Renewing the Tunisian system of government

Nevine Mossaad
Wednesday 4 Aug 2021

The message the public received amid the Covid-19 pandemic and the deterioration of the economic situation is the political class’ total disconnection from everyday problems

Since the overthrow of Zine Al-Abidine bin Ali’s rule, Tunisia has experimented with two forms of government. The first is the parliamentary system, which was implemented from October 2011 until December 2013. In this system, parliament was the political centre of gravity with symbolic powers given to the president. Parliament was elected in a free and direct election by the people and it named the president.

The second is the semi-parliamentary system. Despite the fact that the president’s terms of reference in the 2011 constitution were expanded, the assembly of the People's Representatives remained the political centre of gravity.

During the implementation of the two systems, the battle on the terms of reference between the president on one hand and the head of government and parliamentary speaker on the other didn’t stop.

For instance, a conflict broke out in 2012 between President Moncef Marzouki and Hamadi Jebali from Ennahda Movement after the role of the Libyan prime minister, during Muammar Gaddafi’s rule, was handed over to the Libyan authorities without consulting with Marzouki. The Tunisian president regarded the move as a marginalisation of his role, branding it as a stab in the back.

There was also a conflict between president Beji Caid Essebsi and Youssef Chahed, the head of the government who had the support of Ennahda Movement. The movement stood in the way of Essebsi’s attempts to dismiss Chahed.

The battle for power paramounted during the presidency of Kais Saied. Rached Al-Ghannouchi, the parliament speaker and Ennahda Movement president, embarked on a series of moves abroad in violation of his constitutional terms of reference in an attempt to drag Tunisia into an ideological regional line-up. In response, Saied announced that there is only one president for Tunisia who represents it at home and abroad.

As it did with Chahed, Ennahda manipulated Hichem Mechichi to exert pressure on the president and tried to impose ministers suspected of corruption.

All this was taking place while there were other battles raging under the roof of the Assembly of the People's Representatives with the severe fragmentation in its constituents and without a clear political majority. Thus, sit-ins recurred in the assembly and its sessions were delayed. Heated arguments took place and verbal and physical assaults from Ennahda’s representatives were launched against Abir Moussi, president of the Free Destourian Party.

The message received by the public amid the Covid-19 pandemic and the deterioration of the economic situation is the political class’ total disconnection from everyday problems.

With the 65th anniversary of Tunisian Independence approaching, angry crowds in several Tunisian cities went out on the streets demanding the parliament be dissolved and the government dismissed. Ennahda Movement headquarters was attacked since it bears a considerable part of the responsibility for the extended political crisis. The crowds, who are angry at the political class, had chosen Saied as president -- from outside the political arena two years ago -- and took him to the Carthage Palace.

The aforementioned incidents provide the general context in which Saied took his decisions on 25 July, which included freezing parliament for 30 days and dismissing Mechichi’s government. Practically, the parliament was frozen and Mechichi’s government had been acting like a lame duck with nine vacant ministries run by acting ministers.

Saied relied in those fateful decisions on Article 80 of the constitution which entitles him in a state of imminent danger threatening the integrity of the country and its security and independence to take the measures necessitated by this exceptional situation.

These decisions have triggered widespread debate abound the extent of Parliament's commitment to literal constitutional texts. However, political crises require political flexibility within the frame of being committed to the spirit of the text. The Tunisian president made this crystal clear when he asserted the temporary nature of the decisions he took.

The important question is: What's next? The Tunisian General Labour Union has moved in coordination with some civil society organisations to draft a roadmap and present it to the president on the day this article was to be published. It is known that the president himself has consulted with the Tunisian General Labour Union and leading civil society organisations to inform them of his viewpoint on the crisis; that there is a movement in the political arena but there is a need for speed in the light of the constitutional time frame.

Perhaps one of the points that needs wide consensus is amending the constitution in a way that allows renewing the Tunisian political system; a renewal that consolidates the presidency’s role without reproducing a regime like that of Habib Bourguiba or Zine Al-Abidine bin Ali.

It is known that Article 143 of the Tunisian Constitution allows the president to present an initiative to amend the constitution and it grants priority for such a presidential initiative. Thus, the president can present his initiative to the Assembly of the People's Representatives when it resumes its sessions.

It is expected that Ennahda Movement and Al-Karama Coalition, its Salafist ally, won’t support this initiative because they benefit from the semi-parliamentary system by virtue of their organisational and mobilisation capabilities. However, together, they don’t constitute parliamentary majority. We shouldn’t forget that the Heart of Tunisia Party, which supported Ennahda for years and used to strengthen its stand against the president on the back of Ennahda, has moved after criticising the 25 July decisions for one day only to welcome them. This clarifies the state of political parties in Tunisia.

To complete the picture, two observations ought to be noted. The first is that the judiciary has opened an investigation about whether Ennahda and the Heart of Tunisia Party received funds from abroad for their election campaigns in 2019. Yet, it is not known to what extent the investigation results will impact the balance of power in parliament.

The second is that the experience of 2013 has made us accustomed to the fact that when Ennahda Movement is cornered, it retreats. Now it is cornered. Who could have imagined that demonstrators would have attacked Ennahda headquarters, even Al-Ghannouchi’s car? Some signs of Ennahda’s retreat began to emerge already, whether when its supporters left the parliament area or through its call for national dialogue.

When the constitutional amendment initiative is passed in parliament, early presidential and parliamentary elections can be held. Tunisia can turn the page on political instability under two main titles: just development and combating corruption. 

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