A severe political crisis has erupted in Tunisia due to the statements of the President of the Republic Kais Saied rejecting the national reform initiative put forward by the Tunisian Labour Union, calling for a return to the 1959 Constitution, which enshrines a presidential system in which the President of the Republic enjoys strong powers, unlike the current constitution which was issued in 2014. This crisis has erupted in a social context prone to explosion, and has been reflected in the conflict of positions, attitudes and strategies that characterises the relationship between the Tunisian political components.

This paper discusses the backgrounds, stakes, and prospects of the current political crisis and its repercussions for the internal political situation in Tunisia.

The National Dialogue Initiative: context and background

In the midst of the sharp political tension that has existed in Tunisia since the fall of the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime in January 2011, the trade union centre (Tunisian Labour Union) imposed itself as a main mediator between the conflicting parties. It is a strong and organised union that has had a long struggle record since the stage of the struggle against French colonialism. It maintained some independence during the reign of Presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and played an active role in the uprising for change.

The Tunisian Labour Union, in cooperation with the Tunisian Human Rights League, the National Bar Association of Tunisia and the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, succeeded in sponsoring an inclusive national dialogue that led in 2013 to the basic consensus on the new constitution and the electoral system on the basis of which the following elections were organised. This warranted that those four institutions receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.

The Secretary-General of the Tunisian Labour Union Noureddine Taboubi announced in November 2021 a new initiative to solve the internal political crisis in Tunisia, which he presented to the influential leaders in the political field, including the presidencies of the authorities, parliamentary blocs, and political parties. While the terms of the initiative did not enter into the detailed definitions, it is based on the reference of electoral legitimacy, standards of the rule of law, the separation of institutions and social dialogue to resolve the worsening economic and living dilemma since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the meeting of the Secretary-General of the Tunisian Labour Union with President Kais Saied in March 2021, the first suggested that the national dialogue meetings be held under the supervision of the President of the Republic, who expressed his initial approval of the initiative. The most prominent political actors, especially the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the People's Assembly, announced their approval of the union centre’s initiative, but without apparent enthusiasm. President Kais Saied recently expressed some reservations about the initiative of the Tunisian Labour Union. In his meeting with former heads of government and the current Prime Minister (Ali Laarayedh, Youssef Chahed, Elias Fakhakh and Hichem Mechichi) on 15 June 2021, President Saied indicated that he is in the process of preparing for a national dialogue with a different agenda, considering that this meeting constitutes an introductory session for the dialogue. This was interpreted as a repudiation of the approach of the Tunisian Labour Union.

On 17 June 2012, President Kais Saied stated that he did not agree with the proposed formula for the national dialogue by the Tunisian Labour Union, considering it a repetition of the 2013 scenario that was not appropriate for Tunisia, because it was neither a real dialogue nor a national dialogue. President Kais Saied's statements aroused the resentment of the central trade union leadership, which threatened to withdraw its initiative for a political solution, and went on to say that the alternative to political dialogue is early elections that would bring the country out of its political crisis.

President Kais Saied has once again presented his constitutional reform project, bypassing his traditional ideas about direct democracy in order to explicitly call for a return to the 1959 constitution which enshrines a strong presidential system, instead of the current constitution which establishes an institutional balance between the presidency, the government, and the elected parliament. A number of important political and legal figures joined the initiative to return to the 1959 constitution (which was amended several times during the reigns of Presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali), including Sahbi Ben Fraj, one of the founders of the Just Homeland Movement, lawyer Chawki Tabib, former head of the National Anti-Corruption Authority, Hossam al-Hami. Coordinator of the Soumoud (Resilience) Coalition, and former minister, lawyer Mohamed al-Fadel Mahfouz, former dean of the National Bar Association.

What those figures propose is the organisation of a popular referendum to allow the Tunisians to choose between the current quasi-parliamentary system and the strong presidential system that they deem most appropriate for the Tunisian internal situation. However, this initiative met with a strong rejection by the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) Party and the left parties, as well as by the union centre. These parties saw in the initiative a return to tyranny and dictatorship and a practical abolition of the differentiation of constitutional powers. The main obstacle to constitutional reform remains the need for it to obtain a parliamentary majority and be adopted through the Constitutional Court, given that President Kais Saied continues to refuse to sign the Court’s law which was ratified by Parliament.

Prospects of the Tunisian political crisis and opportunities for national dialogue

The manifestations of the Tunisian political crisis can be summarised in the following three elements:

  • The growing rupture between the three wings of government, i.e. the Presidency of the Republic and the Premiership on the one hand, and the Presidency of the Republic and the Speakership of Parliament on the other hand. The matter here goes beyond mere difference in the decision and administration procedures, and reaches the point of conflict in the interpretation of constitutional powers and the pattern of electoral legitimacy, as was recently reflected in the refusal by the President of the Republic to accept the cabinet reshuffle that took place in January 2021, his reluctance to invite the new ministers to take the constitutional oath before him in order to take over their responsibilities, and his interpretation of the President’s supervision over the security services by analogy with the military establishment.
  • The intensification of the political conflict within Parliament between its three major blocs: the political Islam bloc (Ennahda Movement and its allies), the constitutional bloc (the Free Tunisian Party), and the leftist bloc that joined the initiative to remove Rached Ghannouchi from the speakership of parliament.
  • The growing estrangement between the organised political forces of various orientations and the frustrated Tunisian street, which suffers sharply from a severe political and societal crisis, in a way that enhances the political role of the trade union centre (the Tunisian Labour Union), which is a decisive and influential party in the current political conflict.

Thus, two basic scenarios can be elucidated in monitoring and anticipating the prospects for the national dialogue in Tunisia:

The first is the scenario of the success of the National Dialogue, which is pursued by powerful political and civil actors and many international parties, and is required by the deteriorating economic and social situation. According to this scenario, the trade union centre would facilitate the dialogue and formulate its agenda under the supervision of the President of the Republic and with the participation of the most important political actors. However, the ceiling of the dialogue would not reach the amendment of the constitution, as required by the President of the Republic and some politicians and jurists who support his opinion, although it is likely to lead to a review of the electoral system and preparations for early elections that restore some balance to the political arena, with an urgent plan to get out of the stifling social crisis. While the President of the Republic Kais Saied and the Ennahda Party are not enthusiastic about a political settlement based on new elections, local pressures (unions and human rights and civil associations) and external pressures may impose a national dialogue scenario similar to the 2013 dialogue.

The second scenario is the failure of the national dialogue and the continuation of the political crisis, which seems to be the most likely scenario at the moment, one of its indicators being the complete lack of trust between the main political parties, and the adherence of the President of the Republic to the demand for radical constitutional reforms. In this case, the state of paralysis of political institutions would continue, the social crisis would escalate, and the conflict would move to the street, creating a situation that could get out of control and become open to the most dangerous possibilities.

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