.