By Anthony Dworkin* – European Council on Foreign Relations
Tunisia’s international partners have responded too leniently to its president’s announced programme of constitutional reform. They risk allowing him to remain over-powerful for years to come.
Since July last year, when Tunisian president Kais Saied suspended parliament and dissolved the government, many people in Tunisia and abroad have called on him to produce a road map to return the country to democratic accountability. In December, Saied appeared to bow to those demands as he announced a schedule leading to parliamentary elections at the end of this year. The plan has already been welcomed by the United States and, more cautiously, by Italy; but it should not be mistaken for a return to democratic standards. Instead, it leaves Saied with absolute power for a full year, as well as total control of the process through which the ground rules of Tunisian politics will be rewritten.
Saied justified his power grab last summer as a measure to rescue Tunisia from a deep economic and public health crisis caused by the ineffectiveness of the country’s post-revolutionary political system. Since the overthrow of the former authoritarian leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia has stood as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. But it has also seen persistent economic stagnation and high unemployment, as successive governments struggled to tackle Tunisia’s problems. More recently, the country experienced a much higher death toll from covid-19 than its neighbours, with the government seemingly unable to mount an effective response to the pandemic. For these reasons, there was widespread public support for Saied’s move against the parliament, even if it was difficult to square with Tunisia’s 2014 constitution.
Despite being presented as an emergency measure, Saied’s seizure of power soon came to look like a new order that might be extended for an indefinite period. In September, Saied gave himself the power to rule by decree and formally set aside those parts of the constitution that conflicted with the measures he had taken. Since Tunisia’s political class had irresponsibly failed to set up a constitutional court (as the constitution required), this meant that all power was effectively concentrated in Saied’s hands. While the European Union and the US called for a clear timetable for restoring parliamentary rule, and Saied himself repeatedly promised further details of his plans, he has also been scornful of requests for a road map, saying those who wanted one should “look in their geography books”.
Against this background, Saied’s announcement on Monday 13 December of a timetable for Tunisia’s political future might appear to be a step forward. He said that there would be an online public consultation on a revision of Tunisia’s constitution starting in January; that a committee would be appointed to draw up the suggested amendments before a referendum in July; and that legislative elections under a revised electoral law would be held in December. The timetable is loaded with political symbolism, as the date for the July referendum marks the anniversary of his suspension of parliament, while the elections are to be held on the same date as the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in 2010, which sparked the Tunisian revolution. The implicit linking of these two actions gives a measure of Saied’s sense of his own importance.
Saied has already made clear that he regards Tunisia’s political parties as illegitimate and corrupt, and his rule over the last six months has displayed an absolute disdain for any notion of inclusive or pluralistic governance.
If the announced end to Saied’s irregular and unchecked stewardship of the country is welcome, it is nevertheless very delayed; Saied’s map charts a very long road. On top of this, his timetable means that the process of revising the constitution and drawing up the electoral law for legislative elections will unfold while he retains a monopoly of power in Tunisia. The only gesture towards involving other actors in the process is the online public consultation, which has now opened. There is no suggestion that other political groups will have any role in devising the country’s new political settlement. Saied has already made clear that he regards Tunisia’s political parties as illegitimate and corrupt, and his rule over the last six months has displayed an absolute disdain for any notion of inclusive or pluralistic governance.
Moreover, Saied has followed the launch of his road map with an intensified campaign against his political opponents, spearheaded by the minister of the interior, Taoufik Charfeddine. In late December, Interior Ministry agents seized a leading member of the Ennahda party and a former government security adviser; the two are being held under house arrest for alleged involvement in terrorism, but without any judicial proceedings. Former president Moncef Marzouki was recently sentenced to four years’ imprisonment in absentia (he is now living in Paris) on charges of undermining the country’s security from abroad after he attacked Saied’s seizure of power.
It is unclear what constitutional changes Saied’s committee will propose, but he has long argued against the very idea of a directly elected national parliament, preferring some model of direct democracy whereby elected local assemblies nominate representatives to a weak national body. Comparative constitutionalists suggest that his favoured model might bear some similarity to the system that existed in Libya under the leadership of Muammar Qaddafi, which is hardly an auspicious precedent. In any case, there is little doubt that the president will emerge with greatly enhanced powers.
The international reaction to Saied’s road map has been muted but largely positive. The US State Department said that it welcomed the announcement of a timeline for political reforms and legislative elections and that it looked forward “to a reform process that is transparent and inclusive of diverse political and civil society voices.” This may be an attempt to exert influence by expressing positive expectations but it nevertheless comes across as naive. A stronger statement would have said that the credibility of the process depends on the involvement of a broad range of political and civil society groups. It would not have appeared to endorse the delay of a year in restoring political representation. A public statement by G7 ambassadors to Tunisia that was released only a few days before Saied’s announcement called for a “swift return to functioning democratic institutions”, and it is hard to see that Saied’s plan meets this standard. Italian foreign minister Luigi di Maio requested a return to “full democratic normality with the complete respect of fundamental rights and the promotion of stability” but was more focused on migration during a recent visit to Tunisia.
Within Tunisia, in any case, the president’s apparent fixation on reforming the constitution risks seeming eccentric when set against the population’s overwhelming concern with the economy and the standard of living. The parlous state of Tunisia’s public finances has led it to approach the International Monetary Fund about a further assistance package, and public spending will need to be cut. Saied has not given any indication of a programme to improve the economic outlook and many Tunisians expect a resurgence of public demonstrations in the coming months. Along with expressing concern about the absence of political representation and the unchecked power of the president, Tunisia’s partners should also make clear that the repression of public protest or freedom of speech would not be compatible with the democratic values that Tunisia’s leader claims to espouse.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.