As the Tunisian Leader Tightens His Rule, Some Worry When Democracy Will Return

Saied is still popular, but his latest moves may test the people’s patience

As the Tunisian Leader Tightens His Rule, Some Worry When Democracy Will Return
President of the Republic of Tunisia Kais Saied on June 03, 2021 in Brussels, Belgium / Olivier Matthys / Getty Images

On the steps of Tunis’ municipal theater, a cluster of people gathered on Sept. 25 in a show of support for their president, Kais Saied, who days before had announced a new constitutional order that would strengthen his hold on power and essentially suspend Tunisia’s post-revolutionary constitution.

“Tunisia is free,” they shouted. “We want Kais Saied!” Encircled by journalists, a man in a check shirt took out a lighter from his breast pocket and set a copy of the 2014 constitution alight.

The next day, thousands of anti-Saied demonstrators stood on the same spot, chanting “Constitution, Freedom, National Dignity,” while waving copies of the very same text.

“We thought Kais Saied was a man of the constitution. A man who would respect the constitution and would put a stop to this corrupt system of governance,” said one protester, 40-year-old Afef Hamdi. “But he has switched 180 degrees. He is dangerous.”

“After this new decree, we are going back in time,” said Wabil Dridi, a local shopkeeper. “I lived under the Ben Ali dictatorship. I don’t want my children to live under another dictatorship.”

The two protests illustrate the rift in Tunisian public opinion that has crystallized since July 25, when Saied abruptly dismissed the prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, froze Parliament and took on all executive powers. After Saied announced his plans for a new constitutional order on Sept. 22, these fault lines grew, and more Tunisians are now taking a stand against the president whom they see as laying the groundwork for a return to autocracy.

Still, popular support for Saied’s decisions has endured, as indicated by the jubilant celebrations on July 25, subsequent opinion polls and even the briefest conversations with people on the street. Many blame corrupt, self-serving politicians for a decade of chaotic governance and economic turmoil, while some feel that Saied needs to break Tunisia’s democracy in order to rebuild it.

But as the summer draws to a close and with urgent economic deadlines on the horizon, how long will mass support for the president continue? What are the political implications of Saied’s latest decree? And does that decree signal a return to despotism or is Tunisia’s democratic transition on pause?

Saied has said that his measures were necessary and that he acted in the name of the people. It was the dire state of economic and political affairs, as well as the government’s disastrous response to COVID-19, he said, that pushed him on July 25 to invoke the constitution’s Article 80 — an emergency article intended for times of crisis.

In the two months since his consolidation of power, Saied has elicited little popular opposition. Many are happy to see the demise of Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, and the country’s much-hated political elites. They are relieved to see an end to the parliamentary infighting that teetered between violence and the absurd. Over the summer, the country also witnessed a miraculous turnaround in its COVID-19 response, after a deadly fourth wave crippled the health system. Preceding July 25, for example, just 8% of Tunisians had been fully vaccinated; that rate has now shot up to 33%. Many associate this success with Saied taking the reins. His pledge to tackle corruption and retrieve an alleged 13.5 billion dinar ($4.8 billion) of stolen money — alongside a request to local businesses to drop their prices — also proved extremely popular.

“The politicians stole our money. Money that should have gone to us, to our schools and hospitals,” Hedia, a 64-year-old pensioner, told New Lines while shopping for groceries in a Tunis suburb. “I just want one president to control everything, not 50 who steal from us.”

Ahmed Sassi, a teacher and pro-Saied activist from one of Tunis’ working-class neighborhoods, said that Saied is following a vision that he’s had in mind from the beginning; Sassi feels that Saied is fulfilling his promises.

“Saied is in the middle of preparing a truly representative democracy that gets rid of the parliamentary system that did not benefit many Tunisians,” he said.

However, the initial optimism and hope for meaningful change is now beginning to erode, replaced by a growing sense of unease as Saied dragged his feet on announcing a new government or a roadmap out of Tunisia’s multiple crises. Several MPs and businessmen have been put under house arrest, while a longer list of people, including entrepreneurs and athletes, have also been hit by a strict no-fly order that Saied imposed after July 25, a measure he said he took to fight corruption. Many people, including businesspeople and athletes, have also been hit by a strict no-fly order that Saied imposed after July 25, a measure he said he took in his fight against corruption. Saied’s rhetoric during rare public appearances has become increasingly divisive. And, with negotiations with the International Monetary Fund on pause and national budget and debt repayment deadlines looming, he has yet to tackle the most pressing issue of all — the economy.

Now, Saied’s most recent decision — known as Decree 117 — has marked a decisive break with the period of ambiguity that allowed him to enjoy varying levels of support following July 25. The decree gives legislative power to the president and gives Saied the ability to rule by decree. Crucially, these decrees are not subject to judicial review.

While the decision, which like Article 80 is framed as a temporary measure, does not formally suspend the constitution, and Saied maintains that its first two chapters (a section on general principles and rights) will remain in place, it nevertheless states that the rest of the constitution is only applicable if it doesn’t contradict Decree 117. Saied also prolonged the freeze on Parliament and announced plans for the creation of a constitutional committee to work with the president on the constitutional amendments, paving the way for a possible referendum as well as reform of the electoral law.

With Saied’s appointment on Sept. 29 of Najla Bouden as the head of government, it is unclear what her prerogatives will look like or whether she will be able to act independently from the president, given that executive powers are now fully concentrated in Saied’s hands.

Constitutional lawyer Zaid Al-Ali said that Tunisia is now in “unchartered territory … almost without parallel in comparative practice or in Tunisia’s modern history.”

Now solely in control of both the executive and legislative branches of government, Saied, according to Al-Ali, has immunized himself from all forms of judicial review, and it will be Saied, and Saied alone, who will interpret the new constitution.

“We are now in a situation where just one person has decided unilaterally to get rid of a good chunk of the constitution, to cancel out all the state institutions and to concentrate power in such a way that it strictly rids the system of checks and balances on him,” said Selim Kharrat, a board member of democratic watchdog Al Bawsala.

Further highlighting the murky legal implications of the decree, Kharrat added: “From a legal perspective we can’t do anything. He put the constitution below his own decisions. So we don’t even have the possibility for legal appeal in the framework of the justice institutions to limit the powers of Kais Saied. It means that he leaves his political adversaries with only radical solutions.”

Al-Ali said that the president’s defenders point to the supposed interim nature of both Article 80 and Decree 117. “The problem is that there’s no time limit; they haven’t set a time frame at all. And once again, this is a matter that is left to the president’s discretion.” Al-Ali added that it could take “years” for the president to review the constitution, the political parties law and electoral law, if he so chooses.

In response to Decree 117, a joint statement by a group of NGOs, including the Tunisian Network for Transitional Justice and Lawyers Without Borders, on Sept. 27 denounced the “unprecedented confiscation of power” by the presidency that “threatens the democratic aspirations of the Tunisian people.” Tunisia’s League of Human Rights has also publicly demanded a clear timetable for the end of the “exceptional measures” and has urged Saied to reconsider Decree 117. More political parties have called for an end to Saied’s exceptional measures, and on Sept. 28, four minor political parties announced a coalition to counter Saied’s “coup” and asked for others to join them.

“I thought that 25 July was a good step; it put a stop to the masquerade of parliament … but I am opposed to this decree,” said Tunisian lawyer Slim Laghmani, emphasizing the need for greater democratic participation.

Up until this point, Saied’s most vocal critics have predominantly included deposed parliamentarians, supporters of Ennahda, civil society and Tunisia’s intellectual class. Pointing to the 3,000-strong, anti-Saied protest on Sept. 26, which was the largest demonstration of any kind since July 25, Laghmani said that it is important to make the distinction between those protesting on the street and the people at large. “The street is made up of those who have the ability or desire to leave their home to go out and demonstrate; that is not by any means all citizens,” Laghmani said.

Political analyst Tarek Kahlaoui said that a seismic political shift such as that of July 25 was inevitable: “What we had achieved was a functional but corrupt and inefficient democracy. It had become an elitist process, resolving issues amongst a few people and not realizing any major economic or social reforms. People did not really see the difference living in what a supposed democracy offered.”

Kharrat, meanwhile, speculated that Tunisians are more concerned about tangible improvement to their daily lives than constitutional amendments and that Saied’s support could dwindle if he does not deliver quickly on economic demands. And that clock is ticking.

“At the moment he is benefiting from the doubts, he is benefiting from people saying, ‘Let’s allow the president to work — we will see what happens.’ Because they do not want to return to the situation preceding 25 July: a return of Ennahda and their allies, to the violence that took place at the heart of Parliament, to a government that couldn’t manage the health crisis as a result of which hundreds of Tunisians died,” explained Kharrat.

“I think this popular support doesn’t necessarily mean an adherence to Kais Saied’s project but more to the fact that he changed things, he made a decision, and he took a step forward,” Kharrat added.

Another reason for the lack of widespread popular backlash in the days following Decree 117 could be that some view Tunisia’s 2014 constitution as flawed and unrepresentative.

“This constitution had its flaws — notably, the chapters that organized the legislative and executive powers. We have seen that in practice this represented a problem that was translated into the conflicts experienced under the last three presidencies: power was not allowed to be concentrated into one single part, but that fear meant that power became too diluted and too diffused between the three parts,” Kharrat explained, pointing to successive governments’ failings of the past decade.

Al-Ali said that the main flaw of the constitution was that it was a product of a deal between warring political forces “whose only interest was to make sure they were able to cohabitate, without being in violent conflict.”

He added: “The problem is that the uprising that took place in 2011 wasn’t motivated by those concerns. The uprising was motivated by poverty, inequality and the absence of opportunity for poor people. Instead of redesigning the relationship between the individual and the state, all the parties did was renegotiate the relationship of state institutions with each other.”

Indeed, Sassi described the 2014 constitution as “a symbol of the corrupt political elites.”

“Those who were elected to formulate it only acted in their own self-interests. It was very vertical. People were tired of this system. Saied wants to change things in line with the will of the people,” Sassi said.

The country is now at the mercy of the decisions of one man and those he appoints.

With the introduction of Decree 117, Tunisia is certainly in a more vulnerable position politically than it was following July 25. The country is now at the mercy of the decisions of one man and those he appoints. Saied’s increased political isolation, reticence to consultation and opaque communication style do little to alleviate the growing unease, observers have said.

Kahlaoui, however, suggested that Saied is highly sensitive to being characterized as a despot or anti-revolutionary and has been careful to take steps to avoid that — such as his deliberate decision to not formally suspend the constitution.

“In fact, he wants the opposite: He wants to monopolize the ideas of the revolution,” Kahlaoui said.

“Saied’s intention is that these measures are a continuation of the revolution — and that includes adherence to democracy — but he believes that the former political system does not allow for a true democracy,” Kahlaoui explained. “Between intentions and the outcome, there are sometimes some gaps, so time will tell if this is the case.”

Kharrat, meanwhile, has said that it is too soon to characterize Decree 117 as a step backward for Tunisia’s democracy. According to Kharrat, future laws and future decisions, such as the composition of the new government and a clarification of their powers and roles, will confirm this.

Kharrat continued: “The question is whether these will exacerbate the anxieties of lots of Tunisians today in regards to the concentration of powers in the one hand of Kais Saied. Will Saied start to become more open? Will we see more dialogue, in order to reassure those with these concerns?”

His words reflect a certain feeling of the moment, boosted by Saied’s appointment of the Arab world’s first female prime minister; a sense that perhaps it’s not too late, that there’s room to believe Saied could reverse his changes.

“It is too early to say that it’s a step backwards, but we can say that Tunisia’s democratic transition process of the last 10 years has come to a halt,” Kharrat said.

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