Tunisia’s President Kais Saied has refused to swear in Prime Minister Hisham Al-Mishishi’s government, despite Parliament approving it. The President has asserted that some of the new ministers have allegations of corruption levied at them and therefore he will not instate them. In refusing to inaugurate the new government, the President has plunged the country into a constitutional crisis that was not foreseen by those who wrote the charter following the downfall of the Ben Ali regime in 2011.
Under the constitution, the prime minister wields the executive authority and Parliament is the most powerful legislative body. However, under the same constitution, the President is required to swear in government ministers before they can take up their posts.
The requirement for the President to swear in the ministers was envisaged as more of a convention than law—in other words, it was meant to be a ceremonial procedure.
The problem however is that the requirement for the President to swear in the ministers was envisaged as more of a convention than law—in other words, it was meant to be a ceremonial procedure rather than an executive prerogative of the President. Obstinately, President Saied is asserting that the swearing-in process is not ceremonial and has rebuffed arguments to the contrary by remarking “Is the declaration of the articles of the Islamic faith [also] ceremonial?” The President has insisted on numerous occasions that it falls within his remit to uphold the constitution and utilize his powers against “corruption.”
The issue has been compounded by the absence of a Supreme Court body in the country which would have been ideal to resolve this constitutional impasse. The matter becomes even more complicated and disingenuous in the light of Saied’s contradiction in his own 2018 interpretation of the constitution, when he asserted that it was unconstitutional for then-President Sebsi to refuse to swear-in the government of Youcef Chahed, who had rebelled against Sebsi and politically isolated the beleaguered President.
The Crux of the Issue
President Saied is livid that the loyalists he insisted on in Al-Mishishi’s government were ousted in the latest reshuffle, with Parliament’s blessing. The President’s anger is compounded by the sense that the premier whom he appointed himself to lead the government has, in his eyes, “betrayed” him and allied with the very Parliament that Saied had been on the verge of bringing to heel.
Al-Mishishi was originally touted as the conduit through which the President would exert executive authority after his predecessor, former Prime Minister Ilyas al-Fakh Fakh, was brought down amidst allegations of corruption and conflicts of interest. Parliament’s terror at the prospect of early elections and facing a deeply hostile electorate ready to punish its members was expected to guarantee its complicity with the whims of the constitutionally weaker President, who would enact policy and govern through the constitutionally powerful, but loyal, Prime Minister.
Al-Mishishi was originally touted as the conduit through which the President would exert executive authority after his predecessor was brought down.
However, since the swearing in of Al-Mishishi’s government, President Saied has seen his loyalists gradually removed from their posts. Within the first two months of Al-Mishishi’s tenure, the Culture Minister, who Saied had publicly imposed on the Prime Minister, was sacked after criticizing Al-Mishishi’s ban on festivals and large gatherings in a bid to tackle the spread of coronavirus. Later, Al-Mishishi would go on to sack another loyalist of the President by removing the Interior Minister, who had sought to make appointments to major posts within the ministry without consulting the Prime Minister. The President was incensed when Al-Mishishi decided to leave the post vacant and assume the ministerial responsibilities as a caretaker.
It is in this context that the President has raged at the latest reshuffle which has seen the rest of his loyalists ignominiously ousted by a premier who has begun to make it clear that he will not play the role expected of him by the President.
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The elephant in the room is that while Kais Saied has railed against the government with accusations of corruption, he has not identified those he accuses of corruption or who should be investigated. The President has also not taken any judicial steps against those ministers despite asserting that it is a matter of grave concern.
Moreover, the former premier Ilyas al-Fakh Fakh, who was toppled as a result of corruption and conflict of interest charges, was originally appointed, and subsequently defended by Kais Saied who asserted at the time that the allegations against Fakh were insufficient and an individual is innocent until proven guilty. It is clear that the President is not applying the same standards to the proposed government.
Following a number of missives to the President asking him to swear in the government, Al-Mishishi announced that he has asked the President to identify who he objects to and why, while in the meantime asking him to inaugurate those whom he does not oppose. Al-Mishishi’s apparent concession has more to do with the public mood than political machinations.
Tunisia has been rocked by a new round of demonstrations as people have taken to the streets protesting the dire socio-economic conditions over which the revolution in 2011 began in the first place. The general sentiment, reflected in the polls, is that democracy has failed to deliver, and that serious change is needed.
Support for the major political parties has plummeted while growing for the party of the former regime led by Abir Moussi. While Kais Saied has seen his popularity decrease slightly, he remains significantly ahead of his rivals, suggesting that popular opinion is far more in his favor than it is with the Parliament, which has objected at his unconstitutional maneuvering.
While Kais Saied has seen his popularity decrease slightly, he remains significantly ahead of his rivals, suggesting that popular opinion is far more in his favor.
The fear amongst the major parties, such as Ennahda, has been on display as they have been powerless to prevent Abir Moussi from disrupting Parliamentary proceedings and broadcasting live streams in which she denounces “the Muslim Brotherhood” and other “terror elements” that she refers to when addressing the members of the Karama Alliance.
This is a big contrast to the emboldened Ennahda of 2011-2013 which did not hesitate to remove the Popular Petition party’s Ibrahim al-Qassaas and other MPs whenever they protested what they claimed to be their mistreatment during parliamentary proceedings.
The image of Ennahda leader and Speaker of Parliament Rachid al-Ghannouchi seemingly powerless to do anything about the chaos within the legislative chamber is more reflective of the party’s deep concerns that while the law and constitution are in their favor, these will not avail the party amidst the mounting public anger channeled by the President.
It is no secret the political factions that support Kais Saied, as well as the trade unions, are keen to see the downfall of Parliament, and more specifically Ennahda. The head of the powerful trade union body, Noureddine Tabboubi, has often asserted the “need” for early elections swiftly, while President Saied himself has warned of his “rockets that are ready to be deployed” when he decides. As protests appeared to gather momentum, the President’s defenders (pre-dominantly Tunisia’s leftist political parties and factions) openly supported demands to dissolve parliament.
The stark reality is that if President Saied were to illegally suspend the constitution, he would find significant public support while Parliament would struggle to enforce its legitimate powers. However, while it is believed Saied can amass significant backing, there remains uncertainty over whether it would be enough. This is the fundamental dynamic that has prevented such a radical course of action, and a point often asserted by the Karama Alliance, who insist that the electorate which voted for political parties should never be discounted.
President Saied is aware that he is winning the battle for public sympathy.
Nevertheless, President Saied is aware that he is winning the battle for public sympathy. His portrayal of a “self-interested” Parliament obstructing a “clean and well-intentioned” President who threatens established interests continues to enjoy enough traction to frighten the political parties. That being said, there are at least another three to four years to this term. President Saied will realize how fickle Tunisian public opinion can be, and how today’s political landscape may not be the same in two or three years. The major parties in the Parliament are firmly standing behind Al-Mishishi. And as long as they do, Kais Saied has no legal basis to move against them.
Given the stand-off, the likely scenario to unfold will be negotiations with the President to restore some of his ousted loyalists in exchange for re-establishing a functioning executive body. Moreover, the architect of Tunisia’s post-revolution division of power, Ennahda’s Rachid Ghannouchi, will be quietly mulling how he allowed himself to be caught by a minor loophole in a constitution he had the greatest influence over.