The “constitutional measures” Kais Saied, Tunisian President, has recently carried out in Tunisia came as a surprise to everyone as it is difficult to say that there is anyone that would have expected this scenario, even though there were many expectations that Tunisia was moving in an ascending line towards the explosion. These expectations were due to many intractable problems that have been facing the Tunisian spring for years. In addition, the inability to reach a political agreement represents an outcome of the deep crises that Tunisia is experiencing. On top of which is the deteriorating economic situation and the secular Islamic division in not only its political aspect, but also its societal one as well, in addition to the government’s inability to properly deal with the Corona crisis.
The Tunisian surprise came from the fact that President Saied was the one who did that. The same his arrival to the presidency in Tunisia was an unexpected surprise for everyone, his political path apparently is moving in the same direction. The surprise is manifested in the fact that the president is the one who brought the ballot boxes to power and speaks more than others about the constitution and the law and the necessity of its implementation, still, he is the one who carried out his last coup on constitution. Despite the indications that have shown up pointing to the move that Saied took recently, such as his visit to Cairo and his talk about being the supreme commander of the army and security services, his talk was not taken seriously because everyone expected that the president was unable to do so, as there is no political party to rely on or a people force in the street that he can utilize to achieve a coup. However, he did it in his way, so how did he succeed in that?
A Coup or following the constitution?
Before talking about the factors that helped Kais Saied succeed in his last step, today, a great debate is taking place in Tunisia and elsewhere, whether what he did was considered a coup or just steps that the constitution allows the President of the Republic to take?
There has been a great debate about this issue in Tunisia, and it is noted that most constitutional experts agree that some of what Said did was constitutional right while some other measures were not. There is no doubt that the constitution allows the President of the Republic to dismiss the government, impose emergency and call for early elections. However, it is certain that in any constitutional system no one is allowed to suspend the parliament functionality that represents the elected authority of people regardless of this parliament’s practices. It is also not allowed to dominate the judiciary which represents the supreme authority, especially that a Supreme Constitutional Court can not be formed. In addition, the president’s pursuit of absolute control of the state’s executive authority is self-evident, especially after Minister of Defense has resigned and appointing his security advisor as Minister of Interior.
So, if we took the legal and constitutional aspect into consideration and looked between the constitution’s lines, what Saied did would be considered half a coup. Perhaps, if he had announced his intention to hold early parliamentary and presidential elections or declared he was not seeking to dominate the judicial and military/security body, it would have been possible to believe in the constitutionality of the measures he had taken. Furthermore, he would have been able to repel the charge of conducting a coup.
Some people justify the matter by saying that, given the difficulties that Tunisia has been experiencing recently as a result of exacerbating the health, social and economic situation, it would make sense for the President to do what he did. On the one hand, the deterioration of political debate and the inability of the party and Tunisian elite to solve their problems constitutionally under the dome of Parliament have been used as justification, especially in light of the bloody clash between the President and Hisham Al-Mashishi, former Prime Minister. On the other one, the clash between President Saied and Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda movement has made it worse, let alone the sharp Islamic secular polarization.
In fact, such things may have prompted Kais Saied to carry out his coup; However, this does not justify what he did because he brought Tunisia into situations that are difficult to get out of today, which means in the end, that determining whether what Kais Saied did was a coup or not is related to his next steps. Does he have a road map to get out of the impasse in which he pushed the country? Does he believe in the whole democratic process or not? these questions will be also discussed later in this paper.
Reasons for Kais Saied’s Success
There are many factors that helped Kais Saied succeed in his constitutional coup:
The honest president?
Since he ran as candidate to the presidency until his success and practicing his duties, Kais Saied has succeeded in placing himself in a place far higher than the political elite. He presented himself as the man pure far from power, fighting corruption, following the constitution and striving to achieve popular interests, in parallel with correcting the corrupt and political opponents who he did not hesitate to confront publicly. This has been accompanied by populist rhetoric and behavior, which alienated the political elites from him, but, at the same time, gained the support of broad popular sectors. All these matters have painted a picture of the president in people and even some elites’ minds, that the president wants to work and achieve the interests of the people, but there are those who prevent him.
What has helped to reinforce and promote this image is that the Tunisian president’s page was spotless of corruption and pollution, so he can not be accused of stealing public money, which made him earn the character of “integrity”. This is actually a rare trait in our miserable East mired in corruption and authoritarianism; this trait forms a good capital for its owner. In addition, the Tunisian president, with his positions on all issues, from religion to politics to the Palestinian issue, represents the opinion of the simple popular citizen. The President acts in ways closer to citizens than other politicians because he occupies a middle position between all of them. It is not important if Kais Saied was really like that, but what is important is that the middle class and the citizens see him like that. There is no doubt that Saied’s points declined due to the political performance, but he remained, compared to his opponents, maintaining a clear superiority. His points and honesty made the popular opposition to his “constitutional coup” weak and limited.
Government Failure in Crisis Management
The government’s inability to achieve anything at the political or economic level, as well as regarding Corona’s ramifications that threatened the health sector with collapse, stands in front of the increased political conflicts within the government. On the other hand, there is this conflict between the government and the president, and conflicts among the blocs that are forming the political scene.
Corona and the Economic Crisis
The repercussions of Corona and the severe economic crisis have prompted people to refrain from pursuing politics and political conflict between the elites. The people have been preoccupied with securing a bite of bread. This why the protest against the steps taken by Saied was fragile. This mass reluctance is an echo of the deep despair of Tunisians who found out that their sacrifices poured into the corrupt elites’ pockets. These elites have always been unable to secure a good future for the people and their children as the rates of immigration and poverty have increased; the same for the rates of “disbelief in democracy”. As a rule, the inability of any government to find a solution to the social and economic issues enhances the populist and radical aspects, let alone having a president who promotes this populism as well, and this is what is most worrying in Tunisia today.
The secular Islamic polarization in Tunisia has always been an issue on the table, and this is an important and necessary part of the validity of any democratic process as there have always been the right, the left and the center as well. However, the problem of Tunisian polarization here is that it is a historical, deep and societal permeated, as Tunisia is almost divided among itself, modern / traditional, secular / Islamic, and even within the same spectrum whether Islamic or secular. There are multiple divisions and spectra. The problem is not in all of this, of course, rather the problem is the inability of the elites and post-revolution institutions to contain this polarization. This inability was evident when Abir Moussa was assaulted in the Tunisian House of Representatives. As a result, public aversion was generated on both sides that was in favor of Kais Saied.
Regional Reality; internationally Supported
All of the above is accompanied by an anti-democratic regional reality and an international Western reality that has a fear of political Islam. Everything surrounding Tunisia today is an anti-democratic environment. Thus, the Western world is afraid of this political Islam and the impact it might have on the region’s regimes. As long as the Tunisian paradigm is alive and holds elections periodically, and the sharp political debates continue, the neighboring countries will not rest because these occurrences indicate the vitality of democracy in the end.
In addition, there is an international reality that has its own reservations about the presence of political Islam-represented by Ennahda movement in power. Erdogan’s experience adversely affected all currents of political Islam as it has been considered as cause for gradual erosion of democracy. Eventually, this has made Tunisia trapped between a regional environment that seeks to abolish the democratic experiment and an international Western environment that avoids supporting the nascent Tunisian democracy, for fear that the Islamists would benefit from its support. Additionally, Europe has recently stopped supporting democratic currents in the southern Mediterranean as their main focus has been on security issues in order to prevent the flow of immigrants, and to fight terrorism as well.
Therefore, Europe is seeking for its own interests, so it is reasonable for them to return to the old context by supporting stable dictatorships that secure the borders for them and cooperate on terrorism and other issues. This made the regional and international opposition to Saied’s “constitutional” procedures very weak, if not supportive in secret.
Ennahda Movement’s mistakes
First, the political quarrels that the Ennahda movement has recently got into have played a major role in declining its popularity. Second, these quarrels have made the street alienate from the movement, as doubts, even from those who accept that political Islam has a role in managing the affairs of power and the state, have begun to rise to surface again. Ennahda’s challenge to the President of the Republic and its entry into antagonistic conflicts with the Free Destourian Party led by Abir Moussi, have caused Ennahda becoming a sharp party in political polarization instead of playing the role to facilitate compromise solutions and settlements.
Ennahda has not learnt the lessons that took place in Egypt, that it must lead its battles patiently away from escalation. The last escalation was when Ghannouchi was speaking about testifying in front of the parliament-where he had previously been prevented from getting into. The matter that exacerbated the situation, before returning and calling for dialogue with the President of the Republic from a position of weakness. He would have been able to negotiate from a position of strength if he had accepted some concessions that he has to give up now. Given to understand that Ennahda is the largest organized Tunisian force and, still, appeared with this weakness, this means it is unable, as the rest of the forces were, to stand against the constitutional coup of Kais Saied.
Kais Saied’s Problems
The main fear of what President Kais Saied did, does not lie in his “constitutional” measures that he took, as much as it in his way of thinking and his vision of the Tunisian solution. It is something that can be deduced from Kais Saied’s statements and behavior over the past period, the most important of which can be identified by:
Political Denial of Himself!
We talked above about that Kais Saied succeeded in positioning himself in a position different from the political elite, as if he were not one of them. He has been seeking to present himself as neutral, impartial, constitutional and honorable, which he succeeded in more or less. However, this matter is problematic in the end because Saied is the first man of the state and, therefore, he is a political man first and foremost. He has his own interests, visions, and views that correspond to or contradict the visions of others, but this is one of the natures of the political game after all.
Nevertheless, Saied’s denial of the political character of himself leads to many problems. First, it gradually leads to stone the political process and politics as if it were a disgrace. With this denial, his interests intersect with the Arab dictatorships’ interests that see politics as a monopolized field for them; it does not matter whether Saied knows or not. This means that he stones the democratic process in the end as there is no democracy without politics. His last act is what complements his vision and view of the political parties in which he does not believe. The thing that reminds us of Muammar Gaddafi’s views, which means that we are facing a confusing mentality. We in front of a man who speaks about the constitution, law and fighting corruption (a modern mind), but at the same time he speaks negatively about political parties (a traditional and old mindset).
It is said that the president believes in the so-called constitutional councils. These councils in one way or another remind us of the people’s councils of Muammar Gaddafi and the people’s democracy of the Soviet Union, which ultimately means that we are facing a president who does not believe in the entire democratic process that has taken place since 2011. Herein lies the great fear that Kais Saied’s measures that he intends to take would lead to explicitly implement alike of above, and consequently to retreat from the democratic gains.
Being Always Right
One of the defects inherent in Saied’s awareness and thinking and can be deduced from his speeches and “political” behavior that is also derived from positioning himself in a superior position from others, lies in his “monopoly” over interpretation of the constitution as he always acts as the judge on moral concepts, such as goodness and evil, and excludes himself from mistakes and interests.
This, even if the man is really like that, is not only a view that is irrelevant to politics, but also generates monopoly and violence. Whoever finds himself completely correct, finds himself motivated to achieve this right, even with good intentions. To elaborate, this is just another example that resembles inversely the Islamists and the leftists’ views, which find their “revolutions” and their “coups” are in the interest of the people. This is the case of Kais Saied today, who sees himself as the only one who possesses the right and political correctness for what is in the interest of Tunisian citizens. Each monopoly on the good carries an invitation to extremism in the end, not to mention that this is against politics that is based on reaching a consensus on the concepts of goodness and morals, and not based on imposing the morals of someone on the others.
Lessons from what happened
The first lesson that can be deduced from what happened is that today, the Tunisian elite as a whole is paying the price for its lack of political awareness, being mired in ideological arguments and settling themselves behind the parties’ trenches along with their ideologies. They have not realized yet that managing the state requires consensus and not conflict, especially with regard to basic issues, such as the economy, health, education, freedoms, democracy, healthy and live dialogue and respecting the ballot boxes.
In addition, the Tunisian elite is paying the price for its disregard for the socio-economic issue, which has long been warned about. This issue constitutes the operating fuel for everything that happened. Instead of politicians of all different stripes working to develop a plan to advance the Tunisian economy forward and create job opportunities, which is the alphabet of politics, they have shortened politics to positions and quarrels. None of those who participated in previous governments in the past ten years or who has recently arrived in Parliament realized that serving the citizen and achieving his basic demands in health, decent living, work and education are the fields that should be contested upon. Exploiting state institutions, on the other hand, to pass an ideology should no be something any politician does.
The inaction and contention among the elites over the Constitutional Court issue, which the president is exploiting its absence today, are a dagger used today against the entire Tunisian democracy and threatens its demise because the matter of interpreting the constitution has been referred to one man, Kais Saied, instead of being within the authority of an agreed constitutional institution. The competitors have failed to realize that democratic institutions should protect everyone. Even if these institutions are against the people today, when they are real ones, they will be by their side tomorrow. Therefore, bringing the Constitutional Court into the heat of political strife has made everyone pays the price today.
If Tunisia were to emerge from its current crisis, and if the Tunisian president responded to the dialogue called by Rached Ghannouchi, what was previously talked about should be lessons that should be learned to preserve the only democracy in our miserable East.
Learning all of those lessons is through building complete constitutional institutions, postponing all political differences in favor of finding solutions to run the Tunisian economy, creating job opportunities, agreeing on constitutional and democratic issues that should not be entered into political dispute-what we can call as the sovereign domain of the Tunisian state. The difference, however, should limited to routine political issues away from turning it into a deep polarization as well. Still, if any polarized disagreement happened, everyone should realize that any concession through dialogue or within the Parliament is better than concession under a tank or the intervention of the army, which we hope that Kais has not opened gates of hell by inviting it to the political game.