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The conflict between three presidencies in Tunisia: Potential chaos and an unlikely coup 

April 24, 2021 at 12:51 pm

Tunisian President Kais Saied speaks during a ceremony in Tunis, Tunisia on March 22, 2021 [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]

The political crisis in Tunisia took an escalating turn following the speech delivered by Tunisian President Kais Saied last Sunday, in which he referred to himself as the general commander of the internal security forces, along with the army.

In light of the months-long dispute between the three presidencies (the president, the parliament and the government), two political analysts have stated that the risk of a coup d’état exists in Tunisia, warning that there is a high probability of a deviation into a general state of chaos.

On 16 January, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi announced a cabinet reshuffle that was subsequently approved by parliament. However, Saied did not invite the new ministers to swear the oath of office, considering that the change in government composition was marred by “violations”, which Mechichi categorically rejects.

The government is backed by the Ennahda Movement (54 out of 217 seats in parliament) led by Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, the Heart of Tunisia party (30 seats), Al-Karama Coalition (18 seats) and Tahya Tounes (10 seats).

Saied, who is a university professor and does not belong to any political party, took office on 23 October, 2019, for a term of five years.

Speech following the visit to Egypt ‘sounded like a declaration of war’

Sociologist Hisham Al-Hajji believes that President Saied’s speech last Sunday “sounded like a declaration of war.”

He expressed: “The president’s speech, whether we interpret it according to a national or regional context, or in the context of the occasion (it was delivered during the celebration of the Internal Security Forces National Day), or per se, is a reflection of the conflict and the public confrontation between the three presidencies that has been very clear to the public. It sounded more like a declaration of war.”

Al-Hajji considers that: “The president has definitely diverged from all possibilities to take a step back or return to dialogue,” adding that Saied blamed the Ennahda Movement and its president (Ghannouchi) and attacked the parliament.

He suggested that by announcing that he is the supreme commander of the armed internal security forces, Saied is “planning for something”.

Al-Hajji indicated that: “Saied has crossed the line from familiar approaches of threatening and sending implicit messages by initiating a new turn in the political scene in Tunisia,” pointing out that the president’s speech came days after his visit to Egypt, which sparked controversy in Tunisia given the present differences in the country over the ruling regime in Cairo since the overthrow of late President Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013.

Tunisia: president’s ‘power monopoly’ is ‘threat to democracy’ says Ennahda

Tunisian activists criticised Saied’s visit to Egypt, saying that current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi executed a coup d’état against Morsi when he was defence minister, in addition to expressing hostility towards the people’s revolution in Tunisia, which ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ​in 2011.

Al-Hajji stressed that all previous presidents, including those who relied on the security apparatus to impose their rule, did not directly and openly involve it in overt disputes like Saied.

He estimated that Saied’s approach comes at a time when: “Tunisians are looking forward to a republican security institution, which constituted a step backwards.”

The sociologist expressed his regret that: “The president is trying to monopolise powers and interpret the constitution and the religious text.”

“This is a turning point that confirms that we are dealing with a different Kais Saied other than the one who was elected by young people, who sought the fulfilment of a dream which is being progressively transformed today into a nightmare.”

In a statement to African Manager, constitutional law professor Yadh Ben Achour described Saied’s speech on the occasion of the Internal Security Forces National Day as “dangerous”, claiming that it “opens the way to a coup d’état.”

Ben Achour stated that the president’s statement about being the supreme commander of the security forces: “Paves the way for a new dictatorship that will cancel freedoms.”

Absence of indicators of a coup d’état

Former Head of the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies Tariq Al-Kahlawi disagrees that Saied is seeking a coup against the existing system.

Al-Kahlawi questioned: “How will the situation explode? Realistically, how will Saied control the internal security forces? Will he change the directors-general of the interior ministry when they are under the command of Mechichi, who is the current acting minister of the interior?”

He confirmed: “There is no possibility to realise this scenario. Talking about preparations for a coup is implausible and meaningless, and Ennahda plays the role of the victim.”

READ: Is Tunisia’s democracy in danger?

Although Al-Kahlawi considers Saied’s speech to be politically inaccurate, there is no tangible risk of a coup d’état.

Al-Hajji shares Al-Kahlawi’s opinion, stating: “From now on, there is no need to fear the return of an individual authoritarian regime. Saied does not have the power to implement his policies, and it has become clear that his popular base is weak and he has lost connection with the organisations.”

“Saied’s bets on the military and security establishment, if any, will be frustrated, due to the fact that this institution is immersed in a republican ideology and known internal and regional balances that prevent it from interfering in politics,” he added.

Disrupted political life amid a lingering shadow of chaos

Al-Hajji expressed his concerns over a potential: “Slipping into chaos, as the current situation in the country is similar to the conditions that led to holding the national dialogue in 2013 when Mehdi Jomaa headed the government.”

The 2013 national dialogue led to the emergence of the Troika (an alliance between Ennahda and two secular parties, the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties), amid protests by the opposition and trade unions.

Al-Hajji continued: “There is a state of mobilisation, which has been added to a serious social crisis. All the economic figures are negative, which means that there is a serious probability that the street will have the last say in the matter.”

As far as Al-Kahlawi is concerned: “The horizon of the president’s speech can only be within the framework of the constitution, and the only remaining clause for Saied is Article 80, which allows him to announce the state of imminent danger and disrupt state institutions.”

“Regardless of our interpretation of whether he is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces or not, the army can become a supreme authority, take decisions and make arrests, but the parliament cannot be dissolved now,” he added.

Al-Kahlawi clarified: “The crisis is primarily political, and neither party (Saied nor Ennahda) can exclude the other.”

He expects tension to rise, indicating: “The current government undergoes an interim role, whereas the situation necessitates the establishment of a strong government to address the ongoing impasse.”

According to Al-Hajji, “political life is currently disrupted,” noting that: “The president bears much of the responsibility in complicating the scene, a paralysed government and a constitutional court that has not been elected to date because of arbitrary interpretations of the constitution.”

He asserted: “It is clear that he (Saied) is engaged in an overwhelming rivalry with the prime minister and the parliament speaker, impeded the national dialogue and refrained from holding discussions with parties and personalities, except those that fit his perceptions and plots.”

Al-Kahlawi believes that: “If there were other political circumstances, including a balanced scene in which the prime minister holds a harmonious relationship with the president, we would not be in this situation.” He justified his opinion by remarking: “The issue of leading internal security forces was not tackled in such a way when Elyes Fakhfakh headed the government (between March and August 2020).”

“The issue was raised when the political crisis erupted, that is, when the president and the prime minister engaged in a dispute,” he added.

Al-Kahlawi concluded: “What is clear and factual here is the existence of a political crisis and a deep trust gap between the two elected officials, the president of the republic and the parliament speaker, and in this context comes the crisis with the prime minister, who is a secondary party.”