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Tunisia's half coup and the idea of a counter-revolution

December 2, 2021 at 8:30 am

Demonstrators gather to protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia on 10 October 2021 [Nacer Talel/Anadolu Agency]

Tunisia’s President, Kais Saied, vehemently denies what he did in Tunisia is, literally, a constitutional coup, as his adversaries claim. The President might feel comfortable if we describe his July power grab as “half a coup” since the constitution, he says, is still there however ignored in disputable ways!

Every time the country’s political leaders and parties criticise the President’s actions, the former constitutional law professor, Saied, fires back by claiming what he did is actually called for by an entire article of the constitution itself.

In defending his actions he cites article 80 of Tunisia’s 2014 constitution, which Mr. Saeid helped draft. The problem here is simply about interpretation of that particular article of the document. President Saied wants Tunisians and the outside world to accept his own interpretation that justifies his “extraordinary” measures, in effect since 25 July. At the end of the day, he is one of the top constitutional law experts in the country and qualified representatives of the larger academia body in the field—why not take his word as a fact?

But there is a catch here: the constitutional expert, Kais Saied, is not the same as President Kais Saied. The President of the county is supposed to be just that—a President for the entire nation. This means his own interpretation of any legal document should not be taken for granted and his word cannot always be trusted, because that would make him the judge and adversary at the same time. This would deprive his adversaries of their constitutional guarantees that give them the right to challenge his actions in a court of law— this is one of the checks on power in any democracy.

To further complicate things for the President’s challengers: they have no legal venue to challenge whatever they think is unconstitutional in any presidential decrees or actions. The country’s Constitutional Court does not exist, mainly because the bickering parliamentarians failed to approve the appointment of four judges, while the other five judges will be appointed by the presidency and the High Judicial Council. Since the parliament failed to appoint but one judge, the process of having the nine-judge court running stalled and the political fights overwhelmed everyone, putting the issue on the back burner.

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President Saied, in fact, used the political turmoil in parliament as a pretext for his extraordinary measures, giving himself ultimate power including to rule by decree without the parliament. He, capitalising on the huge public support he enjoys, suspended the legislative, dismissed the government and gave himself public prosecutor powers. Article 80 gives the President only one month to return to normal constitutional practices, in which the elected parliament can ask the Constitutional Court to scrutinise the President’s actions. That did not happen, since parliament is suspended and the “extraordinary” state the President announced is still on, four months and counting. In the absence of the court, Mr. Saied has plunged Tunisia into a constitutional crisis and, so far, he has failed to map a way out. Now he has a free hand to decide what he thinks is good for the country. On 29 September, he appointed Najla Bouden Romdhane as prime minister and a government was formed, a week later, while he kept repeating his promise of better governance and a corruption free country. However; he is yet to offer a workable roadmap to bring the country back to democratic life in which the ballot box decides who should be in power and a Constitutional Court that can decide, when needed.

Clearly Mr. Saied is aiming to re-write the constitution in a way that brings back the presidential system instead of parliamentarian system that many Tunisians blame for the current crisis, in the first place. His supporters still think he, literally, salvaged the state from within by putting an end to the otherwise endless politician quarrels that paralysed Tunisia for years.

Is Tunisia's state of emergency being used to restrict freedoms? - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Is Tunisia’s state of emergency being used to restrict freedoms? – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

The constitutional debate, aside from Tunisia’s political crisis, masks deeper economic problems with entailing devastating social consequences. The country’s almost bankrupt and foreign aid all but dried up after President Saied announced his measures. This is the real issue Kais Saied has so far failed to tackle, simply because he lacks the required cash.

In the regional context, what happened in Tunisia is seen differently by different regional powers. The European Union, Tunisia’s main economic partner, believes it is an internal matter that has to do with democracy and the rule of law.

READ: 487 refugees, migrants rescued by Tunisia 

This view is countered in an article by Romano Prodi, in Italy’s El Mensajero.  Mr. Prodi is a veteran Italian politician and former European Commission president, accused Europe of supporting the “coup” in Tunisia by keeping silent. He interprets that silence as support for an “autocratic” axis, already groomed by regional powers like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. This is being countered, Mr. Prodi thinks, by Turkey and Qatar who are supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. This narrative is not new and has been the dominant talking point among commentators and pro- “Arab Spring” figures, including Mr. Saied predecessor, Moncef Marzouki, who thinks what Kais Saied is doing is part of a wider regional “counter revolution” sweeping the countries of the so called “Arab Spring.”

The idea of “counter revolution” goes deeper and wider than Tunisia, to include Libya, Egypt, Syria and even Yemen. The Saudi, an autocratic regime deeply entangled in a largely failing military aggression in Yemen, would like to see the “democratisation” wave lose momentum and slowly die altogether. At the height of the “Arab Spring”, Saudis sent forces to shore up its autocratic little neighbour, Bahrain. The Emirates, on the other hand, while competing with the Saudis, are attempting to dominate the political process in countries like Libya by supporting local proxies, including General Khalifa Haftar.

However, the situation in Tunisia can neither be characterised as a counter-revolution nor the work of some shady forces led by any regional power. The Tunisian case is a clear power struggle, enveloped in a constitutional dispute being made worse by failing parliament and political elite.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.