President Saied: ‘Superman’ or voice of Tunisia’s downtrodden?

Is President Kais Saied trying to bite off more than he can chew?

Tunisian President Kais Saied takes the oath of office in Tunis, Tunisia, in this file photo from October 23, 2019. [Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters]

Since he announced his “exceptional” measures on July 25 – initially for 30 days, but open to extension – civil society actors and political players in Tunisia have been pressuring President Kais Saied to present a new “roadmap”. But this is no easy task.

Saied has himself set high expectations for a “new political process”. Tunisians expect him to swiftly name a new government – the likes of Taoufik Charefeddine and Nizar Yaiche who have been tipped to head the new cabinet may decline, reform the electoral system, set up a referendum to institute a presidential system, tackle corruption and more.

This comes atop compounded crises of the pandemic, a tanking economy, rising indebtedness, youth unemployment and popular disaffection with the socioeconomic situation. Indeed, problems have been mounting in Tunisia even prior to the jolt that came on July 25.

Executing anti-corruption without corrupting Tunisia’s young democracy?

Ending corruption – and holding those responsible to account – is another mammoth task now facing the president. It necessarily involves prosecutors, judges and other established legal-political actors. Parts of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), football clubs, countless prominent individuals, many members of the parliament, all give off the whiff of corruption.

In Saied’s interrogation chair sits the entire revolution, the processes and institutions and political players to whom it has given birth.

The question is this: How can one man undertake all of this legal accounting without corrupting the process itself? Especially since Article 87 of the 2014 constitution grants him judicial immunity while in office.

The danger of “kangaroo courts” looms as cases are literally announced by the day. Arrests of politicians have already begun. Saied seems to have fast-tracked several cases already under way. The case of Yassin Ayari, suddenly reactivated from 2018, for example, has drawn much criticism. Other arrests include that of Faysal Tibini, a member of the Assembly of Representatives, on charges of “defamation”. Saied’s lifting of parliamentary immunity has thus made room for a range of cases, not all of which involve corruption.

Moreover, Saied himself distributes favours. Hichem Mechichi – the Prime Minister Saied sacked on July 25 – was originally his choice. Collective responsibility is in order.

For a year and a half, the president refused to work within the new democratic system, its separation of powers, and its processes. For instance, he passed on his constitutional right to present bills to the parliament. He rejected legislative decisions, including most recent attempts to form a constitutional court. Now, he is seeking to work above the democratic system, claiming that he is actually trying to restore it.

In addition to corruption, Saied is also trying to resolve long-intractable problems, such as disrupted production at the Gafsa Phosphate Company, and burning crises – the pandemic. In his attempts to single-handedly address these issues screaming for attention, Saied seems to be sending a message, “I am doing what the parliament and government have been unable or unwilling to do.”

Pitfalls of the power grab

The president appears to be working towards four distinct goals. First, overhauling the political system and increasing the powers of the president, possibly by readapting the 1959 constitution amended in 1976. Second, deploying a series of legal tactics to weaken some parties like  Ennahdha – the biggest party in the Assembly of Representatives – and Qalb Tounes (QT). This may be done via the Tunisian Audit Court’s 2020 report on illegal funding, including of the 2019 elections. Third, diminishing the old establishment classes and elite propped up by corruption. Fourth, resolving social justice and distributional issues. Food prices are reported to have fallen, in response to a call by the president.

Saied’s political machinations and use of his legal expertise to reach his aims proceed with dizzying speed. And they risk imperilling a fledgling democratic transition.

The principle of separation of powers was inserted into Tunisia’s 2014 constitution deliberately to ensure that the country smoothly moves from one-man rule to a power-sharing arrangement among different elected actors. Saied, a constitutional law instructor, is undoubtedly aware of this.

Nonetheless, he is now facing accusations that he has engineered a “coup” from within the very office of the presidency. And he is taking these accusations seriously – this is why he has been courting civil society groups to bring them on board. Several of these groups and the UGTT are drafting their own roadmaps to present to the president.

(Un)constitutional law 101

Saied wishes to deck the presidency with the powers he thinks are due to it and to him – he wants to replace the dual executive system with an exclusively presidential system. Currently, the constitution forbids such an eventuality. Saied appears to be under the impression that with the support of civil society, he can still realise his vision. He forgets, however, that Tunisia’s transition to democracy was driven in part by the people’s desire for the diffusion of political power.

Saied’s July 25 power grab goes against several core principles of the Tunisian revolution and democratisation process:

  • a sustained legal-juridical democratic transition
  • a civilian government that does not allow for the army to be drawn into politics under any circumstances
  • an inclusive dialogue with Tunisia’s political parties and stakeholders, something Saied repeatedly delayed

Restoring social peace and correcting democratic governance by overseeing multi-tiered tasks – prosecutor, president, constitutional lawyer – are not particularly promising in a fledgling democracy.

Not a Sisi coup, but a ‘people’s coup’

Saeid’s July 25 move in Tunisia, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s 2013 coup in Egypt had one thing in common: They were both made possible by fabricated readings of the two countries’ respective constitutions.

Nevertheless, there are some essential differences between the two events. What happened in Egypt was a straightforward coup led by the military. What is still unfolding in Tunisia, however, is the result of a struggle between two poles of the executive, and the president and the parliament.

In Tunisia, democratic gains from the revolution have already taken hold. Tunisia’s people, 10 years into their democratic transition, will be after Saied should he fail to deliver on his ambitious promises or attempt to derail the country’s democratisation in the long term. For now, the litany of failures by government and parliamentarians have rallied large swaths of the people behind Saied’s measures.

Thus, Saied has been insistent that what happened on July 25 was “not a coup”. In his lecture to New York Times reporters invited to the presidential palace, he also insisted that he was not transforming into a “dictator”.

And the very fact that the president is meeting with civil society groups shows that he is aware that Tunisians will not accept an Egypt-style coup in their country. Indeed, Tunisia’s formidable civil society, including the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet – a coalition of Tunisian civil society organisations that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 – is already asking for guarantees, as if the 2014 constitution no longer provides such guarantees, that the president will adhere to the law, respect individual rights, and venture back to the democratic process according to his own timeline of one month. Important players have so far extended to Saied the benefit of the doubt – but only for now.

What happens next is anyone’s guess.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.