Since President Kais Saied announced the suspension of Parliament and the dismissal of the Prime Minister on the night of July 25, commentators have been quick to suggest that Tunisia’s democracy is now under threat, with a coup in process. These comments are incomplete, however, and fail to take into account a decade of political failures.
To understand Saied’s decision to freeze parliament, it is important to remember Tunisia’s recent history. For the past 10 years, the political system has been dominated by the Islamist Ennahda group.
Ennahda was the most prominent party involved in writing the Tunisian constitution in 2013. Indeed, the writing committee head is still an important member in the Ennahda movement, and a relative of its leader, Rached Ghannouchi.
At that time, Saied did not participate in writing the constitution. Rather, he, as an expert and professor in constitutional law, voiced alarm at the loopholes that exist in it, calling on either Parliament to reform them or hold a referendum.
But the ruling political parties ignored his calls and instead spent time squabbling among themselves. The establishment of the Constitutional Court, which the constitution stresses should have happened in 2015, has still not been agreed upon. This failure is an important factor to remember in the current situation, as the court, according to the constitution, is supposed to act as an arbitrator between the ruling parties in the event of any dispute.
Automatically, the absence of the Constitutional Court means that the interpretation of the constitution is up to the president as its protector.
The failure to establish the Constitutional Court was not the only loophole. Saied couched the legality of his actions on July 25 in the constitution’s Article 80, which comes under the powers of the head of state and was written in a manner that leaves it open to interpretation.
This article states that, “The President of the Republic, in a state of imminent danger threatening the integrity of the country and the country’s security and independence, is entitled to take the measures necessitated by this exceptional situation, after consulting the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Cabinet.”
According to what is understood from Saied’s interpretation of the constitution, and in the absence of the Constitutional Court, Article 72 obliges him, as the Head of State, to protect the country from any “imminent danger”. But the same constitution, due to its numerous loopholes, does not provide him with the legal mechanisms to do so clearly, with the exception of taking “extraordinary measures” as according to Article 80.
Article 80 was written in a way that only protects members of parliament and did not take into consideration the possibility that parliament itself – whether through its members or its institutions – is one of the causes of imminent danger, legal experts have commented.
Saied believes that the temporary suspension of Parliament for a period of 30 days, which can be renewed until state institutions are restored to normality, is an exceptional measure, as the Article does not mention the phrase “suspend”, and as the Article is written in a way that does not explain precisely what the president should do.
The freezing does not mean the dissolution of Parliament, because its members will maintain their capacity and will return to exercising their duties in the absence of an imminent danger.
In the absence of the Constitutional Court, and following days of widespread protests, Saied took action, a move which stopped the demonstrations, and many Tunisians have since agreed with.
Action against corruption
Parliament includes a number of members who have court cases against them on charges of financial malfeasance, corruption, and suspected links to terrorism, but are protected by parliamentary immunity and have refused to appear before the judicial system.
Tunisians took the streets on July 25 to protest this complex system of clientelism and corruption – most clearly manifested in the failure of the Ennahda party to act in the face of one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in Africa. Over 19,500 people have tragically lost their lives to the virus in Tunisia since the pandemic began.
The ongoing failure of Parliament has reflected in Tunisia’s current state of affairs. The debt ratio has exceeded 100 percent. The security of the country is broken. The transportation sector has been paralyzed. Irregular immigration to the Italian coasts has reached record levels. Doctors and paramedics have emigrated by thousands, and Tunisians are dying by hundreds every day as a result of COVID-19.
Even when President Saied succeeded in securing millions of vaccines for Tunisia, the Ennahda movement turned it into a political cat fight.
While Tunisians began to notice a slowdown in vaccinations, Ennahda hinted that it might accept the appointment of one of its leaders to replace Mechichi under the banner of resolving the political crisis.
In preparation for that, the Minister of Health was dismissed, a well-known and respected military medical professional who was close to the head of state, in controversial circumstances.
Ennahda had realized that the international aid brought by Saied would improve the COVID-19 situation within a few months, which would show its new prime minister – if appointed – as a savior and thus rebuild the group’s tarnished image.
The truth was clear to Tunisians that the state was now held hostage in the hands of a small group of political elites linked to each other, legislating laws, making decisions for their own interests alone, and not in the interests of the people.
Voices rose to push the president to assume the responsibility that Article 72 of the constitution obligates him to act as the protector of the country, the preserver of its sovereignty and national security.
In response, Saied acted, and while the responsibility is now his to ensure Tunisia emerges from this crisis better than it started, the reasons for his actions are clear. Endemic corruption and political infighting have only served to hurt the Tunisian people, and so Saied did engage in a coup – a coup against corruption.