Political Crisis

Tunisia: Inevitable Upheaval Fraught With Dangers

To kick over the table and grant himself full authority, Kais Saied claimed the State was in “imminent danger.” Considering the in the country, this was a reasonable claim. But for the moment, the meaning of the President’s choice remains unclear and, in any case, very risky.

Tunis, July 26 2021. Crowds are swarming for Tunisian President Kais Saïed the day after he announced to freeze the activities of the Parliament and to take over the executive
Presidency of the Tunisian Republic/AFP

“Coup d’etat”? “Coup d’etat in the name of the people?” “Constitutional putsch?” Justified application of the Constitution? Since 25 July 2021, the controversy rages on. Following a day of anti-governmental protest, which brought huge crowds into the streets across the country, often targeting the conservative Islamic party Ennahda, Kais Saied launched the “missile” with which he had been threatening the political class for months: he activated article 8 which allows him to take all “steps required” to deal with an “imminent peril.” In the event, he immediately took over the executive branch, having dismissed the Prime Minister, announced that he would personally appoint his successor, suspended parliamentary activities for 30 days and lifted MPs’ immunity. In short, he made himself all-powerful.

In Ennahda’s view, the matter is simple enough: this is an “illegal and unconstitutional coup d’etat” and “Kais Saied has collaborated with the undemocratic forces to overturn the constitutional rights of elected officials and replace them by members of his own cabala.” However, the President has the people behind him: opinion polls show that Tunisians are in favour of his show of force to the tune of 87%, they see him as the saviour of the country. Between these two positions, it is difficult to convey the complexity of the situation but let us have a try.

An issue more political than juridical

Legal experts claim, on solid grounds, that Kais Saied has overstepped his constitutional prerogatives, on at least two counts. First of all, the Court of Constitutionality could not be consulted beforehand since it has not yet been established. Even if this is a formality, its omission could render the article 80 procedure null and void. Secondly, the suspension of Parliament is in breach of the unequivocal requirement that it remains in permanent session during this period.

Furthermore, the guarantee provided by the possibility for the speaker of Parliament or two thirds of the MPs to appeal to the Court of Constitutionality after a period of thirty days to “determine whether the exceptional circumstances still prevail” is impossible given the absence of that institution. Kais Saied will therefore be the sole judge of the moment when the situation allows a return to the ordinary rule of law. The chief of State, who sets great store by his expertise in constitutional law, has definitely overstepped the mark.

The debate “coup d’etat” or not is one of those that can never be settled. Even liberal regimes, where the rule of law takes precedence over the use of force, include among their constitutional provisions a small grey area whereby the sovereign may dispense with all the rules when the political order is threatened. Of course, these provisions are strictly controlled, but, to quote the scandalous philosopher Carl Schmitt, theoretician of the state of emergency, “Necessity has no law”. In other words, legal assessments give way before the imperatives of the survival of the State. The debate will no doubt provide grist for the mill of academic discussions between legal experts, but the real question is political and involves two dimensions. First of all, what exactly is the danger which requires resorting to the state of emergency and to what extent can this prove to be a solution? And secondly, in which direction is the exercise of power likely to move?

A transactional consensus

Prior to 25 July, Tunisia was facing so many dangers that the prospect of its becoming a “failed state” loomed on the horizon.

There is much talk of Kais Saied’s role in paralysing the government’s actions over the last few months, his refusal to compromise with the parliamentary majority, to approve the cabinet reshuffle which Premier Hichem Mechich, his own appointee, had carried out in January 2021.

But the political crisis has much deeper roots. It is precisely the “transactional” nature of the democratic transition which is, in the words of President Saied, one of the causes of the problem.

To avoid any reversion to an autocratic or parliamentary dictatorship, the Constitution organises a system of power-sharing which “constitutionalises,” as it were, a requirement of consensus. But as time went by, rather than a consensus transcending special interests, it is a “mercantile” version of consensus which has prevailed, wherein each party does its best to maximise its gains. It has been give-and-take between Ennahda, in search of acceptance and security, and the former elites, represented for a time by Nidaa Tounes and Beji Caid Essebsi, seeking a new virginity and protection. At no time did this “consensus” come up with plans for a new economic model. And for good reason: no political faction had one up its sleeve. Nor did it even make it possible to implement the “recommendations” of increasingly impatient donors.

As a result, everything has changed so that nothing can change, as the saying goes. The rentier economy which provides a comfortable income for a few families, the granting of loan facilities and licenses to operate has strengthened its financial basis. While the economy used to be in the service of the political power structure, it is now in charge of it. Unable as they were to improve the lot of most Tunisians, the successive cabinets have merely bought social harmony by using up the foreign aid meant to finance the liberal reforms, while the administration was so powerless to implement the investment projects that the billions of dollars of promised foreign financing could never be disbursed.

The worsening of the financial system as attested by Tunisia’s plummeting sovereign rating, henceforth on the verge of the ultimate danger, payment default, is the result of that decade of inertia. The funding agencies are starting to have serious doubts about the governments’ capacity to conceive and implement the reform plan which is the sine qua non condition for the IMF. A condition which must be met if the State is to continue borrowing from other countries and from the markets in order to finance its functioning.

Tragically, the sanitary catastrophe has come to embody in the daily life of ordinary Tunisians the results of this collective failure, what with the deterioration of public service, the short-sightedness and flippancy, not to say incompetence, of the country’s rulers, the futile squabbling of political parties whose parliamentary activity offers a pathetic display. All of which precipitated the long accumulation of anger which fuelled the street protests leading up to Kais Saied’s political coup.

The “imminent peril” was there, in the country’s moral, social, financial and institutional collapse.

This situation of “organic crisis” offered the “Caesarist moment” par excellence, conducive to calling upon a leader invested with the mission of rejuvenating a failed political order. Kais Saied was the obvious candidate for the role of Caesar, and despite his weaknesses, he finally crossed the Rubicon and opened up a pathway where no one prior to 25 July, had seen more than a blind alley.

An undeniable popular backing

Many Tunisians welcomed this move with a feeling of deliverance. The popular jubilation which greeted Kais Saied’s announcement transcended social categories and ideological sensibilities. From a democratic viewpoint, this cannot be dismissed out of hand. Just as in the hours and days that followed Kais Saied’selection by a vote of 73% on 13 October 2019, it is a feeling of relief and a hope for collective regeneration which was being expressed.

Apart from what he can actually offer, Kais Saied has liberated a capacity for mobilisation, vigilance and proposition totally at odds with the apathy which had again taken over the country before 25 July. One example among many of that subjective transformation is the opinion expressed by the chairman of the consumer advocacy association: “Tunisia since 25 July is a different country from what it was before that date; everyone who ran into a stone wall when they wanted to change something can move forward now, those who slept badly will sleep better now, everyone can now get down to work.”

By contrast, the hasty attempts since Monday 26 July by mayors and administration officials to get rid of compromising documents, speaks volumes about the threat that the political change of 25 July represents for the protagonists of the endemic corruption. In a declaration demanding the respect of democratic guarantees, especially as regards the independence of the judiciary, The Asssociation of Tunisian Magistrates reminds us that “the democratic transition and the successive administrations since the revolution” have “failed to satisfy the people’s authentic aspirations” by making the judicial system conform to the Constitution which guarantees the independence of the judiciary, “and have violated the constitutional principles of transparency and accountability in the struggle against corruption.”

But in these conditions, the demand for a “prompt return to the normal functioning of democratic institutions”, repeatedly voiced by Western chancelleries, has a bitter ring to the ears of most Tunisians who perceive that “normalcy” as the cause of their despair. This narrow-minded legalism completely misses the main point: any return to the status quo ante would be a return to the sources of the crisis.

And so now, what is to be done?

Does Kais Saied have solutions in mind? It is too soon to know. Among his first forays into the economic sphere was an appeal to the moral sense of shopkeepers and pharmacists to lower their prices and lighten the burden of ordinary Tunisians. But he has not brought to bear the technical instruments of public policymaking which could enable him to achieve this goal.

More generally, who will he gather around him to implement a new economic project and with what in mind? How does he intend to go about restoring the donors’ confidence? By negotiating with the international financial bodies? By preventing capital flight which has already begun? And how does he mean to reform a state bogged down in its red tape?

In his Sunday evening address, he spoke of his plan to “turn the pyramid of power upside down.”

It is hard to imagine the political parties in Parliament—which he has ignored completely since activating article 80—shooting themselves in the foot by voting in favour of such a project. In the name of revolutionary legitimacy, does Saied mean to push it through with a referendum, deliberately opting out of the procedures provided for by the Constitution? How long will it take him to accomplish this Herculean task? Certainly, more than thirty days.

The risk of authoritarianism

By attacking the vested interests, economic and political, the President is bound to encounter fierce resistance and dirty tricks. How will he deal with them? And what about the likely onset of “the morning after,” the disappointment of popular expectancy? How will he channel people’s anger?

This is the second part of the answer. Though he undeniably has the backing of the population, how will the passing of time and the dynamics of politics affect this regime of personal power? A state of emergency is like war, easier to declare then to end. Once you have had a taste of the advantages of unlimited power, it is hard to give them up when the real difficulties begin.

For a man alone with the backing of the army to correct the democratic trajectory is an oxymoron. Of course, unlike Egyptian President, Abdel Fatta Al-Sissi, Kais Saied is not the pure product of an army which monopolises all his country’s economic interests and is prepared to gun down a thousand protestors. But the fact that Arab countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates applaud this takeover must not be seen as anodyne. By plunging into this adventure when the country is on the brink of default, the chief of State has stepped into a field of geopolitical forces undergoing a major reshuffle. Will Algeria allow Egypt to exert its influence in the heart of the Maghreb? Will the USA make the renewal of their aid depend on the pursuance of the democratic process? Will they let Riyadh support a potentially authoritarian evolution in a country offered as the sole example of democracy in the Arab world?

One of the paradoxical aspects of Kais Saied, identified by Michael Ayari in a report for The International Crisis Group in March 2020, is that his rhetoric affects a very broad spectrum of public opinion. At one extreme, it finds an echo in the plebeian component of society, with those who are sidelined by both the neoliberal economic model and the system of representational democracy. At the other extreme, it responds to the demands for the restoration of a state purged of the taint of party politics as voiced by the nostalgic Destourians who miss the old regime. In fact, Abir Moussi, the leader of the Free Destourian Party which claims the heritage of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, has declared that Kais Saied’s move is exactly what she has been proposing. And these two constituencies join hands in casting Ennahda in the role of scapegoat: the former accuse it of having “stolen” the revolution, the latter of having “stolen” the State. In support of Kais Saied, there can again be heard, openly violent attacks against Ennahda, which call to mind the darkest hours of Ben Ali’s eradicative policies prior to 2011. Thus, the President holds a share of “revolutionary” legitimacy and a share of “counter-revolutionary” legitimacy.

To what extent will the latter influence his evolution? Is this coexistence likely to last? Or will it on the contrary lead to vicious infighting? And in the latter event, what will be the political price to pay and how will he react? Developing his reference to Caesarism, Antonio Gramsci distinguished between two forms of it: “one is progressive, the other regressive. In the first instance, the balance is resolved in favour of forces that lead the social formation to a higher level of civilisation, in the second, the forces of restoration take the upper hand.” For the moment, it is too soon to resolve the ambivalence.

Does Kais Saied have the means to be a saviour? Will he be able to avoid becoming a tyrant? The Tunisia of 2021 is not the country it was in 1987, when Ben Ali took over from Bourguiba the leadership of a well-oiled authoritarian regime. However dysfunctional, this budding Tunisian democracy has modified behaviours and expectations, has allowed for the emergence of a well-structured and influential civil society, has accustomed a large share of the population to refuse to be spoiled of its rights and dignity. On the other hand, if the hopes raised by Saied are to be dashed again, the political cost would be frightful.