Since Kais Saied suspended Parliament and seized power on July 25, he has been successfully entrenching his power without any major obstruction. While there has been some international pressure via statements calling for the return of Parliament, these same statements have also offered enough reassurance to Saied that the issue has more to do with procedure than the substance of his coup.
Saied is right to feel encouraged by the international response, regardless of their calls for a return to Parliament. Looking back at US policies in the Arab world, American presidents have repeatedly recognized coups that overthrew democratically elected leaders. The Obama administration eventually recognized Sisi’s coup on the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi. The Trump administration allowed Haftar to launch an attempt at seizing Libya’s capital by force. Biden has publicly pressured Saudi Arabia over Yemen while doing very little to stop the Houthi expansion that overthrew the democratic transition and today threatens the resource-rich provinces of Ma’rib and Abyan.
Saied’s closest international allies in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt are well-acquainted with US policy in the region and have likely reassured him that Washington’s concerns are primarily over how the coup is conducted rather than the coup itself. In fact, Saied’s supporters in Tunisia have often interpreted international statements that ostensibly criticize Saied as signs of encouragement.
When the EU and G7 called for a “return to a constitutional order,” Saied’s supporters argued that the use of “a” instead of “the constitutional order” meant that the international community had conceded that the Parliament that Saied suspended was dead. When the US asserted that Saied form a government and engage in dialogue, Saied’s supporters interpreted this as a sign that Washington had abandoned the suspended Parliament and acknowledged the legitimacy of Saied’s actions.
To date, Washington has never used the term “coup” to describe Saied’s acts even as Tunisia’s most prominent constitutional experts concur on this.
To some extent, Saied’s supporters are justified in feeling encouraged by the international response. The language used by Washington on the recent coup in Sudan is markedly different from that used against Saied. Although it remains to be seen if that will be followed by tangible action. To date, Washington has never used the term “coup” to describe Saied’s acts even as Tunisia’s most prominent constitutional experts concur on this. Saied’s use of military courts to try his opponents such as the Karama Alliance’s Seifeddine Makhlouf, Nidhal Saoudi, Abdel-Latif al-Aloui, independent MP Yacine al-Ayari, journalist Amer Ayyed, and lawyer Mahdi Zagrouba, have failed to draw anything more than a condemnation that sounds more in line with protocol than sincere concern.
On the other hand, Saied is not too concerned by the response of the international community. Instead, he has been buoyed by a deeply divided opposition split broadly between two camps; those who are against Saied’s coup, and those who are for Saied’s coup but against him leading it. These two camps then splinter into different factions, resulting in an inability to coordinate an effective response to Saied’s takeover and augmenting the perception abroad that Saied enjoys significant popular support. This article will focus on the first camp that rejects Saied’s coup outright, believing it to be an illegal overthrow of the democratic transition.
The first faction within this camp includes those who advocate for the return of Parliament in order to reaffirm the legitimacy of the constitution. Members of Parliament can then decide whether to hold early elections or come together to form a coalition government that might finally address legitimate popular concerns. This is the predominant position of Ennahda.
The second faction within this camp consist of those who advocate for the return of Parliament, but only on the condition that the Speaker of Parliament, Ennahda’s leader Rachid Al-Ghannouchi, resigns from his position. This is a stance advocated by former President Moncef Marzouki, who blames Ennahda for much of the chaos that led to the coup, believing that any return to Parliament in its current form would only empower the party and exacerbate public anger.
There are also concerns that the downfall of Saied and the simultaneous return of Parliament would result in the activation of a clause from the 2014 constitution.
There are also concerns that the downfall of Saied and the simultaneous return of Parliament would result in the activation of a clause from the 2014 constitution, which would render the Speaker of Parliament (in this case Ghannouchi) the acting President of the state. In other words, toppling Saied and restoring Parliament would send Ennahda soaring to a much stronger position politically than it was before the coup.
The third faction argues that while Saied’s coup is illegitimate, Parliament should not be returned. Instead, there should be a national dialogue to form a transitional government of independent figures who then oversee early elections. This group argues that public anger towards Parliament is undeniable and that there is a clear aversion amongst the people to see the chamber reinstated in its current form. The idea is to rebuild popular legitimacy to an unpopular institution through elections, therefore, bringing the political trajectory back under the constitutional law. This is the position of prominent long-time activists such as lawyer and politician Ahmad Najib al-Chaabi.
The most obvious impact of these differences has been the protests to denounce Saied’s coup. While thousands descended on the famous Habib Bourguiba Street on September 26 demanding an end to the coup, their impact in real terms was very limited. They arrived, chanted for a few hours, and returned home. Saied continued on his course without making any reference to the protestors. The divisions became even more pronounced when suggestions were made that the next protest should be held in front of the heavily-guarded Parliament.
As the debate unfolded, the army withdrew from the Parliament building. This was interpreted as a sign that the army did not want to have a direct confrontation with protestors. Saied then replaced the army with the police. The organizers of the protest feared that any plans to march in front of Parliament would dissuade some of the factions that opposed both Saied and the return of Parliament from attending. As a compromise, the second protest was held again on Habib Bourguiba Street. This time, rather than appearing to trouble Saied, the protestors appeared to suggest that the popular opposition to the coup was not a real popular rejection of Saied’s actions.
It remains unclear whether the military actually supports Saied’s measures, or whether they are acting in the interests of “stability.”
Without a demonstration in front of the Parliament building, the army that implemented Saied’s coup thus far will not be forced into making a decision. It remains unclear whether the military actually supports Saied’s measures, or whether they are acting in the interests of “stability.” The reality is that the army is well aware of Parliament’s unpopularity among the people. When military leaders see that even members of Parliament and anti-coup protestors are unsure whether the institution should be restored, their decision not to impose on Saied is, to some extent, understandable.
Protesting in front of Parliament is essential in order to threaten the coup and force security units to choose between either an illegal power grab or public demands for the restoration of the constitution and legal order. As long as protests continue on Habib Bourguiba Street, then Saied will be at ease over its lack of impact and the army will not be pressed into making a choice. Saied can simply deploy counter-protests of similar numbers as he did on October 04. Saied himself has sought to market opposition protests as a sign that there is no infringement on freedoms under his rule.
Lastly, the stance of the international community is more often governed by realities on the ground than the superimposition of democratic principles. Sisi, who is one of Saied’s staunchest allies, was recognized after becoming the de facto power. Sans effective opposition, Saied’s coup will succeed and will be recognized internationally. Without transcending internal differences in the immediate pursuit of restoring the democratic framework, Tunisia will be condemned to lapse into the repression that the disputing opposition figures themselves spent decades campaigning against.