On 25 July, Tunisian President Kais Saied took several decisions that marked a turning point in Tunisian politics after confrontations over the last seven months with prime minister Hichem Mechichi and speaker of parliament and leader of the Ennahda Movement Rached Ghannouchi.
Ennahda has long been manoeuvring to monopolise power in the country, while the prime minister, at the prompting of the Ennahda-dominated coalition that supports him, undertook a cabinet reshuffle to bolster Ennahda at the expense of the president.
After an emergency meeting with military and security leaders, Saied suspended parliament for 30 days, stripped all MPs of their immunity, assumed the public prosecutor’s powers, dismissed Mechichi as prime minister, and assumed full executive powers which he will exercise with a new prime minister.
A new government, the members of which he will appoint based on suggestions from the prime minister, will serve for the duration of these exceptional measures, taken to preserve peace and rescue the state and society from its current crisis.
Saied said that in taking these extraordinary decisions, he had acted in accordance with Article 80 of the Constitution, which states that “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, the president of the republic may take any measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances, after consultation with the head of the government and the speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People and informing the president of the Constitutional Court.”
He also acted in line with the will of the Tunisian people, as expressed in recurrent protests. The most recent occurred on 25 July, which marked the 64th anniversary of the establishment of the Tunisian Republic. Protesters rallied near the parliament building in Tunis, while in towns in the countryside protesters stormed Ennahda headquarters.
Many Tunisians hold the Islamist Movement responsible for the worsening economic plight of their country.
The institutions of the government and normal function of the state have been stymied by the recent political crisis triggered by Mechichi’s cabinet reshuffle in January and proceeded by a continuous locking of horns between the president and the speaker of parliament.
Ennahda had expected to win a majority in the last legislative elections in October 2019, enabling it to form a government. Although it came out ahead of the other parties, it was forced to forge a coalition with others in the new cabinet.
The task was not easy, since many other parties and political forces reject Ennahda’s ambitions for power. The movement therefore deliberately engineered a succession of government crises, starting with the government of prime minister designate Habib Jemli, rejected by parliament in November 2019 because it was dominated by Ennahda.
This was followed by the government of Elyes Fakhfakh, which barely survived six months until its collapse under the strains of political infighting. Tensions peaked between Ghannouchi and Saied when the former attempted to encroach on the president’s powers by promoting Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated trends in Libya.
Then came the Mechichi government, which Ennahda induced to perform a cabinet reshuffle without consulting the president and which resulted in the removal of ministers aligned with him.
The continuous political tug-of-wars have hampered any progress in the much-needed economic reforms that Tunisians have been yearning for after years of unending economic straits that have compelled international credit-rating agencies to downgrade the country’s credit ranking and issue dire prognoses.
The situation has worsened to the point that Tunis may be unable to pay its debts, which may mean debt rescheduling and the loss of confidence by international donors.
Tunisia is reeling under an inflation rate of more than 5.3 per cent, high unemployment with a nationwide average of 17 per cent, a seven per cent decline in GDP and a national budget deficit of 11.4 per cent, the highest in four decades.
What these figures mean is that one government after another has failed to produce solutions for the Tunisian economy or formulate a coherent and effective reform programme. The economic deterioration has fuelled popular anger, leading to a resurgence of grassroots protests that have increased in size and anger in recent months, especially in marginalised areas where poverty and unemployment rates are alarmingly high.
Of particular significance have been the protests in Tataouine, where hundreds of youths blockaded a petroleum pumping station for several months in order to press their demands for jobs, in Kasserine where protesters staged a sit-in in front of the oil fields in the governorate, and in Gafsa, where protesters forced phosphate production to shut down.
Tunisians have also had to contend with a public-health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The country has recorded steadily climbing infection and death rates in recent months, while it suffers from a severe shortage in medical supplies and oxygen.
Yet, despite this, the Mechichi government and Ennahda attempted to exploit the crisis for political ends. On 20 July, Mechichi dismissed Minister of Health Faouzi Mehdi, and Saied responded by stripping the Ministry of Health of its Covid-19 response programme and handing it to the military.
The health crisis precipitated a turning point in the popular response to the country’s political crisis and the ongoing failure of the government and Ennahda to fulfil the protesters’ basic demands. The result was the mass demonstrations of 25 July demanding the dismissal of the cabinet and the dissolution of parliament, demands to which Saied responded within the framework of his constitutional powers.
Ghannouchi has responded to Saied’s measures by condemning them as a “coup”. He has rejected the suspension of parliament, insisting it is still in operation, and he has attempted to call MPs to meetings in the parliament building.
Such actions indicate that Ennahda will not easily acquiesce and that it will not give up the clout it has acquired during the past ten years since the 2011 Revolution. The movement may mobilise demonstrations or forms of civil disobedience in the capital and other towns in an attempt to create the impression of a widespread popular rejection of the president’s measures.
It may also resort to violence, prompting its supporters to clash with anti-Ennahda demonstrators or with the police and army in order to generate chaos and instability.
The Committee for the Defence of Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahimi has said on a number of occasions that it possesses proof of Ennahda’s involvement in the assassination of these two activists in 2013. Saied has said that he will reopen both cases in his capacity as public prosecutor.
In his announcement on Sunday, Saied said that the suspension of parliament would last for 30 days, in accordance with the provisions of Article 80 of the Constitution, after which the Constitutional Court would determine whether or not to extend the exceptional circumstances.
But the Constitutional Court has not yet been formed, raising the possibility that the situation could last for some months. Article 80 says that “these measures cease to be in force as soon as the circumstances justifying their implementation no longer apply.”
Over the next few days, the Tunisian president will act to form an interim government to ensure “a return to the normal functioning of state institutions and services,” as the Constitution states, and then take urgent measures to address the economic and health situations.
The forthcoming period may bring international, regional and local efforts to mend fences and promote national dialogue, but previous experiences in which calls to hold national dialogue ran up against resistance and attempts to sabotage them suggest that the same thing could occur today.
In view of the overwhelming popular discontent with the government and parliament, the outputs of such a dialogue would probably fall short of the needs and aspirations of the Tunisian people, who are unlikely to accept the return of Ennahda to the dominant position it has had in the government for several years.
This is supported by recent opinion polls, which have shown a sharp decline in Ennahda’s popularity.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.