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Will Tunisia’s President Kais Saied manage to answer these questions?

December 15, 2021 at 3:15 pm

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied on December 15, 2021 [FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images]

Many questions are currently being asked in Tunisia which have no definitive and conclusive answers. President Kais Saied was able to freeze parliament, lift MPs’ individual immunity, dismiss a government and replace it with another, and suspend two-thirds of the constitution. Despite all of the pressure exerted against him, he has not backed down; nor has he agreed to any concessions or engaged in any public or low-profile negotiations.

Five months have now passed since he introduced his “emergency measures” in July, without any progress in various fields, especially the economy. Most indicators are still negative or worse than they were before July, so will Saied be able to achieve the rest of his political project that his supporters are promoting? The national holiday on 17 December marking the 2011 revolution may be an occasion to unveil this project officially, or at least shed light on its most prominent features.

It is assumed that before moving on to the next stage, the president must close the many open files, and complete what he has started to implement or what he has already announced. First, though, he must determine the fate of the suspended parliament, which has closed its doors; its members are not even entitled to treatment in public sector institutions and their wages are frozen. The MPs are also prohibited from traveling, and have their honour, patriotism and morals challenged. Even the parliament building, which is considered to be the second of its kind in the world after the construction of the Houses of Parliament in London, is becoming run-down due to its closure.

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 president has not made his final decision on this matter. Will he decide on the complete dissolution of parliament, and thus be required to announce an early legislative election? This is a decision that Saied does not want to take now unless a new electoral law is issued that allows for a profound change of the political map in Tunisia.

He must also remove Ennahda from the political scene before he frees himself of the other political parties. After freezing the parliament and pulling the rug out from under Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi’s feet, the president has been searching for the legal formula that would enable him to get rid of this weighty movement permanently. His best solution is to rely on the fact that the movement has paid a US company to lobby on its behalf in order to improve its image.

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The evidence for this exists; it cannot be questioned because it is published on the website of the US Department of Justice, and was mentioned in Tunisia’s Court of Accounts report. However, Saied cannot blame Ennahda for everything just so that he can overcome his many difficulties. In any case, can it be proven that the money paid to this US company came from within Tunisia at Ennahda’s request? What is the relationship of this contract, signed in America, with Tunisia’s 2019 legislative election? This contract provides for funds to be paid in return for services for Ennahda within America, while the electoral law on which the Court of Accounts relies speaks of funds transferred from outside Tunisia to candidates for elections within Tunisia, and that this funding was given to Ennahda’s candidate lists and affected the election result. The necessary requirements for taking legal action against Ennahda and its leaders are not in place at the moment.

In the event that President Saied decides to prosecute Ennahda and its leaders regardless, it is likely to be a lengthy case, which would prevent the quick change of the political scene that he would like. The aforementioned accounting report also included data related to the anonymous funding of websites supporting Saied’s presidential campaign and called for an investigation. This is an issue that Ennahda will inevitably raise if necessary while defending itself.

In order for President Saied to turn the tables in his favour, he must control the judiciary by dissolving the Supreme Judicial Council and appointing judges loyal to him, while changing its basic or internal law. It is not easy, and it will not pass without resistance on the part of the judges themselves, who currently enjoy strong support from political parties and civil society.

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Some might say that President Saied’s popularity, and the strong support he enjoys from the military and security institutions, will allow him to overcome all of these obstacles and complete his journey by issuing a number of presidential decrees, thus imposing a new reality that his opponents cannot confront in the current situation. However, experts and those familiar with the law and politics say that if Saied did this without taking into account the procedural and institutional aspects, he would prove the “coup against the constitution” accusation directed at him by his opponents, and thus would reinforce his isolation at home and abroad.

Tunisia would then find itself in an unprecedented economic and political situation with the potential for unknown consequences. The repercussions could lead to the collapse of many institutions, and the transformation of the country into an anarchic space with neither laws nor regulations by which everyone is bound. At that stage, democracy will have been aborted despite the president’s assertion that he is sticking to the democratic path and that freedoms are being protected.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 12 December 2021

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