Political showdown pushes Tunisia back to the brink

Kais Saied
Tunisian President Kais Saied. (Photo: Jordan News)
For a day, at least, the specter of two legitimacies competing for power loomed large in Tunisia.

On March 30, despite a warning by President Kais Saied that they were acting “illegally”, 116 MPs out of the assembly’s 217 members voted to repeal the decisions and decrees issued by the president since July, when he suspended parliament’s activities, sacked the government, and implemented “exceptional measures” allowing him to rule unchallenged. اضافة اعلان

Saied called the MP’s move “a failed coup attempt” and treated it as such by initiating a probe into the matter by the public prosecutor. More importantly, he dissolved the parliament without bringing forward a date for the next legislative elections, currently scheduled for December.

It was not clear where the MPs intended to go next. They said they would discuss the social and economic crisis facing the country and probably vote on new laws, despite the president’s suspension of legislative activity.

Saied seemed spooked by the maneuver, which even if largely symbolic, threatened to erase the whole political construct he had put in place and, moreover, project a parallel source of legitimacy.

Long-heralded as a trailblazer in terms of a successful democratic transition after the Arab Spring uprisings, the small North African country seemed, all differences notwithstanding, to be heading in the direction of next-door Libya, where two governments and two prime ministers are vying for control. 

The rebellious MPs were most likely trying to break the wall of silence, which they feared was closing in on them at home and abroad. They were probably encouraged by the visit to Tunisia at the end of March by US Under-Secretary of State Uzra Zeya, who emphasized “US concern for Tunisia’s democratic trajectory”. After their move, the parliamentarians received an extra dose of attention from Washington and Europe. But most foreign audiences were too consumed by Ukraine to notice what was happening in Tunisia.

The public at home was busy worrying about the economic crisis, as people lined up for bread during the first days of Ramadan.

Since being “frozen” out of activity nearly eight months ago, the legislators have not managed to repair their reputation within the country. Despite mounting criticism among the elites for Saied’s slow decision making and lack of interest in inclusive politics, depending on the perspective, the public still placed much of the onus for the country’s woes on the shoulders of MPs.
Long-heralded as a trailblazer in terms of a successful democratic transition, after the Arab Spring uprisings, the small North African country seemed, all differences notwithstanding, to be heading in the direction of next-door Libya, where two governments and two prime ministers are vying for control.
Beside their overall lackluster performance, the members had failed, among others, to set up the constitutional court, an institution that would have helped resolve many of the political disputes before they festered. Such a court would have probably prevented the president from wielding many of the broad prerogatives he exercises today. Instead, he has been free to interpret the text of a constitution, widely-perceived as riddled with loopholes and contradictions.

The political class remains too splintered to represent a real threat to Saied, at least for now. With sterile constitutional debates, it has not managed to convince the public why it should care again for the stuttering democratic process. Parliament was always among the least-trusted institutions. After more than a decade of cheering the flawed process, the West also faces a credibility gap when it criticizes Saied.

But amid the concerns clouding the political horizon, there have been signs that Saied might be adjusting his approach, while preserving the main tenets of his political agenda. The president does not want early elections to take place before he introduces constitutional and electoral law changes, based on the conclusions of a recently-held online public consultation. There are also signs he might be willing to adjust the dates of the ballot and preceding referendum, and may no longer be considering an overhaul of the independent electoral commission.

Furthermore, by reaching out to civil society groups such as the trade unions, the human right league, the business federation and the bar association, he has given hope that he is paving the way for a dialogue, which could plant the seeds of a wider political consensus he has eschewed until now.

Those four organizations made up the Nobel Prize-winning “dialogue quartet” that brought Tunisian political actors together in 2013, when the country was on the brink of civil war.

The powerful workers’ union (UGTT) has voiced support for the dissolution of parliament and indicated an interest in facilitating national dialogue. It is not clear to what extent it would accept Saied’s restrictive conditions for such a dialogue and his visceral dislike for political parties. However, the union probably sees dividends from an alliance with Saied, with whom it shares an opposition to austerity measures, which could stem from a $4 billion rescue package it is still struggling to clinch with the International Monetary Fund. 

It remains to be seen, however, whether Saied can adjust his decision-making pace to the intensifying clamor, at home and abroad, for the restoration of the democratic process and, in so doing, accept the fact that he cannot do so single-handedly. 

It is also uncertain whether his vision of national dialogue is sufficiently inclusive, to defuse political tensions.

The time factor is crucial. Saied does not have today the luxury of eight more months before putting the electoral process on track.

But elections themselves would serve no purpose if they become somehow mired in disputes over legitimacy between rival camps that could adversely affect the turnout. Even without such a contest or other complications, Tunisia faces enough crises that have it already perched on the brink.

The writer is the editor of The Arab Weekly. He had served in the Tunisian government and as a diplomat in Washington.

Read more Opinion and Analysis
Jordan News