Tunisia's President Kais Saied surprised everybody, inside the country and outside, by his announcement on Sunday to suspend the parliament, annul MPs immunity, dismiss the prime minister and take a "supervisory" role over the public prosecution service. In doing so he cited Article 80 of the country's constitution which, according to him, gives the president the right to take such measures if he sees an "imminent danger threatening the nation's institutions or the security or independence of the country."
Attempting to pre-emptively counter arguments against his move, the president said "this is not a suspension of the constitution" nor dissolving the legislative but a "temporary measure" as the country passes through a difficult period.
The president didn't outline how long the measures will be in place or offer any kind of political alternatives to restore parliamentary life in Tunisia. Saied also did not explain how he plans to carry out his new role, particularly, that of effectively taking over the public prosecution service which he, indirectly, accused of underperforming in its duties without providing details of how it has failed the people.
The presidential step unleashed a fierce legal and constitutional debate over whether the president correctly interpreted Article 80 of the constitution and whether his step is, in effect, a coup against the publicly elected parliament.
Tunisia's Constitutional Law Society Chairwoman, Salwa Hamrouni, tweeted a statement confirming the president's right to take such measures, while questioning some of his actions. Saied headed the society while he was teaching constitutional law at the university before his election as president in October 2019. So he is a man who knows what he is doing.
While the legal wrangling goes on; a state of ambiguity prevails over the country carrying with it potential for further chaos and violence. Thousands across the country took to the streets in support of the president.
The Constitutional Court that could decide on the constitutionality of the matter does not exist thanks to the political disagreements among the different parties who have failed to agree on the matter since the last elections three years ago.
The legal wrangling aside, Tunisia's problems run deeper and further than whether the president acted constitutionally or not.
Since becoming the "jewel of the Arab Spring" of 2011, Tunisia has held free and fair presidential and legislative elections half a dozen times producing nine governments. A new constitution was adopted in 2014 completely overhauling the political system. It is that change which enabled Kais Saied, a complete outsider, to become president. But the same system also opened the door for others to contest and win elections. Before the "Jasmine Revolution" it was unimaginable to think that an Islamist politician like Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda Movement, could dream of not only running in the elections but becoming the parliamentary speaker, in a parliament which is dominated by his party colleagues.
Until recently, the country was the shining star of the "Arab Spring" after successfully making the hard transition into democracy where the ballot box decides who rules.
However democracy means little in the face of economic stagnation, a severe wave of COVID-19 infections, spiralling corruption and almost paralysed government institutions thanks to political wrangling among politicians.
But Tunisia's problem is economically based. The country is almost bankrupt and the pandemic made things worse. Add corruption and ineffective governance to the mix and you end up with a perfect recipe for further quarrelling over who's responsible and who to blame.
Over the last few months, Ennahda and its leader, Ghannouchi, have been the target of blame from the president and others. Many Tunisian politicians and commentators keep accusing Ennahda of all sorts of evil without producing any evidence to back up their claims.
As a political party Ennahda exists because the constitution allows the formation of political parties as long as they play by the rules of the game. So far it has played by the rules. Yet its critics seem to forget the simple fact that Ennahda and Ghannouchi, have been repeatedly elected in free and fair elections.
It did not shoot its way to power nor has it been implicated in any serious constitutional breaches or serious misconduct. Is Ennahda a serious long term threat to Tunisia's adored secularity? It could well be but again it is, for now, a legitimate political entity. Do Tunisians want Ennahda? Well they voted for it!
Who could have imagined that in Tunisia, the most secular of Arab states, an Islamist party could win the most seats in transparent and fair elections? It happened in Egypt but Egypt is not as secular as Tunisia. Anyone, regularly, visiting Tunisia over the last three decades would attest to the fact that before 2011 even the sound of the Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, was a rarity. If this meant anything it was translated into votes for Ennahda giving it 52 of the 217 seats in parliament – making it a king maker.
Blaming Ennahda for Tunisia's compounded miseries is misleading and will backfire.
Shrewd Ghannouchi, in his first reaction to the president's announcement, said it was a "coup" against the constitution without questioning Kais Saied's legitimacy. This shifted the debate from: should there be an Islamist party in Tunisia into a broader debate about the constitutional interpretation sending the ball back into the presidential quarter.
Now everyone awaits the president's next move.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.