Tunisian President Kais Saied delivered an impassioned speech on Monday evening in which he laid down his vision for a transitional period in the country fewer than two months after he suspended parliament and dismissed the cabinet.
The speech came two days after hundreds of people in the capital Tunis staged the first protest against the president since his 25 July emergency measures. Another much smaller protest supporting Saied was staged nearby amid a heavy police presence separating the two camps in the central Habib Bourguiba Avenue of Tunis.
According to Reuters, the police appeared to treat both groups of protesters equally, even after Saied had replaced the police leadership. This was an indication of how the security forces are handling public opposition to the president, it said.
Saied’s dissolution of parliament and sacking of the country’s prime minister triggered coup accusations and a constitutional crisis in Tunisia.
The former law professor, who won a landslide victory in elections two years ago when running as an independent, said his actions were constitutional and were based on his interpretation of Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution that permits the president to claim exceptional powers for 30 days “in the event of imminent danger” to the state or its functioning.
Critics argue that because the Article stipulates that the prime minister and parliamentary speaker have to be consulted on any such actions, as the parliament remains in a state of continuous session throughout such a period, Saied’s actions are unconstitutional.
In the absence of a constitutional court in Tunisia, the crisis has not been resolved. Last week, Saied indicated that he could introduce changes to the existing 2014 Constitution, which was “not eternal,” he said.
His statements triggered a backlash from across the political spectrum in Tunisia and provoked the country’s powerful left-leaning UGTT Union to issue statements demanding an end to the emergency measures, early elections and the appointment of a consensus mini-cabinet.
This led to public protests in Tunisia for the first time since July, with a heavy presence from the moderate Islamist Ennahda Movement, the country’s biggest parliamentary bloc, demanding a return to parliamentary democracy.
Saied responded two days later from Sidi Bouzid, a city south of the capital Tunis and the birthplace of the 2010 Tunisian Uprising, where he promised reforms but stood by his emergency measures.
“These measures will continue, and a prime minister will be named, but on the basis of transitional rulings responding to the will of the people,” he said in a televised speech.
Attacking the dissolved parliament, he said it had turned into a marketplace “where votes are bought and sold.”
“How can they be representatives of the people when their votes in parliament are bought and sold, and sittings are paused so the prices can be agreed,” he asked.
He accused unnamed opponents of treason and of “selling out their country.”
Saied, still widely popular in Tunisia, was speaking to a large audience and defended his emergency measures by announcing that he had instituted transitional governing rules and would present a new electoral law, though without revealing details.
“We are carrying out a corrective movement after the revolutionary outburst [of 2010],” he said.
He reiterated previous assurances of “never going back” to the pre-25 July status quo and described the protesters against him as “bad actors in a bad play.”
Saied was vocal in his earlier presidential campaign in his disdain for Tunisia’s political class and for its post-revolution system of democracy.
His unpredictable rise to power in 2019 came in elections that revealed public disillusionment with the traditional parties and took place eight years after the uprising amid a deepening economic crisis.
Legislative elections in the same year resulted in a fragmented parliament.
In the months leading up Saied’s 25 July intervention, the three heads of the executive branch of government in Tunisia, the president, parliamentary speaker and prime minister, were no longer on speaking terms amid a power struggle that had led to a paralysis of state institutions.
Tunisia was hit by a Covid-19 variant in July, leading to alarmingly high death rates, the collapse of the healthcare system, and rising public anger at the government’s mishandling of the pandemic and low vaccination rates.
By freezing parliament and firing the prime minister, Saied emerged as an anti-corruption figure capable of taking matters into his own hands. Thousands took to the streets of the capital to celebrate his intervention.
However, two months later, Saied has yet to deliver to the electorate, with the country still reeling from the same economic crisis and high unemployment rates that continue to ravage Tunisia.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly