Situation Assessment 21 December, 2021

Can Kais Saied Resolve the Crisis in Tunisia?

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

On the evening of 13 December 2021, five months after his coup against the constitution, Tunisian President Kais Saied announced a set of political measures that ultimately aim to change the political system that Tunisians agreed to establish after the revolution. These measures, if passed, will enshrine a new system with authoritarian features behind the guise of non-representative direct democracy, which empowers the president to almost unilaterally rule the country.

Saied’s Roadmap

In his speech to the Tunisian people, the bulk of which was devoted to attacking his opponents, who he described as traitors, conspirators, and thieves, Saied announced a set of measures, which he framed as a road map for the coming stage. The announced actions came in seven points, six of which centred around what he described as a path of reform. He announced that the House of Representatives would continue to be suspended until new elections are organized and that “virtual popular consultations” would be held from 1 January 2022 to 20 March 2022, by asking questions via an electronic platform, in conjunction with organizing “face to face consultations.” Additionally, a committee would be appointed to bring together various proposals regarding the political, constitutional and electoral system, and to organize a constitutional referendum on 25 July 2022, to end with organizing elections for the House of Representatives, according to the new laws on 17 December 2022.

The term “popular consultation” is ambiguous, so the collection and formulation of proposals, and then the formulation of the constitution proposal and the nature of the questions that will be asked in the referendum to be answered with “yes” or “no”, all depend on a committee that was not appointed by the elected parliament and will not be elected but selected by the President. The president has quite clear biases and is completely isolated from the Tunisian democratic elites who are able to do work in the interest of democracy and not against it.

In addition to the aforementioned measures, Saied announced the imminent issuance of a decree related to fiscal conciliation based on detaining those involved in corruption cases according to the degree of their involvement and prosecuting “those who have committed crimes against the state and the people,” calling on the judiciary to “perform its function within the framework of complete impartiality.”[1]

These measures come nearly five months after the presidential coup against the constitution on 25 July 2021, when Saied announced the suspension of the powers of the House of Representatives and the dismissal of Hisham Al-Mashishi's government.[2] It also comes three months after Presidential Decree 117 suspended most articles of the constitution, assigned all legislative and executive powers to the president, and immunized his decisions from any challenges.

The announcement of the latest measures was preceded by a large-scale campaign by pro-Saied media, promoting the decisions of 17 December, which marks the anniversary of the outbreak of the revolution.

Although Saied’s decisions did not include banning and arresting the leaders of Ennahda and Qalb Tounes, or dissolving the House of Representatives, as was promoted by media close to the president, the suspension of parliament continues to have a significant constitutional and political impact, eliminates any role it can play in controlling government work and in approving the legislation that Saeed intends to pursue, rendering it effectively dissolved.

Reactions to Saied’s Roadmap

Reactions to President Said's recent decisions ranged between denunciation, reservation and welcome. Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi issued a statement in the name of the parliamentary leadership, expressing “its absolute rejection of the suspension of Parliament for another year,” considering the procedure “unconstitutional and illegal,” and warning that “any modification of the constitution is to be done through constitutional procedures.”[3] Ennahda stated that Saied’s roadmap “camouflages […] in the manner of populist autocratic regimes, in order to change the constitution and reshape the political, constitutional and electoral landscape at will,” stressing its “categorical rejection of attempts to extend the state of absolute autocracy and setting electoral dates without dialogue with political and civil forces or consulting the Supreme Elections Authority and the attempt to impose the president’s project that threatens the structure of the state, its constitution and its democratic institutions.”[4]

In the same context, the parties forming the "Social Democratic Parties" coalition (the Democratic Current, Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, and the Republican Party) issued a joint statement in which they described Saied as "the head of the existing authority", and expressed their disapproval of his speech “which was charged with accusations [...] and devoid of responding to the requirements of addressing the suffocating financial and social crisis” and “its rejection of any prejudice to the constitution outside the framework of legitimacy and before holding legislative and presidential elections that actually restore power to the people.”[5]

In contrast to the parties that outright rejected Saied’s decisions, the Tunisian General Labour Union maintained its reserved position on the president’s actions without identifying with the opposition parties, despite Saied referring in his speech to the “third option” initiative put forward by the union. At a workers’ gathering, the Secretary-General of the Tunisian General Labour Union commented on Saied's speech by saying that “the country is going through dangerous twists and turns,” and that the union only aligns itself with the national choices “and the civil and social democratic state.”[6]

Objections to Saied’s latest measures were not limited to political and civil parties, but also came from the Independent High Authority for Elections. An official from the constitutional body stated that “virtual consultations announced by Saied to conduct the referendum have no legal basis,” stressing “the need for a national consensus regarding the organization of this electoral right, with the need to provide a general atmosphere of confidence in the ballot box and its results,” and warned that the electoral commission “is authorized to determine the date of the elections according to the constitution, after agreement with parties or the executive authority.”[7] Meanwhile the Supreme Judicial Council issued a sharp statement denouncing Saied’s consideration of the judiciary as a mere “occupation”; and expressing its “adherence to the status of the judiciary as one of the state's authorities,” stressing “the need to distance it from all pressure, whatever the source.”[8]

In contrast, the People's Movement, along with the Ba’ath, Alliance Nationale Tunisienne and Mouvement Tunisie En Avant parties, which are not known to support democracy, welcomed President Saied's decisions. The roadmap announced by Said does not include parliamentary representation, but these parties considered it an expression of a clear will for reform despite the president’s disregard even for these parties.

An International Message?

The roadmap announced by President Saied, titled “Activating Chapter 80”, came amidst internal and external pressure to lift the state of ambiguity and set a time limit for the state of exception with a return to constitutional institutions, primarily the House of Representatives, and in the context of a worsening economic and social crisis leaving the country unable to mobilize the financial resources necessary to bridge the gap in the 2021 budget, and the possibility of entering 2022 without a new budget, resulting in the management of state expenditures through decrees.[9] So far, no official clarification has been issued in this regard, despite the new fiscal year fast approaching. The economic and financial situation is worsening in light of the ambiguity characterizing the president’s dealings with donors, specifically the International Monetary Fund, and his adoption of a populist rhetoric that mocks the international assessments of the Tunisian economy.[10] Instead, he denies the indications that the economic and social crisis has reached the point of dire repercussions, requiring structural reform, especially given promises made when the coup was orchestrated to obtain loans and grants from Gulf countries.

External demands, the most recent of which came from the G7 statement,[11] the worsening economic and social crisis, and the urgent need to reopen lines of communication with donors, played the most important role in pushing Saied to announce the roadmap, setting a time limit for getting out of the “exceptional situation” and holding parliamentary elections. These demands have topped the conditions for Western partners, including the European Union and the US, since July.

Conversely, domestic pressures, despite their importance, do not seem to have motivated Saied in presenting his road map. On more than one occasion he has repeated his rejection of any dialogue or partnership with all political and civil parties; including the parties that supported him at the beginning of the coup, and he did not heed any of the opposition's demands. His goal seemed to be a message abroad saying one thing — that he has a plan. But the announced plan is detailed according to his vision, including the organization of virtual consultations and the rejection of political and social dialogue, while forming a committee to structure constitutional and political reforms that selects its own members, and holding legislative elections according to a new vision that appears to be based on the system of individual candidacy and the exclusion of party lists.

The Future of the Roadmap

The measures announced by Saied coincided with the eleventh anniversary of the outbreak of the Tunisian revolution. It seems that he wanted to decorate his decisions with the symbolism of the occasion and promote them as a resumption of the revolutionary trajectory after what he described as the “black decade”, burdened by rampant corruption and denial of political and social demands of the protests led to the overthrow of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

In contrast, the opposition forces took advantage of Saied's announced measures to mobilize the street to restore constitutional rule. The capital and other cities saw rallies called by the “Citizens Against the Coup” organisation and “Social Democratic Parties” coalition, and civil associations.[12] Security forces in the capital prevented a march organized by the Democratic Current, Ettakatol and Republican parties from reaching Revolution Avenue, despite having obtained a permit to demonstrate. They also surrounded a march organized by the “Citizens Against the Coup” organisation, preventing the set up of sit-in tents and dispersing attendees by force.[13]

In the city of Sidi Bouzid, which hosted the outbreak of the revolution in 2010, unemployed graduates organized a protest movement and dismantled the platform that was set up in the city centre following news of President Saied's intention to deliver a speech. Likewise, the city of Kasserine[14] and some working-class neighbourhoods west of the capital witnessed skirmishes between youth groups and the security forces. In contrast to the opposition's protests, pro-Saied groups organized a stall declaring support for the president in the centre of the capital under the protection of the security forces that prevented the opponents from approaching the place, but they attracted a limited number of participants.

It appears that the roadmap and Saied’s preceding statements did not lead to a decline in the political and civil opposition movement. The “Citizens Against the Coup” coordinators pledged to continue their protests in the coming days, and the Supreme Judicial Council decided to “keep the council's plenary session running to follow up on all guarantees of judicial independence and good conduct.”

There has been a significant change in the political scene in Tunisia over the past five months. When Saied announced his coup against the constitution, the positions of some parties, such as the Democratic Current, shifted from support to opposition, and the positions of the Labour Union became more conservative. However, most important is the decline of the popular incubator that supported the president in the early days of the coup, evident in the apathy with that met calls to organize rallies in support of the president’s actions in the capital and other cities, and in the movements of unemployed youth, and the protests, which returned, once again, to the working-class neighbourhoods.

The apathy of certain social strata towards the president's decisions and the escalation of the protest movement against them, has decreased fears about the social division leading to a “street versus a street” scenario. Meanwhile, it seems that by dealing with the protests that followed the recent measures, Saied is primarily dependent on the state apparatus; security and administrative matters, and pressure on the judiciary to pass his project, and this is an option fraught with great risks.

[1] “President Kais Saied’s Speech to the Tunisian people,” Facebook, Presidency of the Tunisian Republic Page, 13/12/2021, accessed on 17/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3GSUKah.

[2] “Context and Projected Outcome of the Presidential Coup in Tunisia,” Situation Assessment, ACRPS, 28/7/2021, accessed on 17/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3yNTjav.

[3] “Statement of the Presidency of the Parliament,” Facebook, Rached Ghannouchi page, 12/12/2021, accessed on 17/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3E2KqL2

[4] Ennahda’s statement on the 11th anniversary of the outbreak of the Revolution, Facebook, Rached Ghannouchi page, 17/12/2021, accessed on 17/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3e4xEkF.

[5] Statement, Facebook, Democratic Current page, 16/12/2021, accessed on 17/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3p5KlCa.

[6] “Taboubi: Whoever wants to rule the country must read history and the history of the Tunisian General Labour Union well,” Echaab News, 14/12/2021, accessed on 17/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3J57LQa.

[7] “Tunisia: President Saied’s roadmap, a solution to the crisis or a complication?”, BBC Arabic, 16/12/2021, accessed on 19/12/2021, at: https://bbc.in/3EboltJ.

[8] Statement, Facebook, Supreme Judicial Council page, 10/12/2021, accessed on 19/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/30Fia3q.

[9] “Tunisia raises the deficit forecast to $3.42 billion,” Anadolu Agency, 16/11/2021, accessed on 19/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3p7R4LU.

[10] “Your mother is worthy… Statement by Tunisian President Kais Saied stirs controversy,” Maghreb Voices, 10/10/2021, accessed on 19/12/2021at: https://bit.ly/3p9wA5c.

[11] “G7 calls on Tunisia to set a ‘clear timeline’ for the return of the functioning of democratic institutions,” France 24, 11/12/2021, accessed on 19/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3E5rcVf.

[12] “The people of Tunisia to Revolution Avenue: ‘The imposition of freedom is a duty’’”, The New Arab, 17/11/2021, accessed on 19/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3FaWnj3.

[13] “Tunisia… Suspension of the sit-in in Bourguiba Street, and the Ministry of Interior accuses protesters of assaulting the police,” Al JazeeraNet, 18/12/2021, accessed on 19/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/33MomYR.

[14] “Night protests in Tunisia’s Kasserine and the sit-in continues in the capital,” The New Arab, 18/12/2021, accessed on 19/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/32880sV.