Since July last year, when Tunisian President Kais Saied suspended parliament and dissolved the government, many in Tunisia and abroad have called on him to produce a roadmap to bring the country back to accountability. democratic. In December, Saied appeared to comply with these demands by announcing a timetable leading to legislative elections at the end of this year. The plan has already been welcomed by the United States and, more cautiously, by Italy; but this should not be confused with a return to democratic norms. Instead, he leaves Saied with absolute power for a full year, as well as full control of the process by which the ground rules of Tunisian politics will be rewritten.
Saied justified his seizure of power last summer as a measure to save Tunisia from a deep economic and public health crisis caused by the inefficiency of the country’s post-revolutionary political system. Since the overthrow of former authoritarian leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia has become 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 solve Tunisia’s problems. More recently, the country has seen a much higher death toll from covid-19 than its neighbors, with the government seemingly unable to mount an effective response to the pandemic. For these reasons, there was broad public support for Saied’s decision against parliament, even if it was difficult to reconcile with Tunisia’s 2014 constitution.
Although presented as an emergency measure, Saied’s seizure of power quickly took on the appearance of a new order likely to be extended for an indefinite period. In September, Saied gave himself the power to rule by decree and formally overturned the parts of the constitution that conflicted with the actions he had taken. Since the Tunisian political class had irresponsibly failed to set up a constitutional court (as required by the constitution), this meant that all power was effectively concentrated in the hands of Saied. While the European Union and the United States have called for a clear timetable to restore parliamentary rule, and Saied himself has repeatedly promised further details of his plans, he has also scorned demands for a sheet. road, saying those who wanted one should “look in their geography books”.
In this context, the announcement by Saied, Monday, December 13, of a calendar for the political future of Tunisia could appear as a step forward. He said there would be an online public consultation on a revision of Tunisia’s constitution starting in January; that a commission would be appointed to draft the proposed amendments before a referendum in July; and that legislative elections under a revised electoral law would take place in December. The calendar is loaded with political symbolism, as the date of the July referendum marks the anniversary of his suspension from parliament, while elections are due to be held on the same date as the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in 2010, which had triggered the Tunisian crisis. revolution. The implicit connection between these two actions gives a measure of Saied’s sense of his own importance.
If the announced end of the irregular and uncontrolled management of the country by Saied is welcome, it is nevertheless very delayed; Saied’s map traces a very long path. Moreover, his timetable means that the process of revising the constitution and drafting the electoral law for the legislative elections will take place while he retains the monopoly of power in Tunisia. The only gesture to involve other actors in the process is the online public consultation, which is now open. There is no indication that other political groups will play a role in shaping the country’s new political settlement. Saied has already made clear that he views Tunisia’s political parties as illegitimate and corrupt, and his rule over the past six months has displayed utter disregard for any notion of inclusive or pluralistic governance.
Moreover, Saied followed the launch of his roadmap with an intensified campaign against his political opponents, led by interior minister Taoufik Charfeddine. In late December, Interior Ministry agents arrested an Ennahda party leader and a former government security adviser; both are under house arrest for alleged involvement in terrorism, but without any legal proceedings. Former President Moncef Marzouki was recently sentenced to four years in prison in absentia (he currently lives in Paris) for undermining the country’s security from abroad after attacking Saied’s power grab.
It is unclear what constitutional changes Saied’s committee will propose, but he has long opposed the very idea of a directly elected national parliament, preferring a model of direct democracy in which elected local assemblies appoint representatives to a weak national body. Comparative constitutional scholars suggest that his preferred model might bear some similarity to the system that existed in Libya under the leadership of Muammar Gaddafi, which is hardly an auspicious precedent. In any case, there is little doubt that the president will emerge with vastly strengthened powers.
International reaction to Saied’s roadmap has been muted but largely positive. The US State Department said it welcomed the announcement of a timetable for political reform and legislative elections and looked forward to “a reform process that is transparent and inclusive of diverse political voices and Civil society”. This may be an attempt to exert influence by expressing positive expectations, but it nevertheless comes across as naïve. A stronger statement would have said that the credibility of the process depends on the participation of a wide range of political groups and civil society. He did not appear to condone the year-long delay in restoring political representation. A public statement by G7 ambassadors to Tunisia, issued just days before Saied’s announcement, called for a “rapid return to functioning democratic institutions”, and it is hard to see Saied’s plan meeting that standard. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio called for a return to “full democratic normality with full respect for fundamental rights and the promotion of stability”, but focused more on migration during a recent visit to Tunisia.
In Tunisia, at any rate, the president’s apparent fixation on constitutional reform risks appearing eccentric when set against the population’s overwhelming concern for the economy and living standards. The dismal state of Tunisia’s public finances has led it to approach the International Monetary Fund for a new aid program, and public spending will have to be reduced. Saied gave no indication of a program to improve the economic outlook and many Tunisians expect an upsurge in public protests in the coming months. In addition to expressing concern about the President’s lack of political representation and unchecked power, Tunisia’s partners should also clarify that repression of public demonstration or freedom of expression would not be compatible with democratic values that the Tunisian leader claims to espouse.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent the views of its individual authors only.