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Tunisia’s political conflict peaks

The power struggle between Tunisian President Kaies Saied and the biggest parliamentary bloc Ennahda is threatening the country’s political stability

Amira Howeidy , Thursday 29 Apr 2021
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Ennahda, Tunisia’s largest parliamentary bloc, has accused President Kais Saied of demonstrating “authoritarian tendencies,” following statements that his powers over the military extended to the country’s internal security forces.

The moderate Islamist party, which supported Saied in the 2019 presidential elections, said his comments threatened democracy, social peace and the achievements of Tunisia’s 2011 Revolution.

On 18 April, Saied proclaimed that “the president is the supreme commander of the military and civilian armed forces. Let this matter be clear to all Tunisians,” in a speech attended by the country’s prime minister and parliamentary speaker.

“I do not intend to monopolise these forces, but the constitution must be respected,” Saied said. The statements exacerbated the months-long power struggle between Saied and the parliament and prime minister, exposing both the fragility of Tunisia’s political scene and the failure of the country’s 2014 Constitution to guarantee the separation of powers without conflict.

A jurist and professor of constitutional law and an independent political outsider, Saied, 64, won Tunisia’s presidential elections two years ago in a landslide. But legislative elections in the same year produced a fragmented parliament, reflecting Tunisia’s deep political polarisation even as it is still hailed as the only country having experienced an Arab Spring Revolution that is a success story to date.

The current political crisis stems from irreconcilable interpretations of the constitution by the president, the prime minister and parliament of their respective prerogatives. Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution lays down an executive power-sharing system of governance between the president and prime minister. The president is the commander of the armed forces, while the internal security apparatus and Interior Ministry are under the premier’s control.

But in Saied’s interpretation of the constitution, his powers also cover the internal security forces. The 2014 Constitution, drafted and approved following a series of compromises among the country’s deeply polarised political elite, stipulated the formation of a Constitutional Court within a year to adjudicate constitutional disputes such as the current crisis.

Even under the previous administration, Tunisia’s politicians failed to agree on the names of the 12 judges that would sit on the court. Recent efforts by Ennahda leader and current Parliamentary Speaker Rachid Ghannouchi to launch the court were shot down by Saied earlier this month, who said the deadline had expired and described the step as “politically motivated.”

“After more than five years, after a deep sleep, they’ve remembered about the Constitutional Court... I will not accept a court formed to settle accounts,” he said.

The court has the power to remove the president through a parliamentary majority initiative if he is convicted of violating the constitution, a prospect Saied wishes to avoid.

“They have missed the deadlines... Anyone wanting me to violate the constitution is looking for a mirage,” Saied said in a speech on 6 April.

Saied, who has never had party affiliations, has made no secret of his distrust and even contempt for Tunisia’s political parties, which he accuses of corruption.  

Earlier this year, he refused to ratify a cabinet reshuffle by his premier of choice, Hichem Mechichi. As a result Mechichi assumed the role of acting interior minister after dismissing Saied-allied minister Taoufik Charefddin but being prevented from replacing him.

Observers say Saied’s interpretation of his extended powers is directed at Mechichi as well as at the Ennahda Movement and has used strongly worded language. The constitution, the president added, was “tailored” to the size of the parliamentary majority – a reference to Ennahda – “but they got the size wrong.”

In response, the party accused the president of violating the constitution, the political system and the prime minister’s prerogatives, calling on Tunisians to “reject” his comments.

Mechichi responded to Saied’s speech by saying that “there is no need for odd and individual readings, which, moreover, are taken out of context.”

Tunisia’s present political conflict has its roots in the post-2011 political system. The politically polarised status quo, the legacy of the country’s post-independence authoritarian regimes, culminated in the compromise Constitution of 2014.

“It produced an overlapping system that is neither parliamentary nor presidential,” said political analyst and former Libyan foreign minister Abdelrahman Shalqam.

This led to confusion after 2014 between then Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi and his prime minister Youssef Chahed. “But the politically savvy Essebsi avoided a public conflict by putting national interests before his constitutional prerogatives and ratified Chahed’s cabinet,” Shalqam added.

While some blame Tunisia’s political impasse on Saied’s intransigence – he rejected national dialogue efforts by the popular Tunisian General Labour Union –  Shalqam argues that unlike his political adversaries the president still enjoys wide popularity, especially among young people, even as he monopolises the interpretation of the constitution in the absence of a Constitutional Court.

Saied, said Haykel Ben Mahfoudh, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Carthage, had refused to sit down with the country’s political parties and people whom he considers to be corrupt, seeking hegemony, and against the principles of the 2011 Revolution.

He even refrains from mentioning them in person, Ben Mahfoudh said, with the result that the organs of the state no longer speak to each other, except by letter, which often adds fuel to the fire.

If Tunisia’s power struggle is not resolved through dialogue, the deadlock “will likely lead to a violent escalation and the breakdown of a rather fragile social peace,” Ben Mahfoudh added.

“After ten years of a tumbling democratic transition, the time has come to realise and accept that the current system of government has failed to function and to deliver [a new one]. A total reshuffle of the system is needed in order to bring about a cohesive and working government.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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