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Situation Assessment 28 July, 2021

Context and Projected Outcome of the Presidential Coup 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 25 July 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed PM Hichem Mechichi, suspended the Assembly, revoked representatives’ parliamentary immunity and assumed executive power himself, pending his direct appointment of a new government. This coup against the constitution followed a day of demonstrations and rioting across Tunisia during which branch HQs belonging to the Ennahda Party were repeatedly targeted. As a result, Saied has been able to present his coup as a move against Ennahda – but in reality, it has far less to do with Ennahda than with Saied’s long struggle with the Assembly over the limited powers of the presidency.

Background

The measures taken on 25 July are only the most recent salvo in almost two years of constant political crisis. Ever since the elections held in late 2019, which brought Saied to power and gave Ennahda a plurality but not a majority of parliamentary seats, the President has been making energetic efforts to expand the powers of his office at the expense of the Assembly and the government. These efforts intensified after the resignation of former PM Elyes Fakhfakh in July 2020 amid allegations of corruption.[1] Having initially tasked Mechichi with forming a government, Saied fell out with his new PM within days and asked the Assembly to deny him the vote of confidence he needed for his cabinet to take office. The reason for this remarkable U-turn was Mechichi’s insistence that he be allowed to exercise his constitutional right to appoint his own choice of ministers – and his unwillingness to serve as a mere ‘first minister’ to Saied.

The crisis deepened again in January 2021 when Mechichi carried out a sweeping reshuffle of the cabinet, dismissing all those ministers close to the president. Saied refused to recognise this reshuffle or to invite the new ministers to take the constitutional oath – despite the Assembly having ratified them in a vote of confidence – on the dubious pretext that some of them were suspected of corruption. This was an unconstitutional move on his part: accusations (and not suspicions) of corruption are a matter for the judiciary and not for the president, and the taking of the oath is in any case a ceremonial matter, not a means of rejecting ministers who have already received the confidence of the Assembly. Nonetheless, Saied doubled down on this break with the government by refusing to ratify a bill modifying electoral procedures – which had passed the Assembly with a comfortable majority – and by declaring himself commander-in-chief not only of the army but of the civilian armed forces (police, national guard, customs officers) as well.

For most of this period, the parties in the Assembly paid little attention to the steady creep of presidential power at the expense of the other institutions. They were not governing themselves – Mechichi oversees a technocrat cabinet – and were busy with their own internecine disputes. The ridiculous behaviour of the anti-democratic old regime holdovers during parliamentary sessions also contributed to a general impression that the Assembly was completely out of touch with the lives of normal people. Saied has exploited this impression by positioning himself as a populist, a man far above petty political squabbles.

Preparations for a presidential coup

Against the backdrop of this escalating struggle between president, government and assembly, posts began to appear on social media calling for demonstrations to be held on 25 July (Republic Day). Posters advocated dissolving the Assembly and of the current cabinet, suspending the Constitution, abolishing the current political system and electoral law, punishing politicians – particularly those from Ennahda – and putting military men in charge of the government during a transitional period to be overseen by Saied. Who was behind this social media campaign was unclear, although it received extensive coverage on Emirati and Egyptian satellite TV. But it is notable that none of these posts called for Saied’s removal along with the rest of the ruling establishment.

When 25 July came, demonstrations went ahead in front of the Assembly building in Tunis and in other cities across the country, most importantly Sousse, Tozeur, Kairouan, Sfax and Nabeul. Although there were not that many demonstrators in total, several attacks on Ennahda buildings were recorded. In Kairouan and Sousse, party placards were torn down, while in Tozeur rioters stormed and sacked the party’s branch office. In Tunis itself, demonstrators whipped up by Saied’s announcements were only prevented from attacking the main party HQ by the timely intervention of the riot police.[2] It is difficult not to interpret all this as a pre-planned effort to recast the president’s attempts to unconstitutionally transform a parliamentary into a presidential system as a measure against Ennahda.

Justifications for the coup

After an emergency meeting with senior figures from the security forces and army on the evening of 25 July, Saied announced that ‘having consulted the Prime Minister and the President of the Assembly, the necessary measures are being taken to save the state and society,’. This meant ‘suspending all functions of the Assembly and stripping all its members of their immunity’, ‘taking charge of the Public Prosecutor’s Office’, and ‘taking charge of the executive branch, with the assistance of a government headed by a Prime Minister appointed by the President’. Hichem Mechichi was ‘immediately relieved […] of his duties, and someone else will take over the premiership. This person will be directly responsible to the President, who will personally appoint the members of the government and head the cabinet himself.’ Saied promised that ‘anyone who presumes to defy the state or its symbols, and anyone who fires a single bullet’ would be ‘met with a hail of bullets in return’, accusing his opponents of ‘hypocrisy, treachery and theft’.[3]

Shortly after this speech, the presidency published a list of all the measures taken (with the exception of Saied’s assumption of the office of Public Prosecutor), with the additional detail that the Assembly would be suspended for a period of thirty days. The following day, the Ministers of Defence and Justice and the Prime Minister were formally dismissed, a two-day holiday for government workers was announced (subject to extension), a month-long curfew was put in place and gatherings of more than three people were banned.

Saied maintains that all these moves have been made under Chapter 80 of the Constitution, which states that ‘in the event of a grave threat to the country’s existence, security and independence making the normal conduct of state affairs impossible, the President shall have the right to take whatever measures are made necessary by that exceptional circumstance, after consulting the Prime Minister and the President of the Assembly and after notifying the head of the Constitutional Court.’[4] Chapter 80 also stipulates, however, that ‘the Assembly shall be in permanent session throughout this period’, and that ‘the President shall not dissolve the Assembly, nor shall he impeach the Government’.

Saied has clearly breached all these provisions. Rather than consulting the PM and the President of the Assembly, he has dismissed one and suspended the other. Rather than keeping the Assembly in permanent session, he has in practice dissolved it. He cannot have notified the head of the Constitutional Court, since that position remains empty. And his assumption of the office of Public Prosecutor, quite literally taking the law into his own hands, has no basis whatsoever in the Constitution.[5] Yadh Ben Achour, a Tunisian law professor, has described Saied’s reference to Chapter 80 as ‘meaningless – in fact, a total and explicit breach of the provisions of the Tunisian Constitution, since the essential and formal conditions have not been met.’[6] The Tunisian Constitutional Law flatly states that the suspension of the Assembly ‘is not one of the exceptional measures’ that the President is empowered to take, and has expressed its alarm at the concentration of powers in the hands of a single man.[7]

The anti-coup consensus

Within a day of Saied’s announcement all but two of Tunisia’s political parties had rejected it outright. They were joined by the major NGOs and the majority of Tunisian lawyers, who objected to Saied’s interpretation of the Constitution. Ennahda described the measures as ‘lacking any legal or constitutional basis’. Ennahda’s head, the President of the Assembly Rached Ghannouchi, charged Saied with ‘a coup against the Constitution, the Revolution and personal and public freedoms’, maintaining that ‘the Assembly […] is in permanent session’ and denying that Saied had consulted him on anything other than a prospective state of emergency.[8]

Various other parties have joined their voices to Ennahda’s. The Dignity Coalition has described Saied’s measures as ‘a dangerous and flagrant coup against constitutional legitimacy’, ‘absolutely reject[ing] all the measures announced by the president’s office’ and expressing its ‘profound shock at the use of the military and security establishments to stop the functioning of the parliamentary institution’.[9] The Democratic Current has stopped short of using the word ‘coup’ but has nonetheless rejected Saied’s interpretation of Chapter 80 and ‘all the unconstitutional decisions and measures that have resulted from it’.[10] The leftist Workers’ Party has condemned what it calls a ‘clear breach of the Constitution’, branding the measures ‘the [latest] manifestation of Kais Saied’s long efforts to take sole control of the three branches [of government] – executive, legislative and judiciary – which will usher in a coup ending with the re-establishment of absolute autocracy.’[11] And the Republican Party, using much the same language, has accused Saied of ‘betraying the oath that [he] took to vigilantly uphold the Constitution’.[12]

The only party to support the measures so far has been the nationalist People’s Party, which has described it as ‘righting the course of the Revolution, which has been led astray by counterrevolutionary forces, first among them Ennahda and the entire governing establishment.’[13] The Tunisian General Labour Union, meanwhile – whose Secretary-General met with Saied shortly after the announcement – has been more reserved, expressing its support for ‘the peaceful popular and social mobilisations that have taken place in various regions’ while emphasising ‘the urgent need to ensure that any measure that is taken at this delicate juncture enjoys constitutional legitimacy’.[14]

Challenges to the coup

As of this writing, the President has still not named a successor to Mechichi, suggesting that finding a replacement may be proving more difficult than expected. This is perhaps unsurprising given that any new PM will be no more than a deputy to a president who plans to lead the cabinet himself – and given the many additional constitutional pitfalls standing between the president and a vote of confidence for the new cabinet at a time when the Assembly has been suspended.

Saied will also find it difficult to push through any further measures. The Supreme Judicial Council has already struck down his attempt to take control of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, emphasising ‘the independence of the judicial branch and the need to keep it far away from political struggles’ and reminding the President after meeting with him that ‘the Public Prosecutor’s Office is part of the justice system’.[15] The vast majority of parties and civil society organisations are also arrayed against him and have made it clear that the Constitution must be respected.

In the face of this determined opposition, the enthusiasm that had gripped Saied’s supporters in the days following the coup has receded somewhat, and their hopes of using the security forces and the army to quickly dispense with their opponents have begun to fade. So far no arrests have been made, and the security forces have limited their activities to breaking up demonstrations by both sides in front of the Assembly. The army has only deployed around the government headquarters on Rue de la Kasbah and the Assembly building itself, where they barred Ghannouchi and the other deputies from entry on 26 July, citing ‘orders from high command’. In fact, the army has expressed no official opinion on events, although the presence of senior commanders during the announcement suggests that Saied may have secured their consent before acting. Even so, this is no guarantee that they will not ultimately act as they did in 2011 – that is, by standing back and refusing to intervene in political disputes.

Nor are domestic concerns the only potential problems facing Saied. Regional and international factors will also be important in determining whether his coup succeeds or fails. Both the EU and the USA have emphasised the need to solve disputes constitutionally, and this suggests that there is little international desire to put an end to the Tunisian experiment or to accept such a significant threat to the country’s security. The position taken by the USA, the country best placed to influence the Tunisian army, is particularly clear. But the international community alone will not be able to save Tunisian democracy if the country’s political parties and civil society organisations do not unite behind a single and uncompromising position on the coup.

Conclusion

A few days after Kais Saied’s coup, a veritable chorus of voices both inside and beyond Tunisia has risen up to condemn his actions and call for an immediate return to constitutional government. It is clear that if the President is planning to reinstate autocratic government or mimic his Egyptian counterpart he will face many difficulties. It is true that Tunisia is in the throes of a serious economic crisis exacerbated by the failure of its young democracy to fulfil expectations of rapid development. It is also true that partisanship, internecine struggles and the opposition’s desire to bring down the government at any price have deepened public disillusionment with attempts to solve their everyday problems. But none of this justifies throwing away the hard-won democratic gains of the last decade or allowing a president with no significant qualifications to ride roughshod over these gains in the name of a populist discourse that considers itself above politics.

Democracy itself is a solution only to dictatorial government and not to economic and social problems. Solving these is the function of sociopolitical forces and of the institutions of government, which must operate within a democratic system. The only alternative is autocracy, which suppresses freedoms and provides no solution to economic and social problems.


[1] See: The Political/Constitutional crisis in Tunisia: Context and Prospects, Situation Assessment, ACRPS, 27/07/2021, accessed on 26/07/2021 at: https://bit.ly/3yc1CLT

[2] See: “Ihtijajat Mutafarriqa fi ‘adad min al-Mudun al-Tunisiyya wa-Muhawalat li-Iqtiham Maqarrat al-Nahda”, Alaraby Aljadeed, 25/07/2021, accessed on 26/07/2021 at: https://bit.ly/3kXcc5K

[3] See: “Ra’is al-Jumhuriyya Yatara’’as Ijtima’an Tari’an li’l-Qiyadat al-‘Askariyya wa’l-Amniyya”, Presidency of the Republic of Tunisia page, Facebook, 25/07/2021, accessed on 27/07/2021 at: https://bit.ly/3xc37bI

[4] See: “Tunisian Constitution of 2014” at: https://bit.ly/3i6wWpX

[5] For more, see: “Hal Kharaqa Qays Su’ayyid Dastur Tunis? Ilayka al-Madda 80 allati Bana ‘alayhi Qararatihi”, Al Jazeera.net, 25/07/2021, accessed on 26/07/2021 at: https://bit.ly/3zIsEuZ

[6] “’Iyad bin ‘Ashur: Ma Hadath Huwa Inqilab Bi-Atamm Ma’na al-Kalima“, YouTube, 26/07/2021, accessed on 28/07/2021 at: https://bit.ly/3j1Z1y2

[7] “al-Azma fi Tunis… Jadal Bayn Khubara’ al-Qanun al-Dasturi Hawl Qararat Su’ayyid”, Deutsche Welle, 27/07/2021, accessed on 28/07/2021 at: https://bit.ly/2TEZKfH

[8] “Rashid al-Ghannushi: Ma Qam Bihi Qays Su’ayyid Huwa Inqilab ‘ala al-Thawra wa’l-Dastur wa-Ansar al-Nahda wa’l-Sha’b al-Tunisi Sayudafi’un ‘ala al-Thawra”, Rachid Ghannouchi page, Facebook, 25/07/2021, accessed on 27/07/2021 at: https://bit.ly/3l0STsr

[9] Dignity Coalition page, Facebook, 26/07/2021, accessed on 27/07/2021 at: https://bit.ly/3iWK1RV

[10] Democratic Current page, Facebook, 26/07/2021, accessed on 27/07/2021 at: https://bit.ly/3l2RBgy

[11] “Tashih Masar al-Thawra La Yakun bi’l-Inqilabat wa-bi’l-Hukm al-Fardi al-Mutlaq”, Workers’ Party page, Facebook, 26/07/2021, accessed on 27/07/2021 at: https://bit.ly/3rKDgXq

[12] “Al-Jumhuri al-Tunisi: Qararat al-Ra’is Su’ayyid Inqilab ‘ala al-Dustur”, Anadolu Agency, 26/07/2021, accessed on 28/07/2021 at: https://bit.ly/3BRZ1sG

[13] “Bayan Hawl Qararat Siyadat Ra’is al-Jumhuriyya”, PM deputies’ page, Facebook, 26/07/2021, accessed on 27/07/2021 at: https://bit.ly/3x92fV6

[14] “Bayan al-Maktab al-Tanfidhi al-Watani Hawl al-Tatawwurat al-Akhira fi’l-Bilad”, UGTT website, 26/07/2021, accessed on 27/07/2021 at: https://bit.ly/2WrdMTj

[15] “al-Ta’kid ‘ala Istiqlaliyyat al-Sulta al-Qada’iyya wa’l-Na’y biha ‘an al-Tajadhubat al-Siyasiyya”, Supreme Judicial Council, 26/07/2021, accessed on 27/07/2021 at: https://bit.ly/3x3u7tP