In a move that had been expected for months, Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the prime minister and froze parliament on July 25, 2021, after declaring a "state of imminent danger" as stipulated in the new Tunisian constitution (2014). President Saied’s decisions came in the wake of widespread popular protests in the country on Republic Day and in the midst of an unprecedented wave of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the country.

This paper examines the dimensions of this radical step taken by the Tunisian President, the positions of internal and foreign actors towards it, and its possible implications for the country's political landscape.

Drastic Decisions

Following an emergency meeting with top military and security brass, Tunisian President Kais Saied announced in a speech to the nation broadcast on state television the activation of Article 80 of the constitution[1], adding to his powers the presidency of the public prosecution. Shortly afterward, the Tunisian presidency office issued a presidential order that included new decisions for President Said, including the following:

  • The dismissal of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi;
  • The suspension of parliament for 30 days;
  • The rescission of lawmakers' parliamentary immunity;
  • Kais Saied’s assumption of the executive branch assisted by a government headed by a prime minister appointed by the president.
  • The dismissal of key ministers (Ibrahim El-Bertajy, Minister of National Defense, Hasna Ben Suleiman, Acting Minister of Justice, along with Hichem Mechichi, Minister of Interior)[2].

The Tunisian presidency office said that President Said had consulted with Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and Speaker of the Assembly of the People's Representatives, Rached Ghannouchi, in accordance with Article 80 of the Constitution, which regulates exceptional procedures for a state of "imminent danger." This article stipulates the following: “In the event of an imminent danger threatening the nation's institutions or the security or independence of the country, and hampering the normal functioning of the state, the President of the Republic may take any measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances, after consultation with the Head of Government and the Speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People and informing the President of the Constitutional Court. The President shall announce the measures in a statement to the people.[3]" However, the second section of this article indicates that “The measures shall guarantee, as soon as possible, a return to the normal functioning of state institutions and services. The Assembly of the Representatives of the People shall be deemed to be in a state of continuous session throughout such a period. In this situation, the President of the Republic cannot dissolve the Assembly of the Representatives of the People and a motion of censure against the government cannot be presented. Thirty days after the entry into force of these measures, and at any time thereafter, the Speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People or thirty of the members thereof shall be entitled to apply to the Constitutional Court with a view to verifying whether or not the circumstances remain exceptional.”

However, it seems that the Tunisian president has overstepped his authority as president when he enforced Article 80. He decided to freeze the parliament, taking advantage of the absence of the Constitutional Court, which has the powers to interpret constitutional articles. In the absence of this institution, the president shall have the absolute authority for constitutional interpretation.

Local and International Reactions

The reactions of Tunisian political actors to the radical step taken by President Kais Saied varied, according to each party's position on power:

  • Opponents: Actors opposed to President Said's actions mainly include the parties of the tripartite coalition supporting the government of Hichem Mechichi, which is led by the Ennahda Movement along with the Heart of Tunisia party and the Dignity Coalition (Karama). These parties considered what the president had done was a "coup against democracy", calling on their supporters to take to the streets and "defend legitimacy." They also called on the deputies to go to parliament which was sealed off by army units.
  • Proponents: The parties and actors that supported President Saied's move mainly include parties opposing the Meshishi government, led by the People's Movement, which clearly supported the president's actions, and the National People Current, which expressed its backing for the exceptional measures. This is in addition to the Tunisian General Labor Union which did not reject the decisions taken by President Said, calling at the same time for "constitutional guarantees accompanying the decisions of the head of state.[4]" It was also noted that there was noticeable popular support for Saied's decisions, as dozens of Tunisians took to the streets to celebrate these measures[5].

Internationally, positions were issued by the neighboring countries in the Maghreb, the European neighborhood, and Turkey, some of which were characterized by caution, while others were direct and ranged between bias and a call for dialogue:

  • Algeria: The Algerian presidential office announced that President Abdelmadjid Tebboune received a phone call from Tunisian President Kais Saied, "in which they discussed the latest developments in Tunisia and Algerian-Tunisian relations and ways to strengthen them.[6]" Although the Algerian side did not disclose the content of the phone call, it did reveal a Tunisian-Algerian consultation regarding what happened in Tunisia.
  • Libya: The reaction of the parties in Libya to the step taken by the Tunisian president varied. The Head of Libya's High Council of State, Khalid al-Mishri, considered Saied's decisions a "coup against the elected bodies"[7] in an ideological bias towards the Islamist Ennahda movement in light of the fact that he himself belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood movement. On the other hand, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan National Army, described what was happening in Tunisia as "the uprising of the Tunisian people against the Brotherhood.[8]"
  • Turkey: Unsurprisingly, Turkey condemned the measures announced by President Kais Saied. Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin denounced what he considered a "suspension" of the democratic process in Tunisia, while Deputy Chairman of the Justice and Development Party Numan Kurtulmus reiterated Ankara's "principled position rejecting coups wherever they are"[9].
  • European Union: The European Union urged Tunisi’s political actors to respect the constitution and avoid sliding into violence. A spokeswoman for the European Commission said: "We are closely following the latest developments in Tunisia. We call on all Tunisian actors to respect the Constitution, its institutions, and the rule of law. We also call on them to remain calm and to avoid any resort to violence in order to preserve the stability of the country.[10]" However, it is remarkable that the European Union did not issue any political assessments of the measures taken by President Saied.
  • The United States: The US administration has shown unresolved attitudes towards the latest developments in Tunisia. On the one hand, the White House expressed its concern about what happened, but indicated that Washington "has not yet determined whether the situation in Tunisia is a coup.[11]" On the other hand, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken urged Tunisian President Kais Saied in a phone call between them, according to a statement issued by the US State Department, "to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights that are the basis of governance in Tunisia," and encouraged him to "maintain open dialogue with all political actors and the Tunisian people.[12]"

Possible Scenarios

Although President Kais Saied has so far issued limited decrees, it seems that he will issue other decrees and decisions in the coming hours. This makes it difficult to anticipate the trajectory of the political crisis that the country is going through, but we can expect two possible paths that Tunisia may pass through in in the future:

  1. Escalation: President Saied could escalate more drastic measures by arresting a number of MPs who are involved in corruption and terrorism cases, and opening judicial cases that have been kept in the backburner for years, mainly those related to terrorism and corruption, especially the the secret apparatus of the Ennahda movement, the transfer networks, and financial and administrative corruption cases. On the other hand, the Ennahda movement can drift towards popular escalation by calling on its supporters to take to the streets and start civil disobedience in a replay of what happened in Egypt in 2013.
  2. Dialogue: After the 30-day period stipulated in Article 80 of the Constitution has passed, all parties may sit at the table of a national dialogue. The dialogue could address the issue of radically changing the political and electoral system in line with the vision adopted by President Saied since his candidacy for the presidency. This is something that the Ennahda movement will find itself obliged to accept in order to avoid escalation that could have disastrous consequences for its political organization.

But regardless of any developments, it is certain that President Qais Saeed will go to lay hands on the executive branch by appointing a new prime minister in the coming hours and seeking the assistance of the public prosecution through changes at the head of the Ministry of Justice. It is also expected that judicial files relating to the political class, especially some deputies, will be opened after the Ennahda movement and its allies have controlled this vital judicial system for years.

Conclusions

  • In a move that had been expected for months, Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the prime minister and froze parliament on July 25, 2021, after declaring a "state of imminent danger" as stipulated in the Tunisian constitution. He has also decided to suspend lawmakers’ parliamentary immunity and dismissed key ministers (Interior, Defense and Justice).
  • The reactions of Tunisian political actors to the radical step taken by President Kais Saied varied. Actors opposed to President Said's actions mainly include the parties of the tripartite coalition supporting the government of Hichem Mechichi, which is led by the Ennahda Movement along with the Heart of Tunisia party and the Dignity Coalition (Karama). These parties considered what the president had done was a “coup against democracy”. The parties and actors that supported President Saied's move mainly include parties opposing the Meshishi government, led by the People's Movement and the National People Current. This is in addition to the Tunisian General Labor Union which did not reject the decisions taken by President Said, calling for "constitutional guarantees accompanying the decisions of the head of state.”
  • Internationally, positions were issued by the neighboring countries in the Maghreb, the European neighborhood, and Turkey, some of which were characterized by caution, while others were direct and ranged between bias and a call for dialogue. Turkey and Libya's Islamist actors sided with the Ennahda movement while the EU and the US called for dialogue. 
  • It is possible to anticipate two potential paths in which the Tunisian crisis may move in the future: Escalation: President Said may move towards escalating drastic measures against Ennahda and its allies. In return, Ennahda could drift towards popular escalation by calling on its supporters to take to the streets and start civil disobedience. Alternatively, there is the dialogue path that could end the crisis with radical changes affecting the political system, as well as the current electoral system.

Endnotes

[1] President Kais Saied chairs an emergency meeting with military and security commanders. https://www.facebook.com/Presidence.tn/posts/4462323937158962

[2] A presidential order dismissing key ministers. https://www.facebook.com/Presidence.tn/posts/4464552766936079

[4] Labor Union calls for the exceptional measures taken by the president to be accompanied by a set of constitutional guarantees. https://bit.ly/3y9c6M5

[6] A statement from the Presidency of the Algerian Republic. https://www.facebook.com/AlgerianPresidency/posts/351631959753029

[7] Al-Mishri in response to Tunisia’s developments: We reject “coups” against elected bodies, Anadolu Agency, July 26, 2021. https://bit.ly/3kZf8Ps

[8] Haftar describes what is happening in Tunisia as an "uprising", Russia Today, July 26, 2021. https://bit.ly/370LaSL

[9] Turkish presidential spokesman condemns the suspension of democracy in Tunisia, Anadolu Agency, July 26, 2021. https://bit.ly/3x7PVEC

[10]  The European Union calls on all Tunisian parties to respect the constitution and the rule of law. https://bit.ly/3iSo1r4

[11] Washington:  We do not consider what happened in Tunisia to be a coup, Al Ain News, July 26, 2021. https://al-ain.com/article/1627320288

[12] Crisis in Tunisia: Washington urges President Kais Saied to “respect democracy and engage in dialogue with political parties,” BBC, 27 July 2021. https://www.bbc.com/arabic/middleeast-57979957

 

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