On Saturday evening, Tunisian President Kaies Said entered Avenue Habib Bourguiba amid cheers and applause from his entourage, chatting with people for photo ops before announcing to news channels broadcasting his appearance that he planned to change the constitution.
The announcement is the first clear indicator of a roadmap outlining how Saied plans to lead Tunisia after suspending parliament and sacking both the prime minister and the government on July 25 at the height of the national health crisis in Covid-19. Having assumed executive power since then, Saied has not appointed a new prime minister, and the government has been led by interim ministers for more than seven weeks now.
In his statements on Saturday, the president said he fully respects the constitution but believes it is necessary to make amendments to the text. “Constitutions are not eternal,” he said.
The former law professor, political outsider and independent with no party affiliation won the 2019 election in a landslide. But the legislative elections that same year produced a fragmented parliament, reflecting Tunisia’s deep political polarization even as it is still hailed as the only achievement among the Arab Spring revolutions.
During his electoral campaign, Saied expressed his reservations about the foundations of the political system and the democratic model applied in Tunisia, which he considered unrepresentative.
In the months leading up to Saied’s intervention, a power struggle between parliament and the presidency led to a political stalemate where the three heads of the executive – the president, the speaker of parliament and the prime minister – n were more on good terms.
Hailed as one of the most progressive constitutions in the Arab region, Tunisia’s 2014 document established a semi-presidential system of government which, in the presence of weak political parties in a nascent democracy, exacerbated friction between the president and the Prime Minister since its entry into force seven years. since.
A Saied aide told Reuters last week that the president plans to suspend the constitution and come up with an amended version via a referendum.
Saied’s statements on Saturday were the first demonstration of his earlier claims that there was “no turning back” to the situation in Tunisia before his July 25 rulings. On August 24, he extended the emergency measures for another 30 days, saying in statements that the dissolution of parliament posed a “danger” to the Tunisian state.
Speaking to Dubai-based Sky News television station in classic Arabic, Saied denounced accusations by critics calling his intervention a “coup” and a “violation of legitimacy.”
“It is wrong,” he said. “Look at how people [here] interact [with me]… Those who speak of legitimacy do not understand the law… They have a sick heart… They speak of legitimacy but do not respect it.
In his televised speech, the president referred to anonymous critics: “I can spend hours telling you about their plans and lies over the past few months, which have all been refuted… We respect the constitution and constitutional legitimacy, but they must respect morals and values before respecting the constitution.
Responding to a question about the new cabinet, Saied said he would look for “crisp numbers” in the new government which he said would be formed as soon as possible, without providing dates.
Saied did not answer a question about the snap elections, but said there was room “to introduce changes to the constitution”.
Without naming the largest parliamentary bloc, the Ennahda party, which had been part of the collective effort that produced the 2014 constitution, said Saied, “they should see how sick Tunisians are with the constitution and legal rules adapted to their size “.
In response, more than 90 political and civil society activists issued a statement the following day issued by Tunisian radio station Mosaïque FM affirming their commitment to the 2014 Constitution “which crowned the revolutionary process”.
The signatories, which include both figures from Ennahda and the Heart Party of Tunis, the second parliamentary bloc, called on Tunisians to “pool all efforts against the coup, quickly return to the democratic process And put an end to the exceptional measures, including the freezing of the activities of parliaments.
Saied’s intervention on July 25 was met with public support and rising approval ratings, but raised concern among Western governments as well as domestic actors.
Ambassadors from the advanced economies of the Group of Seven this week urged Saied to quickly appoint a government and return to “a constitutional order, in which an elected parliament plays an important role.”
The 2014 Constitution established “a convoluted semi-presidential system of government” that combines elements of the parliamentary and presidential systems, mainly in terms of the relationship between the prime minister and the president, said Nidhal Mekki, legal adviser to the Assembly. National Constituent Tunisian.
The current political crisis stems from irreconcilable interpretations of the constitution by the president, prime minister and parliament of their respective prerogatives. The Tunisian Constitution of 2014 establishes a system of sharing of the executive power of governance between the President and the Prime Minister. The president is the commander of the armed forces, while the internal security apparatus and the interior ministry are under the control of the prime minister.
In Saied’s interpretation of the constitution, his powers also extend to the internal security forces. The 2014 Constitution, drafted and approved following a series of compromises between the country’s deeply polarized political elite, called for the formation of a Constitutional Court within a year to resolve constitutional disputes such as the current crisis. .
Even under the previous administration, Tunisian politicians did not agree on the names of the 12 judges who would sit on the tribunal. Earlier efforts by Ennahda leader and sacked parliament speaker Rachid Ghannouchi to start the tribunal were shot down by Saied earlier this month, who said the deadline had expired and called the step “politically motivated.” .
The general philosophy of the 2014 Constitution, explained Mekki, is not to make the president the linchpin of the political regime even if he is elected by direct universal suffrage, in view of the “hyper presidentialism” that characterized the past Tunisian regimes. “Rather, it is the head of government who plays this role.”
Accordingly, the prerogatives of the president are aimed at controlling and balancing the broad powers of the prime minister and not at retaining the executive presidency.
Despite this constitutional logic, the semi-presidential system contributed to the political stalemate that affected former President Beji Caid Essebsi and his Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, just as it continued to do with Saied and the sacked Prime Minister Hichem. Mechichi.
In the absence of anti-corruption measures or the announcement of a broad economic policy, popular support for Saied may not last too long. It is not known how he will proceed with the constitutional amendments without the support of national actors.
The powerful UGTT union, which maintained its neutrality and a cautious posture after the intervention of July 25, made clear its priorities earlier this week. Following Saied’s statements, the Union called for elections to create a new parliament that would debate changing the constitution and the political system.
The UGTT issued a second statement on Wednesday – after four political parties denounced Saied’s announcement – calling for the formation of a small government to “ensure the continuity of the state” and an early end to the measures of ’emergency.
Tunisia “must come out of the state of general paralysis which has affected state institutions” in a “consultative and participatory vision”, declared the union body.
* A version of this article is published in the September 16, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly