Tue, Jul 27, 2021

Experts react: What’s next after Tunisian president’s parliamentary freeze?

MENASource by Atlantic Council

Related Experts: Karim Mezran, Haykel Ben Mahfoudh, Alia Brahimi, Andrew G. Farrand, Alessia Melcangi, Emadeddin Badi, Alissa Pavia,

Middle East North Africa Politics & Diplomacy

A police officer holds back supporters of Tunisia's President Kais Saied as they gather near the parliament building in Tunis, Tunisia, July 26, 2021. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

On July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saied took drastic measures to bring “peace” to Tunisia and “save the state” from a political system that he claims is plagued by corruption and unfit to handle the current economic and health crises facing the country. President Saied invoked Article 80 of Tunisia’s constitution to sack Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and freeze parliament. By invoking Article 80, which entitles the president to take the necessary measures to halt any imminent “danger threatening the integrity of the country,” Saied assumed full powers under the executive branch. In a publicly broadcast speech, President Saied said he would name a new prime minister within the next thirty days—a deadline which Saied said can be extended until the “situation settles down.”

Below, Atlantic Council experts react to the events, assess the impact on the fledgling democracy, and offer their thoughts on how the international community may respond.

Domestic crises were an excuse for Saied to act

Tunisian President Saied has decided to freeze parliament for at least a month, remove the immunity of parliamentarians, sack the prime minister, and take control of the security forces. That Saied considers these actions legitimate, according to his interpretation of Article 80 of the 2014 constitution, is not surprising. The crisis has been developing since the summer of 2020, when the president fired Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh and forced parliament to accept the appointment of his advisor, Hichem Mechichi. Many would argue that Saied felt threatened by the leader of the Islamist Ennahda party and Parliament Speaker, Rached Ghannouci. Immediately thereafter, when Mechichi disagreed with the president on several fronts, Saied initiated a series of aggressive political measures to have him removed. 

The events of July 25 were the last resort for Saied to reach his objective to assume complete control of the country. The failure of the government to deal with the economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic provided the excuse for President Saied to act. This divisive maneuver could have irreparable consequences for the fledgling democracy, chief among them an intensified confrontation between various political actors. The grievances and tensions within Tunisia are now high enough to worry about an eventual escalation from civil demonstrations to armed confrontation. 

Karim Mezran, director of the North Africa Initiative and resident senior fellow.

Tunisia 2014’s constitution includes a specific provision on the state of emergency. According to Article 80 of the constitution, the president, “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, may take any measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances.”

Per Article 80, exceptional measures can be imposed to maintain the integrity of state institutions and services and ensure the continuity of the government despite the gravity of a crisis. However, the president must also ensure that such measures guarantee a return to the normal functioning of state institutions and services as soon as possible.

The adopted measures should be suspended once the reasons for their implementation have ceased. Considering their exceptional character, certain conditions must be in place. Prior to the announcement of the state of emergency, the president must consult with the prime minister and the speaker of parliament and inform the head of the constitutional court. However, the latter is impossible to fulfill given that Tunisia has yet to institute a constitutional court that oversees a legitimate implementation of the constitution. Additionally, through an official statement to the people, the president must announce that he intends to implement such measures.

The condition expressed in Article 80 does not specify whether the president must consult with the parliament and government on the critical situation the country is facing, or on the measures to be taken. The president has a certain degree of discretion to decide whether to delay the state of emergency. However, Article 80 does not confer unrestricted powers to the president. It clearly states that during a state of emergency, parliament shall be deemed to be in a state of continuous session throughout such a period. Therefore, the president cannot dissolve parliament. Moreover, a motion of censure against the government cannot be presented. This implies that the state of emergency does not settle a constitutional dictatorship, which would have concentrated all three branches of government in the hands of the president nor allow the suspension of the separation of powers.

Given the nature of the measures announced by President Saied, he exercised his powers beyond the scope and conditions stipulated in the constitution. Yet, the crisis in the country has been ongoing for months and is undeniably of an exceptional character, which legitimately allows the recourse to Article 80. However, their scope should be limited and restricted, mainly in the absence of a judicial review by the constitutional court.

Haykel Ben Mahfoudh, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs.

International repercussions

Once again, Tunisia is on the frontline of a major global crisis. In 2011, when soaring global prices led to a spike in the cost of living, socioeconomic despair in Tunisia converged thunderously with political dissent and kicked off the Arab Spring. This time, widespread anger over the mismanagement of COVID-19 and its calamitous fiscal fallout has set the stage for another political inflection point. International reaction to President Saied’s move will be complicated by the fact that he has not sought to suspend the constitution prima facie but rather to act within it. While Saied has enlisted the support of the armed forces and his sacking of the government was celebrated by large crowds in the streets, he ultimately lacks the party apparatus to consolidate his position formally. Just as Tunisia ten years ago became the trial case for democracy in the Arab world, so the coming weeks may test the prospects—and the dangers—of a political insurgent claiming to take on a corrupt system and unilaterally calling time on a dysfunctional elite. Therefore, the outcome will carry implications beyond the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, particularly as pandemic-related discontent intensifies globally.

Alia Brahimi, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs.

How Algeria responded to the events

News of President Saied’s dismissal of the government and parliament reached neighboring Algeria amidst an already turbulent period.

Earlier this month, the Pegasus spyware scandal escalated tensions with Morocco, Algeria’s neighbor to the west, to their worst levels in years and raised delicate questions about the country’s cyber defenses. The coronavirus pandemic has swelled dramatically in recent days, threatening to overwhelm the country’s health services, sending citizens scrambling for oxygen and other supplies, and prompting renewed curfews. Preoccupied with these and other challenges, none in Algiers welcome the possibility of a constitutional crisis in Tunisia.

Algerian state media reported that Saied called his Algerian counterpart, Abdelmadjid Tebboune—likely to reassure Tunisia’s largest neighbor that the shakeup will not jeopardize the country’s stability. On the contrary, Saied will have presented his move to sideline the Ennahda party as best for Tunisia’s future prosperity. That message is unlikely to provoke objections from Algerian leaders, no strangers themselves to bending the rules to subvert Islamist advances—as they did most substantially in 1992, touching off a decade of violence. To maintain Algeria’s critical support, Saied will need to reassure Algiers that his move will not have such destabilizing effects on Tunisia or the wider region.

Ordinary Algerians, who share tight ties with their Tunisian neighbors, are also watching events closely, as they have ever since protests there touched off the Arab Spring a decade ago. To many Algerians, Tunisia’s rocky but heretofore successful democratic transition was proof that a third way existed between the strongmen and the Islamists. That hope was one of many factors that helped kindle Algeria’s Hirak, a mass protest movement for political change that began in 2019. Today activists in Algeria and across the region are watching Tunisia closely to see whether it will remain a model worth aspiring to.

Andrew Farrand, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs.

What does the crisis mean for Egypt?

With his decision to dismiss the government and freeze parliament’s activity, President Saied attempted to sideline Ennahda, the main Islamist party, whose historical leader, Ghannouci, is the current parliament speaker. Saied and Ghannouci’s difficult relationship seems to mirror that of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s. In Egypt in 2013, one year after his election, Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was ousted by the military after large-scale protests against Morsi’s government. Today in Tunisia, we are witnessing a president riding on the anger of many Tunisians who have been protesting what they see as a corrupt and inefficient parliament. This anger is directed against Ennahda, which is being blamed for ineffectively addressing the country’s mounting economic and political problems. Furthermore, President Saied is not hiding the desire to concentrate all political power in his own hands, by imposing a robust presidential system and emulating what Egyptian President Sisi has already realized.

It is very likely—in the name of their shared aversion to political Islam—that Sisi will welcome and support the latest developments in Tunisia, as another example of the failure of the political branches of the Muslim Brotherhood and their inability to transform into reality the revolutionary ideals of the so-called Arab Spring. Cairo could favor a possible transformation of the Tunisian political landscape if it moves toward an anti-Islamist and strong presidential system. This could pave the way for creating an arch in North Africa against political Islam, possibly also influencing the political situation in Libya.

Alessia Melcangi, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs.

What happens in Tunisia, doesn’t stay in Tunisia

The unfolding Tunisian crisis was an endmost litmus test for the credibility of countries that often hype liberal ideals, democratic norms, and progressive values as cornerstones for good governance. Yet, the settling dust of European and American complacency observed towards Tunisia’s democratic challenges is revealing a bleak picture that vindicates the MENA region’s authoritarians that often count on their Western counterparts’ complacency. Those whose thrones once creaked under the strain of freedom-seeking Tunisians’ ardor are now rejoicing in their gloom. The irony is not lost on observers: a decade that began with the region’s youth forcing an agenda for change through collective mobilization is ending with aging authoritarians applauding as the only fledgling democracy borne out of the decade’s early revolutionary fever has its wings clipped.

While there are legitimate questions about President Saied’s capabilities to steer Tunisia out of the quagmire he has embroiled it in, what is indubitable is that his intentions—well-meaning or not—are of no consequence to those already leveraging the ossifying president’s blundering impulses to push their own narrative. In neighboring Libya, an unrepenting General Khalifa Haftar has welcomed the move—congratulating Saied for acting against Islamists. Similarly, Gulf-funded media outlets are misleadingly using Tunisian developments to scapegoat Islamism for the country’s ills. The muted response of Western countries to the current crisis while they predominantly spectated as Tunisia’s post-revolutionary democratic candlelight dimmed has enabled these forces to reinforce their echo chambers.

Much like 2011, Tunisian developments and how they are dealt with will ripple beyond its borders. Neighboring Libyans, whose country’s precarious post-conflict transition currently hangs in the balance, will be the first to take the moral from Tunisia’s story to determine the rules of their own political game.

Emadeddin Badi, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs.

What to watch for next?

In the past few months, Tunisians have taken to the streets to protest the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Angered by the increasing death rates caused by the pandemic as well as the deadlock of the main political parties to solve the crisis, Tunisians have reached a tipping point. The frustration caused by the recent surge of cases has exacerbated a difficult economic situation caused by years of economic stagnation. Although it is still too soon to tell whether President Saied has the support of a majority of Tunisians, many protestors who took to the streets on July 25 after the president’s actions cheered his decision to dissolve parliament—reflecting their deep dissatisfaction with the current political deadlock.

We are witnessing many young Tunisians reacting to the inability of Tunisia’s ruling parties to govern the country. Soaring unemployment, corruption, and a growing number of COVID-19 cases have caused a wave of unrest which President Saied is using to secure more power for himself through new elections. To know whether Tunisia’s democratic institutions are at risk, it will be vital to monitor the following political scenarios:

  • Will Saied go as far as arresting opposition leaders after he revoked the immunity enjoyed by members of parliament?
  • Will clashes between the protestors and police turn violent and how will security services respond?
  • How soon will Saied nominate a new prime minister as he promised?
  • Will there be further restrictions on the press after the July 26 storming at Al Jazeera’s Tunis bureau and the expulsion of its journalists?

Alissa Pavia, assistant director for the North Africa Program.