Less than a month after Tunisia's President Kais Saied had assumed sweeping executive powers, dismissed the government, suspended parliament and lifted the immunity of its members, and took over the office of public prosecutor, his Twitter account announced on 24 August that he was extending his emergency measures indefinitely. He has been accused of a soft-coup. What is he up to?
Saied invoked Article 80 of the country's constitution, which gives the president of the republic the power to take such measures if he believes the state to be in imminent danger. The same Article calls for such measures to be limited to one month. With just two days before that month was up, he extended the emergency period, surprising everyone in the process. By doing so, he is actually extending the turmoil and political confusion in the country, contributing further to its instability.
Could it be that the president has acted prematurely before he has developed an action plan or a roadmap for ending the emergency situation and returning to normal political life in Tunisia? This is a country, remember, which until recently was hailed as the only success story to emerge from the so called "Arab Spring".
The Tunisian parliament has the power to ask the Constitutional Court to decide if the president acted constitutionally or not, but that court does not exist, thanks to political bickering and divisions within the parliament itself, as well as quarrels between the chamber and the presidency. In fact, the president cited such bickering and government paralysis as additional reasons for taking executive control.
Since the 2011 revolution that toppled former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has plunged into extended economic stagnation leading to increased poverty and high unemployment, particularly among the young. Recent figures show unemployment standing at about 17 per cent of the total workforce, while unemployment among young Tunisians is estimated to be 43 per cent. This is a very serious issue because Tunisia is young country, with an average age of about 32 in a population of nearly 12 million people.
Over the past two years, political infighting — including violence on the floor of the parliamentary chamber — has hindered the government's work, while corruption is rampant within public institutions. The Covid-19 pandemic has put the once cherished health sector under enormous pressure. Vaccination rollout has been slow, with only 21 per cent of the population fully vaccinated.
Tunisians in general supported President Saied enthusiastically; thousands took to the streets in July to celebrate his special measures. Fed up of with chaos and political divisions in parliament they sought reassurances that things will get better and a new government will quickly take over pending further reforms.
Now they are slowly waking up to the harsh reality that nothing has improved in their living conditions. No new government has been set up as the president continues his endless consultations. This is cited by opponents who question his real objectives. Saied's extension of the special measures beyond the 30 day period allowed by the constitution has disillusioned many of his supporters and given more ammunition to his adversaries.
Some observers think that the Tunisian president acted without a clear plan for the "day after", one parliamentarian speaking on condition of anonymity told me. "I think the president has put the cart before the horse and now wonders how to reverse it," the MP added.
The constitutional debate around invoking Article 80 aside, Saied appears to lack an understanding of how politics works in reality. That is no surprise because, as my sources pointed out, "This guy has no political experience and had no life outside the halls of academia." Being an outsider, with deep knowledge of constitutional law, helped his landslide presidential victory in 2019, but none of that offers any insight into how governments really work.
Young people made up the largest segment of those who voted for Saied. They perceived him as a respected law professor with a plan to fight corruption and hold politicians accountable.
However, as president, he faced the troubling fact that his powers are limited and the state is almost bankrupt with mountains of problems that run deeper than the misleading mirages of democracy and a multiparty system. Slowly but steadily he started to realise that a parliamentary democracy, in which the real power is in the hands of the prime minister, makes the president a ceremonial figure without meaningful input to the day to day running of the government.
Throughout his life, like every other Tunisian, Saied had no experience of what parliamentary democracy means in practice. Since independence in 1956, Tunisia has been led by strong individuals, Presidents Habib Bourguiba, a larger than life figure, and Ben Ali. Although a parliament has always been part Tunisian politics, it was little more than a rubber stamp mechanism, a cheerleader for the president.
So is Saied trying to hold on to power long enough to trigger a constitutional amendment in which presidential powers are restored to what they were before? Many believe that this is his plan, which means that he knows what he is doing, given his background in constitutional law. Making it happen, though, is another story.
"Kais Saied is attempting to clean the political mess," Afif Bouni, an author and former publisher based in Tunis, told me. And the way to do that is to amend the constitution. "Any new 'constitution'," he added, "must ban all religious based political parties because they are a long term problem." His reference here was to Tunisia's Ennahda Islamist Movement, which has a majority in the suspended parliament, and is blamed by many for creating the political turmoil that enabled the president to act.
Whatever President Saied is thinking, time is running out and he must act quickly before the constitutional issue snowballs out of control. Elections will, apparently, be held at some point in the future to solve the political impasse. At the moment, though, they are not even on the political horizon.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.