The political crisis in Tunisia: entrenched challenges.. and troubling paths

I'm an image! 2022 / 19 / Feb

The political crisis in Tunisia: entrenched challenges.. and troubling paths


Karam Saeed // Researcher specializing in regional affairs // Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Democracy Magazine - Al-Ahram Foundation


Tunisia is witnessing an escalation of political instability since the exceptional measures imposed by Kais Saied on July 25, 2021, which included the dismissal of Hisham al-Mechichi’s government and the freezing of parliament. The crisis reached its climax on February 6, after Kais Saied’s decision to dissolve the Supreme Judicial Council, which he described as “negligence in dealing with a number of files, and it has become a council in which positions are sold, and the judicial movement is established based on loyalties.”

The move to dissolve the Judicial Council sparked unprecedented controversy in the country. While the president's supporters cheered for this step, it was rejected by wide sectors of the political forces. US Senator Chris Murphy attacked this measure, and said in a statement on February 8 that "it is impossible to believe President Qais Saeed's claims that he is committed to the transition to democracy." He added, "President Saied's decision to dissolve the Supreme Judicial Council indicates Tunisia's continued slide towards authoritarianism."

Despite Tunisia's adoption of democratic mechanisms in managing the political scene, especially the electoral process, and the dismantling of authoritarian structures in the state, the tension between the components of the ruling power is still intense. This was revealed by the Ennahda movement's efforts to internationalize the Tunisian crisis by broadcasting messages to the international community to the effect that the exceptional measures taken by President Kais Saied entered the country into a dark tunnel, and led to the imposition of a state of regional and international isolation on the country, and led to the deterioration of economic and social conditions.

In this context, the experience of the political transition in Tunisia seems likely to enter into a spiral of crisis, especially with the president’s insistence on moving forward in rearranging the scene against the efforts of the opposition forces, led by the Ennahda Movement, towards building broad political alliances to confront the ruling regime. To form a new political front, similar to the “Citizens Against the Coup” movement that the movement formed several months ago.

Therefore, the long-term consolidation of democratic transition in Tunisia does not depend only on President Kais Saied's ability to find a roadmap to re-address the political system, which represents one aspect of the current crisis. It does not depend on the ability of democratic institutions and party entities to respond to current challenges, and to interact with events through practical mechanisms, far from narrow ideological biases, especially since the Tunisian crisis is a complex and overlapping one, including political issues related to the nature of the Tunisian regime that was founded on the 2014 constitution, not to mention the contradictory and inconsistent combination of political and social forces in the system.

One of the main dimensions necessary for the success of the experiment, in addition to the institutional and procedural factors, is the public support for the democratic system itself, and addressing the state of division that has become a prominent feature in the Tunisian street, which was deepened by the exclusionary mentality of the majority party in Parliament - the Ennahda movement led by Ghannouchi - which sought to tailor the political scene in proportion to its political ambitions, establish its hegemony, and plant its fangs in the body of the state and society after it acquired the legislative power.

Despite the passage of ten years since the events of January 2011, and the fall of the regime of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has not been able to achieve political stability or restore its economic recovery. Rather, political polarization has turned into a major feature in the country. Parliament to work, and the importance of the prime minister in charge of obtaining the confidence of Parliament as a condition for granting legitimacy to her next government, civil society organizations called on President Qais Saeed to grant full powers to Boden.

First: the political transition in Tunisia: various challenges

Since 2011, Tunisia has been considered a model for democratic transition, after holding free and fair elections and adopting a multi-party system, not to mention the increase in the attractiveness of the Tunisian model since it managed to end the rule of Ben Ali, who came to power in 1987, and adopted in his rule a method based on killing politics in exchange for preaching economic development and raising the standard of living for the citizen, i.e. adopting the equation of development without democracy.

Today, after a decade of democratic transition, Tunisia's path is still uncertain, and the Tunisian experience seems more complicated than it was during Ben Ali's rule. Angry voices are still echoing in the streets of Tunisia, and the conflicts between the three presidencies in Tunisia - the presidency, the parliament and the government - have become more complicated with President Said's trend on July 25 towards dismissing the government and freezing the parliament, then the presidential announcement on September 20 that the implementation of the exceptional measures announced on July 25 will continue until transitional laws are put in place and the law amended. elective.

On a related level, the challenges of the democratic path have increased in Tunisia, in light of the increasing opposition pressures to the July 25 measures, and their extension. The head of the Islamic Renaissance Party, Rashid Ghannouchi, described President Qais Saeed's decisions to continue freezing parliament's work and suspending articles in the constitution to enhance its powers as a "full-fledged coup against democracy," calling for a "peaceful struggle" against "the absolute autocratic rule against which the revolution arose." Some parties also announced a "democratic alliance" in order to confront what they called the "Qais Saeed coup." For its part, the Tunisian Labor Union, although it did not oppose the decisions of July 25, warned of the dangers of limiting powers to the president, and said that "his monopoly on amending the constitution and the electoral law represents a threat to democracy."

Despite the attempts of the Tunisian political forces over the past years to reach consensus and build a democratic model, there are a number of challenges and variables in various aspects and fields that make the process of political reform and the rooting of democracy in the country a difficult task, which can be addressed as follows:

1- The complexities of the political system: The current Tunisian political system was drafted in accordance with the constitution that was approved and endorsed by the National Constituent Assembly on January 26, 2014, after the termination of the provisional constitution that came after the 2011 revolution. The ratification session of the constitution witnessed many ceremonial manifestations, the most important of which was the presence of international personalities such as the heads of Arab and international parliaments, ambassadors of foreign countries in Tunisia, and representatives of international international organizations. There were also many official statements that celebrated the constitution, in the forefront of which was the statement of the head of the Ennahda Movement, Rashid Ghannouchi, who described it as "a consensual, historical constitution that the world will bear witness to."

However, despite this, the current Tunisian crisis can be viewed as a political/constitutional crisis in the first place, as the 2014 constitution is the third in the contemporary history of Tunisia after the constitutions of 1861 and 1959. Although it is also a product of the Tunisian revolution, a number of problems related to the powers of the president resulted from this constitution, paralyzing the political system. The first of these is related to the lack of clarity in the nature and competencies of the political power structures in the 2014 constitution, as what was stipulated in the 2014 constitution regarding the organization of powers was lacking in clarity to the extent that some experts were unable to determine the type of government system in Tunisia at the time, or in the words of Dr. Qais Saeed, a professor of constitutional law, “the The dish of the Tunisian who takes from everything with one party.” Saeed added after the constitution was approved, and before he became president, “The political parties did not work to establish serious balances as much as they tried to “approve” certain powers according to their political visions. These attempts ended with adding some powers to the President of the Republic so that the real center of gravity remains in the hands of the government. Saeed added that this system can be considered a "dual system", but not in the traditional sense, given that the real power remains in the hands of Parliament and the head of government, which makes it a dual system closer to the parliamentary system, or it is basically a parliamentary system to which some amendments have been introduced that came as a result of political conflicts between the components of the Constituent Assembly. The second problem is due to the weakness of the president’s powers, as Ennahda’s maneuvers during the preparation of the 2014 constitution succeeded in reducing the powers of the presidency, by making concessions on religious ideological issues, including, for example, giving up the inclusion of Sharia law in the constitution, in return for adhering to reducing the president’s powers in the constitution to prevent a repeat of the experience of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

According to the Tunisian constitution, the powers of the President of the Republic, according to Chapter 77 of Chapter Four, are limited to: representing the Republic, and controlling public policies in the field of defense, foreign relations and national security after consulting the Prime Minister. On the other hand, the Tunisian constitution granted the prime minister greater powers at the expense of the presidential position.

From the foregoing, it is noted that the powers of the President of the Republic are limited in the areas of foreign policy and defense, in contrast to the weakness of the powers granted to him in managing internal public policies in the interest of the government. In this context, the provisions of the 2014 constitution provided a fertile environment for sowing the seeds of clash and discord between the components of the Tunisian authority. As for the third problem, it is related to the continued growth of areas of disagreement between the components of the Tunisian authority over the past two years. While the then Speaker of Parliament, Rashid Ghannouchi, exceeded the powers of President Said with regard to the foreign policy file, and Tunisia’s relationship with neighboring countries and regional and international powers, the contrast between the latter and Prime Minister Hisham Al-Mechichi worsened before he was dismissed on July 25, 2021 on more than one occasion, the most prominent of which was Said’s criticism of Al-Mechichi’s choices of some advisors belonging to the era of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and those involved. In some cases of financial and administrative corruption. In January 2021, the Tunisian president also entered into a bone-breaking battle with the Speaker of Parliament before it was suspended, and former Prime Minister Hisham al-Mechichi, against the backdrop of the former’s opposition to the ministerial amendments that Mechichi made to his government at the time. They are presented before the President of the Republic, as a prerequisite for carrying out their work, after they have gained the confidence of Parliament.

On a significant level, the relationship between the three presidencies in April 2021 entered an atmosphere of resentment, in light of the Tunisian President’s announcement, during the celebration of the Internal Security Forces Day, on April 18, 2021, of himself as Commander-in-Chief of the Civil Armed Forces (Police, National Guard, and Customs), in addition to his constitutional capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the Military Armed Forces. This announcement coincided with President Kais Saied using on April 5, 2021, for the first time since the 2011 revolution, the right of veto, in refusing to ratify the Constitutional Court bill that Parliament passed unanimously on March 25, 2021 due to the existence of a breach of the constitution, after the parliament exceeded the constitutional period to accomplish this step, and President Saied confirmed that he would not accept a “measured court.”

2- The limits of the impact of transitional justice mechanisms: The intangible successes of the transitional justice mechanisms that were established in Tunisia after 2011 had a profound impact on various levels with regard to the political reform process, the paths of the democratic system and its practice. The country witnessed it during the era of the old regime. This body was undermined in December 2018, after a controversial law was passed in 2017 granting amnesty to senior Ben Ali-era officials accused of corruption. The economic networks and the continued monopoly of the Ben regime loyalists on the ownership of the media had a similar effect on impeding the process of democratic development in the country.

3- The deterioration of economic performance: The economic determinant represented one of the challenges of building the democratic process in Tunisia, as the country is still suffering from a deteriorating economy and a weak growth rate since 2013. The gross domestic product shrank by about 0.15 percent, and growth did not exceed 1.5 percent during the period from 2017 to 2019, before it recorded a contraction of about 9 percent during the year 2020. Official unemployment rates also increased from 12 percent before 201 0, to 18 percent in the last quarter of 2020. According to the Business Pulse surveys, they indicate that nearly a quarter of formal companies (23.6%), especially in the service sector, have closed either temporarily or permanently by the end of 2020.

  The economic conditions have reached an unprecedented deterioration in the past period, and the most prominent indicator of this is the lack of liquidity that was required to pay sovereign debts due at the end of July 2021, as the government had to repay two loans, each amounting to 500 million dollars, one on July 24, and the second on August 5 of the year 2021. The Tunisian government also failed to make any tangible progress in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to obtain a loan of $4 billion, and in light of the crisis economic conditions, the country faced danger. The inability to pay foreign debts, and the decline in the country's credit rating, in the absence of an economic reform program along with the decline in revenues of important economic sectors such as tourism due to the repercussions of the Corona crisis.

4- Ennahda’s efforts to establish hegemony: In the first elections after the 2011 revolution, Ennahda achieved a historic victory with 89 out of 217 seats in the Constituent Assembly, with a total of one and a half million votes. On the eve of this victory, Ennahda affirmed its respect for the cultural and ideological diversity that characterizes Tunisian society, and was keen to point out that it represents a political movement that does not carry priestly tutelage, or that it is a representative of Islam.

However, after the Ennahda movement became entrenched in power, it succeeded in building wide networks of influence, networks based on interests and privileges, in addition to covert practices to resist reform projects aimed at building a modern state. After its control of Parliament, and its possession of the majority in the 2019 Parliament, with the participation of its most prominent ally, "Qalb Tounes", Ennahda sought to consolidate its hegemony over the Tunisian scene and extend its sovereignty over the state's structures and institutions.

Ennahda won 54 seats out of 217, while its ally, the Heart of Tunisia Party (38 seats), dominated the majority with a total of 92 seats, then the Social Democratic Current (22 seats), followed by the Dignity Coalition (21 seats), then the Free Constitutional Party (16 seats), and Tahya Tounes (14 seats), then the rest of the forces got between one and 4 seats, including the Tunisia Appeal Party, which was founded by the late President Beji, the leader of the country. Dress up.

Ennahda’s provocations were not limited to the above, as it moved in April 2021 to introduce amendments to the electoral law, including reducing the president’s powers with regard to calling elections or a referendum. The proposal also included transferring the power to call elections or a referendum from the President of the Republic to the Prime Minister, a shift that eliminates what remains of the limited powers of the President of the Republic, and practically means a shift towards the parliamentary system even though the President of the Republic is directly elected by the people, which means that he must enjoy stable powers as in presidential systems. Through this step, the Ennahda Movement bet on stripping Saied of the possibility of calling for early elections, in light of the continuing political crisis between the components of power resulting from the 2019 elections.

In this context, and with the escalation of the repercussions of Ennahda’s practices on the political reform process and the democratic development taking place in the country, the state of popular rejection of the movement’s behavior escalated. Anti-Ennahda protests took place, as well as creating a general mobilization in public opinion rejecting the movement’s directions. This was manifested greatly in the various slogans included in the protests calling for the overthrow of Ennahda and the demand for the overthrow of the government and the departure of Rashid Ghannouchi.

5- The escalation of parliamentary polarization: Polarization was the most prominent title among the political forces represented in the Tunisian parliament.

Signs of sharp polarization appeared in the parliament session held on June 30, 2021, when Representative Sahbi Samara, who is affiliated with the “Dignity Coalition,” assaulted the head of the Free Destourian Party, Abeer Moussa. The session was dedicated to discussing several issues, including the government's agreement with the Qatar Development Fund to open a branch of the latter in the country. Disagreements within the Tunisian Parliament also remained severe, especially with the continued calls of secular political parties - prior to the July 25 procedures - to end what they described as Ennahda's domination of Parliament, based on the fact that the solution to the current political crisis lies in ending the subordination of the Mechichi government to Parliament, which was headed at the time by the Secretary-General of the Ennahda Movement, Rashid Ghannouchi.

Second: The Crisis of Political Transition: Possible Pathways

The democratic process in Tunisia, in light of the challenges it faces during the current stage, appears to be open to several diverse paths, which can be expected and described as follows:

The first track: reshaping the map of the political system and strengthening the position of the presidency: a number of indicators are accumulating suggesting that the political crisis that Tunisia is going through may have repercussions on the nature and shape of the Tunisian political system, and this is revealed by President Kais Saied’s call on September 26, 2021 for the necessity of establishing a true democratic system in which the people are truly the sovereign and the source of powers, and they exercise power through elected representatives or through a referendum.

In parallel, on October 21, 2021, President Kais Saied called for a "virtual national dialogue" limited to the participation of young people through virtual platforms to present ideas and perceptions about the political and electoral system. On November 18, 2021, the Tunisian president confirmed that he is working on setting a timetable for reforming the political system, and building a system based on the separation of powers and the effective balance between them, by introducing amendments to the constitutional structure.

However, the desire of the Tunisian president and his call for reforming the political system faces several challenges, including the opposition of political forces, in particular the Ennahda movement, the presidential proposal regarding reforming the political system due to the exclusion of parties, not to mention the tendency of the political opposition to continue to employ the street to resolve the scene, and this was evident in the call of former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki in early February of this year for a revolution against President Kais Saied, and the "Citizens Against the Coup" movement called for the continuation of anti-regime demonstrations.

The second track: the qualitative response to local and external pressures: This scenario is linked to the stability of the internal situation and the end of the protests taking place in some Tunisian regions. During the past months, the streets of a number of Tunisian states witnessed citizens going out to demonstrate and clash with the Tunisian security forces. This scenario also remains linked to the possibility of President Kais Saied and Naglaa Boudin's government responding to international pressure, the latest of which was Amnesty International's criticism on February 8 of Tunisian President Kais Saied's freezing of the work of the Supreme Judicial Council and the moves he is taking to dissolve it, considering that it threatens the independence of the judiciary. This criticism was preceded by the US State Department spokesperson, Ned Price, expressing, on February 7, his country's deep concern about Tunisian President Kais Saied's decision to dissolve the Supreme Judicial Council and what was circulated about preventing employees from entering the building, and he reiterated his country's request for a speedy political reform in Tunisia.

This path is reinforced by several variables, the first of which is: large segments of citizens within Tunisian society are tired of the continuation of the exceptional measures that have been applied in the country since last July, not to mention the change of positions among parties that supported the exceptional measures that I took on the twenty-fifth of July 2021, such as the Free Constitutional Party headed by Abeer Moussa, and before that the People's Movement and the Democratic Current, all of which retracted their position and criticized President Qais Saeed to varying degrees. Second: A wide number of regional and international powers depended on their continued support for the government appointed by President Kais Saied last September on its ability to deal with the great economic, health and social challenges it faces. And the third: It is related to the escalating fears of President Said’s supporters of a change in international positions towards the package of July 25 resolutions. On October 21, 2021, the European Parliament called for respect for rights and freedoms in Tunisia, and the assertion that state institutions in Tunisia must return to work normally. The European Parliament also urged the Tunisian authorities to conduct a comprehensive national dialogue.

The third track: the country entering a phase of chaos: nearly two years after the political tensions between the political forces in Tunisia, and several months after the package of exceptional decisions on July 25, political reforms in Tunisia are at stake. The political crisis also seems likely to enter a phase of chaos, especially with the continued deterioration of economic conditions, poor living conditions, and the collapse of the value of the Tunisian currency.

The fourth track: the intervention of the army and the dissolution of elected institutions: This scenario remains on the table if the state of tension continues, or the country enters a phase of chaos, or the scenes of political assassination that the country witnessed in 2013 are reproduced, or political violence escalates, in a way that refers to a scenario close to the Algerian scenario. In practice, this option means an open confrontation with the "Ennahda Movement" and the parties supporting it, as well as neutralizing the presidency and reducing its role.

However, the likelihood of this option remains weak. Tunisia, despite the worsening state of political polarization among the ruling elites, was characterized by the fact that political life relied on the civilian elite, in contrast to the limited role of the army in Tunisian political life since independence in 1956.

In conclusion: It can be said that the structure of the political system in Tunisia stands as a stumbling block to the rooting of the democratic transition in Tunisia. However, there are political, economic and social challenges that push towards the continuation of the dilemma of instability in the country, and open the door to many paths that Tunisia may witness in the next stage.