Tunisia: Towards the Restoration of Personal Power

Constitutional Reform Announced · Beji Caid Essebsi announced last September a forthcoming revision of the Constitution adopted in January 2014, which set in stone the gains of the 2011 Revolution. According to the president, it is responsible for blocking government action. In particular, he denounces the constitutional parliamentarism established to prevent from restoring any personal power, which he intends precisely to reinstate.

Signature of the new Constitution at the Constituent Assembly on January 27, 2014.
© Thierry Brésillon.

In just a few days, a series of political initiatives jolted the country out of its summer torpor. On September 6, several ministers from the old regime entered the cabinet.1 On September 13, Parliament passed a law initiated by the presidency which amnestied all the civil servants involved in cases of corruption between 1955 and 2011—provided they had derived no personal gains from their action (which is difficult to prove without an investigation into the indirect or hidden benefits obtained in return for their legalization of breaches of procedure). On September 18, the municipal elections, generally viewed as a precious extension of democracy to the local level, were postponed once again, supposedly until March 2018.

In an interview given to a national daily, La Presse, which received little attention at the time, President Beji Caid Essebsi announced the next step in this revisionary procedure which concerns nothing less than the Constitution adopted in January 2014. Although he intends to leave the initiative of a constitutional revision to the MPs, this idea, which has frequently come up since 2015, is now a real prospect.

Yet the Constitution represents an effort to institutionalize the gains of the Revolution. In February 2011, the MPs succeeded in focusing the demands of the young people massed in Kasbah square on the drafting of a new Constitution, meant to be an instrument for the regeneration of the whole political, economic and social model. Reputed the most liberal constitution in the Arab world, a masterpiece of equilibrium, it is nonetheless held responsible by the president of the Republic for hindering governmental action.

A Hampered Parliamentary System

His criticisms are primarily aimed at “the interwoven powers” invested in the heads of the executive branch. The Constitution assigns the direction of government policies to a Prime Minister designated by the majority and responsible before Parliament. This logic was staunchly defended by Ennahda with the intention of preventing a personal monopoly of power such as Tunisia has known since Independence. This philosophy is probably not without ulterior motives: there was a time when the Islamist party believed it could durably convert the sociologically conservative majority into an electoral majority. With their own hidden agenda, Ennahda’s opponents succeeded in making sure not only that the President would be chosen by direct universal suffrage but that the Constitution would grant him an “exclusive domain”: foreign affairs and matters of defense and security. Those who favored this solution were counting on the fact that it would be a long time before any Islamist would be popular enough to win the presidential election.

At the time, this dualism was perceived as a way of “constitutionalizing the principle of compromise.” Foreseeably, it would create a high potential for social unrest, but the main assumption was that the President of the Republic, with the unction of universal suffrage, would enjoy a legitimacy enabling him to overshadow the other branches of government if he decided to make the most of his position. A prediction borne out by the 2014 elections: Beji Caid Essebsi’s political culture, characterized by personal power and State centrality, led him to extend the prerogatives invested in him by the Constitution. The coalition government associating Nidaa Tunes and Ennahda, diluted the strength of the parliamentary majority in an equilibrium that depended on arbitrations in which the President played a key role. The Prime Minister is no longer the leader of the majority but merely the instrument by which the orientations prescribed by the presidency are applied.

As for Parliament, it finds it all the more difficult to assert itself as a source of government policy and an independent authority as it has no access to the technical and human resources necessary to develop the competence of its MPs. Not a single private member’s bill has ever been examined. In several instances, the government has withdrawn draft laws which have been too heavily amended in committee to its liking, and ballots are negotiated beforehand between party leaders. Thus the parliamentary framework has been taken over de facto by what turns out to be a familiar pattern in Tunisia: the conjunction of a strong presidency and a unified party system, with an obedient government and a rubber-stamp parliament.

Moreover, the implementation of the original text is behind schedule in many essential areas. For example, the Constitutional Court has still not been set up when it was supposed to have been operational since January 2015. No overall strategy has been conceived to bring legislation in line with the new constitutional requirements. Some adjustments have been made in response to one-off campaigns and with an eye to immediate political benefits, as was the case with the recent advances in male-female equality.

In his September 6 interview, Beji Caid Essebsi blamed government inefficiency on these impediments hampering the parliamentary process. He also lashed out in the strongest terms at the “independent constitutional bodies,” no doubt referring to the Independent Higher Authority for Elections, The National Body for the Fight Against Corruption and The Higher Authority of the Audiovisual Sector. There are indeed theoretical and practical issues surrounding any independent authorities, especially with regard to the accountability of their financial management and, in the case of Tunisia, their dependence on the partisan balance which determines their composition. Yet they do constitute new regulatory tools, theoretically more impartial and less exposed to political manipulation than the administration itself. As for the president’s allusions to the civil society, they call to mind the rhetoric aimed at discrediting overcritical associations because of their foreign financing, rhetoric heard repeatedly under the dictatorship and which has resurfaced in certain declarations.

Authoritarian Temptation

Since 2015, a growing “presidentialization” is perceptible and many voices have been raised demanding a constitutional revision in this direction. Needless to say, the “presidential” regime which those close to the Carthage Palace have in mind has little to do with what constitutional theory designates as such—typically, the US system and its strict separation of powers, wherein, for example, congressional prerogatives are at least as binding for the executive branch as they are under a parliamentary system.

This position is based not so much on any theory as on a belief that political efficacy derives from the concentration of decision-making powers in the hands of the executive. Whereas parliamentarism situates representation, deliberation and depersonalization at the heart of law-making and public policy, presidentialism is based on the notion of a direct link between the “people” and their “elected representative,” the idea that the personalization and centralization of the arbitration process is better suited to carrying out the grand projects of the State.

Under this institutional scheme, the role of Parliament becomes secondary, reduced to approving the initiatives of the executive.

In a context where anti-parliamentarism is rampant and politicians have fallen into disrepute, “MPs [...]will henceforth constitute the dominated fraction of the governing hierarchy” to quote Pierre Rosenvallon’s scathing formulation.2. A trend which, in the absence of democratic checks and balances, can lead to a certain “illiberalism”3, if not to unadorned authoritarianism.

The Failure of Constitutionalism

Why does Tunisia seem to be falling back into this morass? We probably need to examine the notion of the role of government which is seeking to reassert itself. Reinstating the political and technological personnel of the old regime; letting the administration know that to obey political injunctions in managing the economy is no longer to run the risk of criminal prosecution; revising the Constitution to re-centralize decision-making; restricting the autonomy of the new forms of countervailing power; perpetually delaying the election of local authorities invested with a greater autonomy of decision-making: all of this is going in the same direction. At bottom, it is an admission that in view of the negative economic indicators, social unrest, administrative inertness and institutional malfunctions, the Tunisian ruling class has no alternative but to return to the personalization of power. It is to acknowledge that the political bodies, powerless as they are to lubricate a regulatory machinery kept in place to preserve State control over the economy and make sure civil servants are still bound by patronage and favoritism, simply do not have the means to create conditions which could ensure a lasting recovery.4.

Blaming the new efforts at institutional organization for the business slump and social unrest will not fool the people for long.

The parties have exhausted their capacity to represent society and renounced making any proposals, thereby emptying the parliamentary regime of its very substance. The structural causes of social inequality and low productivity are not going to go away because of governmental injunctions. Personalizing State governance is unlikely to correct the deficiencies. On the contrary, past experience in Tunisia has shown that it perpetuates the opacity of arbitration, erodes the legitimacy of decision—making and ultimately leads to even greater distrust of the institutions, fueling a sense of injustice among ordinary people and scheming among the elites.

The constitutional principle is meant to play a key role in the political modernization and social transformation of contemporary Tunisia. In fact the national movement has termed itself “Destourian,” claiming to restore the Constitution of 1861 (the Destour), suspended in 1864 but which had, in any case, failed to modify the practices of the Bey, while bringing about a disruption of social norms that touched off a national uprising which was bloodily crushed. In spite of its democratic intentions, the Constitution of 1959 provided a juridical framework for the dictatorship. Will the one adopted in 2014 have exhausted its historic mission by putting an end to the ideological quarrels of 2012-2013 with adroit compromises and by respecting the principles of democratic formalism?

The strength of a Constitution depends on the political determination to breathe life into the letter and the spirit of it, and on the relations between the power structure and the economic and social dynamics. However, the latter still maintain links with the State which are outside law and the political parties’ programs are too timid to enable their transformation through government action. Under these conditions, “presidentialisation” will perhaps make it possible to contain social unrest for a time but it is unlikely to have any effect on the structural causes of social inequality and the malfunctions of the State. This “presidentialisation of powerlessness”5 will no doubt lay the ground for more frustrations. And may well lead to further regressions.

1Halem Ben Salem and Ridha Chalhoum have been reinstated in the functions which were theirs before the 2011 Revolution, as Minister of Education and Minister of Finance, respectively; the former Assistant General Secretary of the Democratic Constitutional Rally (DCR) and new Minister of Defense, Abdelkrim Zbidi was several times a member of the cabinet during the reign of Zinedine Ben Ali; Adel Jarbaoui was appointed Secretary of State in charge of Immigration and Tunisians Abroad; the new Minister of Transportation, Radhouane Ayara, was General Secretary of the German branch of the DCR.

2Le bon gouvernement, Seuil, 2017.

3Editor’s note: According to Pierre Rosenvallon, illiberalism is “a political culture which disqualifies the very principles of the liberal vision” ; in “Fondements et problèmes de l’illibéralisme français,” Académie des sciences morales et politiques, 2001.

4For a description of this mechanism of exclusion, read “Blocked Transition: Corruption and Regionalism in Tunisia, International Crisis Group, May 2017.

5Éric Gobe, “La Tunisie en 2015: La présidentialisation de l’impuissance politique?”, Année du Maghreb, 1/2016.