Tunisian President Kais Saied announced on July 25 the suspension of the Tunisian Parliament, the lifting of the immunity of deputies, and the dismissal of the Prime Minister. In just a few days, following this controversial government takeover, the landscape in the country has been radically transformed: citizens are now under curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., military control has been extended throughout the nation, Tunisian regions are isolated from each other, and there’s a ban on gatherings of more than three people.

While outsiders might interpret these measures as part of the fight against the global pandemic, the reality is different. In fact, President Kais Saied essentially carried out a “constitutional coup” by concentrating executive, legislative, and judiciary powers into his hands. Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring, now seems to be heading towards political chaos that could potentially lead to the restoration of authoritarianism.

Tunisians woke up on July 26 to the spectacle of the Tunisian Parliament surrounded by the army preventing the deputies and the President of the Parliament from entering the building. The army came out of the barracks to impose the presidential measures, which include the suspension of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People for a month and the lifting of parliamentary immunity for the same period.

The President proclaimed that he will dissolve the government and appoint judicial powers to himself.

In addition, the President proclaimed that he will dissolve the government and appoint judicial powers to himself, as the self-declared General Prosecutor. This series of actions puts an end to the separation of powers between government branches and has been described by many analysts as a coup d’état, much like the one that brought Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to power in 1987.

Since then, the dismissal of judges and a string of investigations launched against parliament deputies have followed in Tunisia, targeting mainly the Ennahda and Qalb Tounes parties. An inquiry has been launched against both blocs for allegedly receiving foreign funding.

The presidential decisions came after a series of demonstrations spread across the country, in protest of the deteriorating economic and health situation, and the paralysis of political institutions. Indeed, the political context this year has been marked by the rivalry between President Kais Saied, on the one hand, and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi – supported by the Parliament – on the other hand. Every year on July 25, the anniversary of the 2011 revolution, Tunisia experiences demonstrations reminding the political elite that the democratic transition is not complete.

The Tunisian President has seized this opportunity to deliver a decisive blow to his enemies, under the pretext of restoring order and stability. Even though the support of the Tunisian army was decisive in this show of force, the President of the Parliament, Rachid Ghannouchi, also mentioned the support of foreign elements, including the United Arab Emirates.

A Coup or a Corrective Move?

The Tunisian political scene seems to be reeling from the shock of recent events, while the opposition to the President is struggling to reorganize and has adopted a wait-and-see attitude for the time being, fearing the possible repercussions of mass demonstrations. Saied himself seems to enjoy a certain amount of popular support at the moment.

Furthermore, though the term “coup d’état” seems to be used by many intellectuals and analysts, the President’s supporters have opted for various euphemisms such as “corrective move” or “coup de force.” In fact, they accept the anti-constitutional nature of the presidential maneuvers, and even stress that they constitute an essential return to the spirit of the 2011 revolution. In an interview with Inside Arabia, Amine Snoussi, a young Tunisian essayist and political activist, argued that “this remains a coup, since all powers are concentrated around one person outside the constitutional process.”

Saied Tunisia coup

Demonstrators gather outside the main entrance of the parliament building in Tunis, Tunisia, July 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Hedi Azouz)

President Saied invoked his own interpretation of Article 80 of the Constitution, which grants him exceptional powers “in the event of imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions or the security or independence of the country and hampering the normal functioning of the state,” though it stipulates consultation with the Prime Minister and the Speaker of Parliament. Moreover, the same article provides that the Assembly of the Representatives of the People shall be deemed to be in a state of continuous session throughout such a period, and that a motion of censure against the government cannot be presented.

The Speaker of Parliament claims to not have been consulted by the President, and many constitutional experts have asserted that Saied’s actions have no legality, therefore reinforcing the coup accusations. The absence of a Constitutional Court prevents the opposition from contesting these decisions. The judicial institution, which is a key element of the 2014 Constitution, has yet to be formed due to political division and unwillingness to create such a significant power check. In the past two years, President Saied has constantly blocked the nomination of the Constitutional Court members.

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Ennahda: Between a Firm Rejection of the Coup and Avoiding Confrontation

“Many Ennahda supporters are angry and want to take to the streets and express their anger,” Radwan Al-Masmoudi, a member of the Ennahda Political Bureau, told Inside Arabia. Al-Masmoudi went on to qualify Ennahda’s stance as “wise and cautious,” as in his view, they are “trying to do what is best for the country, by overcoming this crisis through peaceful means.” According to him, the party aims at a return to normality by restoring the democratic institutions, putting an end to the politicization of the army, and organizing a national dialogue.

Al-Masmoudi explained that the Ennahda movement in Tunisia does not believe that the way to resolve this dispute is to take to the streets, as it could lead to widespread violence. The party would instead support the organization of early elections, in order to “let the people decide whether to re-elect Kais Saied or not.” Al-Masmoudi further stressed that the goal of the Ennahda movement is to ensure that “the tragic Egyptian scenario is not repeated in Tunisia,” considering that “Tunisia is not Egypt, and democracy in Tunisia is much stronger.”

The Ennahda Movement issued a statement calling for the restoration of democracy, stressing that what President Saied announced was “illegal and unconstitutional.”

On the evening of July 25, the Ennahda Movement issued a statement calling for the restoration of democracy, stressing that what President Saied announced was essentially “illegal and unconstitutional.” “It is a coup against democracy, backed by the army,” Al-Masmoudi said, as the party accounts for 51 out of 217 democratically elected MPs.

According to a study published by the independent Tunisian media outlet Inkyfada, 123 MPs have voiced their opposition to the presidential moves, against 36 who support them. The rest of the MPs have yet to take a stance.

“The Ennahda movement is not alone. We are working with other parties, civil society, and trade unions,” Al-Masmoudi added. In this regard, the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union has presented to the Presidency a roadmap aimed at accelerating this transitional period and forming a government of experts. It had already warned the executive body against any infringement on democracy and human rights a few days before Saied’s takeover.

[Tunisia’s Parliament Buckles Under an Assertive President]

Saied’s Battle is with the Concept of Parliament

It is interesting to note that the recent developments can be explained by President Saied’s own conception of democracy. Indeed, he has repeatedly expressed his preference for a strong executive branch and his opposition to the parliamentary system enshrined in the 2014 Constitution.

Amine Snoussi told Inside Arabia that Saied’s battle is not with Ennahda, but with the concept of parliament. “People have been wrong from the start. His battle is against the legislative branch,” he said. Indeed, the 2014 Constitution grants most powers to the Prime Minister supported by the parliamentary majority, while the President retains the legitimacy derived from universal suffrage, decision-making power over foreign policy, and command of the army.

Saied Tunisia coup

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied, center, leads a security meeting with members of the army and police forces in Tunis, Tunisia, July 25, 2021, the day before he announced the suspension of Parliament and the firing of the Prime Minister. (AP Photo/Slim Abid)

Saied has mobilized this last asset extensively in recent days. “The President is gradually politicizing the army,” added Snoussi, an army that was central to the success of the 2011 revolution, thanks to its imperviousness to political interference. Indeed, the President has assigned new responsibilities to the army in the fight against COVID-19—notably the management of the health crisis and the vaccination campaign which was previously handled by the Ministry of Health.

Snoussi noted that President Saied is benefiting from what he describes as a “culture of hatred toward the parliament” in the Tunisian street, as Tunisian politics have recently been characterized by an increasing polarization, political paralysis, and corruption. Physical violence between the islamist party, al Karama, and the Free Constitutional party, nostalgic of the Ben Ali dictatorship, heavily damaged the Parliament’s image and credibility. This has been exacerbated by political deadlocks and a deteriorating economic situation, leading to a rise in populism and political extremism over the past few years.

Sanusi sees a link between recent developments and the idea that “one man should save everything in the country” and said that this belief is inherited from the two previous dictatorships. “The idea of a savior from corruption is very beautiful for a desperate Tunisian,” he added. Therefore, Sanusi explained, President Saied – who was elected mostly because he was non-partisan and did not belong to any political power – instrumentalized this growing discontent by positioning himself as a liberator against shady and inefficient political parties, in a deeply populist approach.

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A Potential Drift Toward Authoritarianism

According to observers, there is currently no counter power in Tunisia capable of standing up to the President, thus there is a real danger that Tunisian democracy could give way to a return to authoritarianism, especially since it was apparently a premeditated coup. Two months ago, Middle East Eye revealed the existence of a document from the Tunisian presidency urging Saied to seize control of the country from the elected government and detailing the steps of a “soft coup.”

Lotfi Hammadi, founder of the NGO Wallah We Can (Yes We Can), believes that Kais Saied will have a hard time relinquishing power, as he considers himself – like most autocrats – a “Savior.” In this context, Hammadi told Inside Arabia that he condemns the President’s supporters who “want to go back to the days of political irresponsibility,” in reference to the dictatorship of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

In a quickly deteriorating economic and health situation, it is likely that such a populist approach by Saied could backfire.

Yet, it seems doubtful that this attempt will be successful, as the President has no political or economic agenda, and has focused all his rhetoric on fighting corruption. In a quickly deteriorating economic and health situation, it is likely that such a populist approach could backfire if no significant step is taken immediately to improve the daily life of the Tunisian people.

Nevertheless, a country like Tunisia has a lot of potential, Hammadi said, adding that “the big challenge is awareness, and how to successfully show people that democracy is about responsibility and mobilization.” Hammadi tries to reach a positive conclusion even though he is disappointed by the current situation. “If we survive this, it will mean that Tunisia is a real democracy,” he affirmed.