Tunisia: an Assessment of a Year of Enhanced Power Concentration
On March 30, 2022, 120 deputies defied the suspension of the legislature enacted by Tunisian President Kais Saied in July 2021, by setting up a videoconference session in an effort to continue to exist. A few hours later, the President decided to act decisively in response accusing the lawmakers of inciting "a plot against state security".
During the last decade, Tunisia has experienced a certain balance in the 2014 constitution, between the three powers that are, ironically, a 'little too balanced', resulting in the formation of an arbitration court that has never been established before. Consequently, it is in the name of this insecurity that President Kais Saied, in accordance with the Article 80 of the Constitution, carried out his coup in 2021, which gave him extraordinary powers in times of crisis.
Essentially, the issue involves a post-revolutionary regime accused of imposing a hybrid political system that gives the parliament an excessive amount of power. The selection of the head of government, who was nominated by the head of state but who needed to be approved by the parliament, was yet another point of balance. Another main cause was the ongoing physical altercations in plenary between the Free Destourian Party and the Islamist Ennahdha Party. President Saied wanted to dismantle a political immobilism in Tunisia that was caused by laws that had democratic intention but failed to function. Consequently, he blew on the political parties by marginalizing them and prevented the opposition from organizing. Indeed, he claimed that he detained files he owns about corruption as well as the killings of figures in the left-leaning Tunisian community, in connection with Ennahdha.
The president, who, at first, presented himself as a simple, solitary, uncorrupted man in the midst of the great antagonism of the Islamists' disastrous government, with his poetic discourse based on classic Arabic literature, proceeded to propose a very non-transparent consensus to the Tunisians last July. He developed a super-presidential system with his own amendments, which grants him a substantial portion of the complete powers, creates local assemblies and permits him to dissolve the chambers: all are the methods of emptying the parliament. In addition, against the wishes of Sadek Belaid, the chairman of the commission in charge of drafting the new constitution, he legitimizes it through a referendum with a 30.5% turnout.
In Tunisia, the constitution has always been connected to the country's whole history since the nineteenth century, including the fight against French colonialism by the Destour party. Yet, the new constitution that Saied proposed last summer is completely unbalanced in the president's favor, with a parliament sandwiched between a regional chamber and the executive branch. It also places the power of the judiciary under the control of the executive branch, which controls the superior council of the judicial branch and, ultimately, appoints constitutionalist judges who support it. In other words, Kais Saied now holds the power of justice.
The first article of the constitution, which stated that Tunisia is a Muslim nation, has been withdrawn by the constitutionalist. Supposedly, the goal is to discredit any potential Islamist influence, and Saied makes every effort to position himself as an anti-Islamist. However, when you take a look back at the charter, the new state is actually more complex as according to the text, the responsibility for upholding Islam's religious aims will mainly be in the hands of the state. This creates some uncertainty about where Islam stands in Tunisia after Kais Saied.
Furthermore, the second article of the 2014 constitution, which established the civil state, was deleted in the new constitution, which is another significant reference that was made in the previous constitution. It presents issues for the Islamist party as well as for the country's generally secular leaders and people. As a result, a form of authoritarian Arab nationalism, that does not in any way reject the tenets of Islam, but rather subjugates them, is what is aimed to be restored in Said's constitution. In fact, the concept of "ummah" appears for the first time in the constitutions of the Maghreb countries, reflecting a resurrected authoritarian populism.
The restrictions imposed on the president today, despite all odds, are not public opposition, but rather financial and socio-economic conditions. Indeed, the socio-economic crisis-ridden and on the point of bankruptcy Tunisian reality is currently eclipsing Kais Saied. After the GDP shrank by 9% in 2020, Tunisia is currently unable to pay its debts, cannot afford to pay its civil servants, has a credibility issue, and the roadmap it offered to donors is woefully inadequate. The young people in Tunisia today need to eat, and because of the country's fragile economic position, the once-supernaturally insane hope for Kais Saied is now slowly fading. Insolvency is imminent for Tunisia. For a bigger portion of the people, access to adequate living conditions is the only reason they care about politics.
Today in the Tunisian streets, two camps exist those who backed July 25th, because the political environment before the 25th was viewed as a dictatorship of Parliament governed by the Islamist party Ennahdha and those who openly expressed their opposition to the current constitution. According to them, since the Arab Spring, Tunisia has been recognized as a model nation for upholding all the principles of democracy, finding itself with a politically paralyzed reality. In the thick of widespread dissatisfaction, one question arises: is Tunisia returning to a right-out dictatorship?