Middle East and North Africa

Kais Saied’s Power Grab in Tunisia

By Sharan Grewal
Friday, July 30, 2021, 11:38 AM

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Order from Chaos.

On July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saied froze the parliament, dismissed the prime minister and announced he will temporarily rule by decree. Flanked by military and security officials, Saied also rescinded parliamentary immunity, threatening to subject corrupt parliamentarians to the law “despite their wealth and positions.” On July 26, he also issued a nationwide curfew for 30 days.

Saied’s power grab represents a major test for Tunisia’s young democracy, as serious as the protests in 2013 that nearly derailed its initial transition. How Tunisian and international audiences react to Saied’s announcement will likely shape whether the country remains the world’s only Arab democracy or falls to what political scientists call a “self-coup” or incumbent takeover.

Roots of the Crisis

Despite transitioning to democracy and approving a progressive constitution through consensus, Tunisia since the 2011 revolution has been hit hard by a sluggish economy, perceptions of corruption and growing disillusionment with political parties. Those trends fueled the rise of Saied, an independent law professor who won a landslide victory in the 2019 presidential elections. Despite his popularity, Tunisia’s 2014 constitution laid out a semi-presidential system in which Saied would share power with a prime minister who traces his authority to the parliament. That divided system has all but stalled political activity in Tunisia, with President Saied, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, and parliamentary speaker Rached Ghannouchi over the past year repeatedly at loggerheads regarding their respective powers. These divisions have produced an incoherent approach towards the coronavirus pandemic, which has only exacerbated Tunisia’s economic and political malaise.

In this climate, Saied’s power grab represents for some a clean break from a struggling transition, offering hope that a stronger presidency unencumbered by what Saied recently called the “locks” in the 2014 constitution might allow him to put the economy back on track and root out corruption in the political class. But rather than negotiating a constitutional revision, Saied has seized power outright, freezing the parliament and dismissing the prime minister by decree. Ghannouchi, the parliamentary speaker, accordingly slammed Saied’s moves as “a coup against the revolution and constitution.” The parliament’s four largest parties—including the Islamist parties Ennahda and the Karama Coalition and the secular parties Qalb Tounes and the Democratic Current—among others have also condemned Saied’s actions as unconstitutional.

A “Constitutional” Coup?

President Saied, formerly a constitutional law professor, claims to have acted in accordance with Article 80 of Tunisia’s constitution, which permits the president to claim exceptional powers for 30 days “in the event of imminent danger” to the state or its functioning. However, even a layperson’s reading of Article 80 can see that it also mandates that the prime minister and parliamentary speaker be consulted, and that the parliament remain in “a state of continuous session throughout such a period,” not frozen.

Unfortunately, the one body that could adjudicate whether Article 80 was appropriately applied — and, for that matter, the one body that according to Article 80 can end Saied’s exceptional powers — is the constitutional court, which still does not exist. Although its creation was mandated by the 2014 constitution, Tunisia’s fractured political landscape has prevented parties from coming to an agreement on the court’s membership.

From Bad to Worse

Without a judicial solution, the crisis has instead escalated in a more contentious direction in the past 24 hours. Late Sunday night, Ghannouchi, deputy speaker Samira Chaouachi and other parliamentary leaders attempted to defy Saied’s decree and hold a session of parliament, in line with the constitution.

However, an army unit stationed outside of the parliament blocked their entry. On the one hand, it can be argued that the Tunisian military, a historically professional and apolitical force, was simply following the president’s orders (despite their shaky constitutional foundations). However, intentional or not, its actions have also had major political consequences, creating perceptions that the army might be loyal to Saied and solidifying impressions that this was indeed a “self-coup.” Saied’s dismissal of the minister of defense fed further rumors that he was attempting to secure the military’s loyalty for what may come in the days and weeks ahead.

The police, for their part, have also seemingly shown their loyalty to Saied in the past 24 hours, most notably by storming the Al Jazeera office in a clear violation of press freedom. Tunisian media also reported that Saied tasked the head of his presidential guard, Khaled Yahyaoui, with the responsibilities of interior minister. Given that the police have undergone little security sector reform since the revolution, continuing to commit widespread abuses, they may also play a critical role in consolidating Saied’s coup attempt.

Equally worrisome was the reaction of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), which won a Nobel Peace Prize for its role in brokering negotiations that solved Tunisia’s 2013 crisis. However, rather than a neutral statement urging dialogue, the UGTT instead appeared supportive of Saied’s actions, saying they were in line with the constitution, but expressing concerns that he stick to 30 days and not expand his powers further.

The Road Ahead

Although most political parties opposed Saied’s actions, the lack of opposition (or even seeming support) from the military, police and UGTT suggests that Saied will not back down anytime soon. Moving forward, the crisis is likely to escalate, with both sides egging on their supporters to take to the streets.

The outcome of the crisis will be shaped in part by who can mobilize more supporters to “vote with their feet.” At this stage, the balance of power appears to favor Saied. Although he no longer enjoys the 87 percent approval rating he did in 2019 (polls today put him closer to 40 percent), he remains the most popular figure in Tunisia. Beyond his base, Tunisians seeking a stronger presidency, as well as those hostile towards political parties and towards Ennahda in particular, might also approve of his decrees. That said, most political parties have come out against the coup and will likely mobilize in significant numbers as well.

But the dueling protests that already emerged today also make the situation even more volatile, raising the specter of clashes between the two sides. Preventing that potential for violence requires Saied and the political parties to deescalate and negotiate a way out of the crisis. Critical to watch in this regard will be the position of the UGTT and other civil society actors: how long until they step in once again to help mediate a way out of this crisis?

Another important factor to watch is the reaction of the international community. With the exception of Turkey, which came out strongly against Saied’s “suspension of the democratic process,” most countries and bodies that weighed in (Germany, the European Union, the U.N. and the U.S.) generally adopted a “wait-and-see” approach, expressing concern and urging restraint and dialogue. Yet if the world’s democracies do not come out strongly against the coup attempt, it leaves an opportunity for counterrevolutionary powers like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to influence the crisis in support of Saied, much like they did for Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. With Tunisia’s economy in the doldrums, foreign support—and aid—may well shape the outcome of this crisis, for good or for ill.