Exceptional Measures and the Political Crisis in Tunisia

Ahmed Nadhif | 06 Sep 2021

Tunisian President Kais Saied issued a presidential order extending the exceptional measures to suspend the Assembly of the Representatives (the Parliament) until further notice and lifted the parliamentary immunity of all its members.[1] This was an extension of the decision Saied made on July 25, 2021, freezing the legislative authority for 30 days.

Saied’s latest move ended the period of anticipation that the country and political forces were experiencing. It also triggered speculation over his next steps and those of his opponents in the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) Movement party, which has witnessed organizational changes coinciding with the political transformation taking place in the country.

This paper examines President Saied’s motives for extending the duration of the exceptional measures and the positions of the political forces. It also sheds light on the transformations experienced by the Ennahda Movement, the President’s strongest opponent, and anticipates the future paths of the political crisis in Tunisia.

Significance of the Extension

In approving the exceptional measures taken on July 25, 2021, the Tunisian President relied on Article 80 of the new Tunisian Constitution,[2] which authorizes him to take “exceptional measures” in the face of a situation of “imminent danger.”

While this article does not give the authority to extend these measures to the President alone, Kais Saied benefited from the absence of the Constitutional Court in issuing a decision to extend the exceptional measures. The second section of Article 80 says that “30 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 30 members thereof shall be entitled to apply to the Constitutional Court to verify whether or not the circumstances remain exceptional.”

It also said that the Court should rule upon and publicly issue its decision within a period not exceeding fifteen days. “These measures cease to be in force as soon as the circumstances justifying their implementation no longer apply. The President of the Republic shall address a message to the people to this effect,” it added[3] This delicate situation is likely to persist until the President himself decides to end it, given that he alone has the power to interpret the articles of the Constitution in the absence of the Constitutional Court.

Another implication of this extension is that President Saied did not complete the tasks that prompted him to announce the exceptional measures, even as the judiciary started opening files related to several Members of Parliament (MPs) and politicians accused of political and financial corruption. The Ministry of the Interior has also placed many political figures under house arrest and prevented others from traveling, citing the Emergency Law. However, the 30-day period was insufficient to take the precautionary measures against many political leaders that ruled before July 25, 2021. Besides, given that President Saied does not have the authority over the judiciary, he uses the powers bestowed on the executive authority during a state of emergency.

The most prominent implication of this extension is the Tunisian President’s determination to turn these exceptional measures into radical transformation. Thus, he left the extension period open-ended “until further notice,” which indicates that President Saied is determined to finish the work of the Parliament and move toward a radical restructuring of the political system. He referred to this in more than one speech after July 25, 2021: “There is no turning back.”[4]

He said that “the state of imminent danger still exists, and that the suspended Parliament is a danger to the country.”[5] Therefore, the extension reveals that the Tunisian President wants to go the distance in changing the political system, ensuring accountability of the political system that ruled between 2011 and 2021.

While neither the political parties nor the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) took a position or released statements related to President Saied’s decision to extend the exceptional measures, the Ennahda Movement expressed its concern about what it called “the uncertainty surrounding the country’s future.” The Movement did not describe the President’s decisions as a “coup against legitimacy,” as it did on July 25, 2021. It considered “suspending the Assembly and lifting the immunity of the MPs a grave breach of the Constitution, and a clear violation of Article 80, which states that the Assembly should remain in permanent session.”[6]

In recent days, the Movement has tried to stop escalation against President Saied. However, Saied’s strict stance did not leave any room for dialogue between the two sides even as the President declared no dialogue with those he described as “cancerous cells,” referring to his opponents, especially the Islamists.

He also accused political parties with extremist religious views of plotting attempts to assassinate him.[7] This prompted the Ennahda Movement to issue a statement in which it said: “It is committed to the laws of the Tunisian state, working within its framework and respecting its institutions, adopting political dialogue as the only method for resolving differences, and working to prevent what could slide the country into the squares of violence and chaos.”[8]

The Shuffling of Cards

Alongside the political transformations, another significant change has been taking shape in Tunisia since July 25, 2021. The Ennahda Movement is undergoing successive organizational and political transformations. The political party is most affected by President Saied’s exceptional measures, which also made the party leave the centers of power and influence and lose the initiative it had over a decade. Several indicators highlight these transformations:

  • A committee was announced for managing the political crisis, headed by a leading figure and member of the Executive Office, Muhammad al-Qumani. According to the Movement’s official statement, the committee is temporary and would be dissolved upon completing its mission. “It would seek solutions and understandings to save our country and return it to the normal institutional situation.”[9] The ambiguity in the ranks of the Movement in the initial days seems to have prompted it to delegate a special committee to manage the crisis. It looked for a settlement formula with the President or to form a broad front of opposition members. However, the committee is facing difficulties in achieving its goals.
  • The Movement’s leader Rached Ghannouchi announced that he would not run for the Movement’s presidency during the next conclave at the end of 2021. An official statement referred to “his commitment to respecting the party’s statute that limits the presidency to two terms.”[10] He was pushed to make this move by the opposition figures within the Movement. This group believes that Ghannouchi’s presence as the leader of the Movement and Parliament has aggravated the political situation in Tunisia since 2019 and made President Saied more intransigent toward the Islamist Movement. The decision to leave the Movement’s leadership is considered the best settlement Ghannouchi could reach with the opposition as it could prevent the division within and prevent a radical split within the party. [11]
  • All the Movement’s Executive Office members were dismissed by Rached Ghannouchi, who justified this by “responding to the established norms of restructuring the Executive Office.” He announced “restructuring in a way that responds to the needs of the current stage and the required efficacy.”[12] It appears that the opposition pushed Ghannouchi to take this step, given that the Executive Office, which consists mostly of leaders loyal to him, was one of the key institutions controlled by Ghannouchi and his supporters. It seems the restructuring of the Executive Office will consider the new balances within the Movement.[13] It will give the opposition a share of the seats that qualify it to participate in decision-making until the General Conference, which would decide the fate of the post-Ghannouchi Islamist Movement.

In the absence of a clear vision to resolve the political crisis, due to the ambiguity surrounding President Saied’s policies, one of the most important political weapons in the face of his opponents, the Ennahda Movement is trying to adapt to the difficulties of the current stage and flow with the tide. It is aware of the power shift against it, given that President Saied has on his side the loyalty of institutions of the state (the army, the security services, and the administration) and the loyalty of a wide range of civil and professional organizations, parties, and large segments of the people.

The Ennahda Movement is trying to deescalate the situation as it fears getting caught in a confrontation of unknown consequences. There are incredibly significant cases still open before the judiciary, such as those related to the secret service and managing the country during the past decade. It also complains about the slackness of its ranks and a lack of consensus on managing the crisis. Therefore, it is trying to coexist with challenging conditions and move major decisions to the next conference, provided President Saied does not proceed with new changes or procedures. However, the Movement’s accumulated internal problems for years and the state of the political impasse would put it in a state of political and popular regression in the future.

The Future of the Crisis

The political crisis in Tunisia appears to be open to more than one possibility considering the transformation the region is witnessing, which has a bearing on the country’s internal balance. The extension announced by President Saied already indicates such a transformation. They are also evident in the President’s statement, including many of his speeches recently:

  • The President has hinted at radical amendments to the Constitution, affecting the political system by restoring the presidential system and approving “council democracy.” Based on the election of local councils in the localities, the system would vote for individuals preceded by popular acclamation via petitions. Subsequently, through the escalation mechanism, the regional councils are formed, through which the House of Representatives would be formed, so that “the structure is base-type, starting from the local to the center,” he put it. He has also recently had many criticisms of the current Constitution.
  • He also hinted at amending the electoral law, converting it from the system of voting on lists to “majority-voting for individuals so that candidacy is not accepted except after an equal number of male and female voters recommend the candidate, and also to avoid marginal candidacies.”[14] He also addressed withdrawing public confidence from representatives at all levels and amending the Associations Law to ban foreign funding categorically. He talked about all those ideas in detail in his election campaign and waited for the opportunity to achieve them, which is at hand. The President believes that representative democracy and the party system have reached a dead end and cannot lead the political process. Those parties did not fail in proving the correctness of his point of view through their abject failure, as both government and opposition, in managing the democratic transition.
  • It also involves continuing the anti-corruption campaign and opening judicial cases accumulated over a decade and in which the ruling class has been involved during 2011-2021. This seems to parallel the internal accountability practices that the Supreme Judicial Council initiated for judges accused of corruption and siding with political parties. Even the President of the Court of Cassation and the former Public Prosecutor were referred to the judiciary.[15]
  • President Kais Saied has also talked about designating a new prime minister to work under the President, where the former’s primary task would be to develop and implement an economic rescue program. This is critical considering the stifling economic and financial crisis the country is passing through. Its main features are the high volume of foreign debt, the disruption of production, and the decline in the incomes of the state’s main sources in the phosphate, tourism, and manufacturing sectors. Some improvements have recently occurred after the resumption of phosphate transfers in the south and the free trade agreement review with Turkey.[16] These measures may help Tunisia overcome the trade deficit and safeguard its production.

References

[1] Communiqué from the Tunisian Presidency, July 24, 2021: https://www.facebook.com/Presidence.tn/posts/4555053807885974

[2] Ahmed Nadhif, Tunisia’s “State of Imminent Danger:” Trajectories and Implications, Emirates Policy Center, July 28, 2021. https://epc.ae/brief/tunisias-state-of-imminent-danger-trajectories-and-implications

[4] Tunisia’s President Says There Is ‘No Turning Back’ [Or Dialogue with Cancerous Cells], Asharq Al-Awsat, August 5, 2021: https://bit.ly/3h3ZKOV.

[5] Meeting of the President of the Republic Kais Saied with the Minister of Trade and Export Development, Presidency of the Tunisian Republic, August 24, 2021: https://bit.ly/3gyuQ0W.

[6] Statement: The Ennahda Movement expresses its concern about the unconstitutional extension of the exceptional measures, August 24, 2021: https://bit.ly/3yhLKqD.

[7] A speech by Tunisian President Kais Saied, August 20, 2021: https://bit.ly/3jfgjbY.

[8] Statement: The Ennahda Movement responds to the President’s speech, August 21, 2021: https://bit.ly/2Wp9LPp.

[9] Statement: The Ennahda Movement announces the formation of a committee to manage the political crisis, and expresses its positive interaction in order to resume the disrupted democratic path, August 12, 2021.: https://bit.ly/38ecSMo.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ahmed Nadhif, The conflict within the Tunisian Ennahda Movement after July 25, and its possible paths, Emirates Policy Center, August 18, 2021: https://bit.ly/3krXIsP.

[12] Media Communiqué: The head of the Movement decides to dissolve the Executive Office and form a new office, August 23, 2021: https://www.facebook.com/Nahda.Tunisia/posts/4683502121673877.

[13] Ahmed Nadhif, The conflict within the Tunisian Ennahda Movement after July 25, and its possible paths, op. cit.

[14] An interview with President Kais Saied during the 2019 presidential election campaign, Acharaa al-Magharibi newspaper, June 12, 2019: https://bit.ly/3mxrfDW.

[15] The Tunisian Judicial Council arrests the First President of the Court of Cassation and refers him to the Public Prosecution, Sputnik, August 21, 2021: https://bit.ly/3zhcrgv.

[16] Tunisia seeks to review the trade agreement with Turkey after the Tunisian economy was damaged, Al-Arab International newspaper, August 21, 2021: https://bit.ly/3gwKXfl.

 

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