Tunisia: A 'Caesarian' moment without a Caesar: Part II

Tunisia: A 'Caesarian' moment without a Caesar: Part II
8 min read
30 Jul, 2021
Opinion: If this historical moment demands a Caesar-like figure, no plausible candidate has appeared yet to offer a way out of the impasse, writes Thierry Brésillon.
On 27 July, 2021, Tunisian president Kais Saied announced by decree the suspension of the operation of public establishments and administrations as he dismissed the government and froze parliament. [Getty]

This is Part II. Read Part I here.

Kais Saied for a new political regime

Kais Saied casts himself in this role. Since his election, he has presented himself as the protector of the state and popular sovereignty in the face of enemies he has not explicitly defined, but who he describes as agents of corruption working secretly against the country's interests. The implicit target of many of his attacks is the Ennahda party.

He has sought to exploit all possible ambiguities in the constitution in order to increase his presidential powers. Most recently he used a broad reading of Article 77 to wrest authority over the internal security forces from the prime minister.

His attitude, intransigent and isolated, has provoked incomprehension and worry. More used to leaders who seek alliance and compromise, many members of Tunisian political and diplomatic circles are interrogating the president's intentions, which remain blurred by the cryptic nature of his statements.

Saied is said to have told the general secretary of the Tunisian General Trade Union, the UGTT, that he wished to return to an amended version of the 1959 constitution. He did not specify the nature of these amendments. This is a constitution that he himself declared was "tailor made for one man and one party". 

He said in January 2014 that "the constituents [of 2014] adopted the same approach, but tailored several suits, each customised for the balances of power that resulted from the vote of 23 October 2011. Future elections will lead to future tugs of war, because of the changes in the political equilibrium that happen over time. The absence of any political will for genuine renewal of the system and the creation of a new regime to break with the past is clear."

The president has not relinquished the project on which he based his campaign, characterised by this desire to "break with the past". He has demanded an "inversion of the pyramid of power", a new form of representation which circumvents political parties, which starts from the local and extends to the national, and confers new popular power to remove and replace politicians.

During a meeting with former government heads on 15 June, he said, "The meaning of my mandate is the pursuit of the ideals of the revolution by means of a respect for institutions."

"Kais Saied relies on the double dynamic of his direct popular legitimacy and the deterioration of the legitimacy of parliament to present himself as the only possible saviour of a moribund regime"

He was more explicit than usual on this occasion on what he understands to have led to the crisis, saying, "I'm open to dialogue, but real dialogue is not an abject and desperate attempt to give legitimacy to traitors and thieves… the most important chapter of any dialogue will be that which envisages a new political regime, a new electoral code that makes every elected member accountable to their electors. It should discuss the transition from this situation to a new situation, one that does not rely on transactions, either internally or with foreign powers."

With these words, he set himself apart from the prevailing political dialogue of 2013, a "consensus" imposed from above, consisting of accommodations between old elites trying to recycle themselves and new elites from Ennahda trying to integrate themselves. It served to calm the political waters, but the first legislature to result from it (2014-2019), proved incapable of creating reform or satisfying popular expectations, and was punished by the electorate in 2019. 

By demanding an end to the transactional dimension of the transition to democracy, Kais Saied mounted what appears to be a direct challenge to state corruption, in terms of collusion, both with the business world and with foreign powers.

An isolated president 

Kais Saied relies on the double dynamic of his direct popular legitimacy and the deterioration of the legitimacy of parliament to present himself, at a moment of heightened tensions, as the only possible saviour of a moribund regime. But this positioning at the centre of the "current of history" may not be enough to assure his passage.

Tunisia's foreign partners, by nature recalcitrant towards political adventurism, do not trust him. The Tunisian establishment views him as a dangerous madman with repressive impulses. No media outlet, party or intellectual has disseminated, explored, or supported his ideas. He has access to no insiders in the political machine who might help nudge the direction of travel, at this key political moment of acceleration, in his favour. Beyond the rejoicing on the evening of his election and the civic campaign that followed it, no popular movement has emerged to turn the support he received from the electorate into action.

"The constitutional court, which the article specifies should be instructed after thirty days to verify the foundation of these 'exceptional circumstances', does not exist"

In May, Middle East Eye published a document leaked from the presidential office which exposed a plan, not for a coup d'etat as such, because no authority was to be deposed, but for the activation of Article 80 of the constitution. This article confers on the head of state full powers to tackle an "imminent danger… that is impeding the workings of the public authorities". 

This would be a step into the unknown, because the constitutional court, which the article specifies should be instructed after thirty days to verify the foundation of these "exceptional circumstances", does not exist.

Nothing in the unsigned document gave an indication of its status; whether it was advice that had been solicited by the presidential office, or at what level it had been discussed. 

The president confirmed that he knew of its existence, but had decided not to pursue the idea. 

Perspectives

More interesting is the question of what was intended by the leak: Ennahda did not use it as an opportunity to engage in public hostilities towards Kais Saied or to remind him of his commitment to a negotiated solution. The party did, however, make its concern known to foreign ambassadors. The appearance in black and white of a plan for a constitutional coup served to release anxieties that had been simmering for months. Most of all, it swept the rug from under Kais Saied's feet, obliging him to distance himself from the plan.

The army: a safe investment 

As part of his campaign to be seen as the embodiment of a unified state, Kais Saied often made public appearances with the army, from whom he was evidently seeking support for his positioning of himself as the sole bulwark against the "regime of the parties". 

The army, however, kept its distance. The idea of a direct military intervention on the Tunisian political scene is fairly improbable. Unlike in Algeria or Egypt, where the interests of the army are vital to the survival of the regime, the Tunisian army prefers to exert persuasion on political actors to stabilise institutions. 

At the end of May, a group of retired army generals addressed an open letter to Kais Saied asking him to make concessions to overcome the political impasse. Which position army officers would align themselves with, if the situation remained blocked and they had to get more involved, remains unknown.

"Abir Moussi's antics have given her a certain notoriety (opinion polls place her at the top for the next legislative elections) but have not helped her credibility, including amongst many older members of her party, who see her as an upstart"

In the meantime, the role of the army is more one of symbolic capital, a safe investment, and one which the other candidates for the role of Caesar are also attempting to cash in on.

Throughout the 2019 presidential campaign, Abdelkrim Zbidi, the last defence minister to Béji Caid Essebsi, held his public meetings in front of huge portraits of senior military leaders. However, this symbolism did not appear particularly successful for him; he finished in fourth position, with 10.7 percent of the vote.

The former admiral Kamel Akrout, a previous military advisor to Béji Caid Essebsi, is open about his political ambitions and is currently positioning himself with an eye on the next presidential election. For the moment, he continues to add his voice to those demanding the current president use his powers, in particular through the national security council, to find a route out of the crisis.

Abir Moussi (C), president of the Free Destourian Party (PLD), during a parliamentary session. [Getty]
Abir Moussi (C), president of the Free Destourian Party (PLD), during a parliamentary session. [Getty]

More folkloric in style, Abir Moussi, the leader of the Free Destourian Party, regularly appears at street demonstrations wearing military fatigues. The former under-secretary-general of the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD in its French acronym), the party in power before 2011, she seeks to capitalise on the deteriorating social situation and nostalgia for the security of a police state. She relies on the two pillars of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's presidency: the visceral hatred of Ennahda for part of the electorate and the support of key police trade unions. With six deputies in parliament, she has been active since the start of the legislative term in obstructing the business of the house. 

For several weeks she sat in parliament in a helmet and bullet-proof vest. She regularly interrupted proceedings by shouting through a megaphone. Her antics have given her a certain notoriety (opinion polls place her at the top for the next legislative elections) but have not helped her credibility, including among many older members of her party, who see her as an upstart. 

If this historical moment demands a Caesar, no plausible candidate has appeared yet to offer a way out of the impasse. There have been calls since 2015 for a "re-presidentialisation" of the political regime. Not in the style of the US, where the president at the head of the administration must work with a Congress invested with strong powers of control, but rather a re-imagining of the Palace of Carthage with renewed authority and effectiveness, as the formal centre of leadership of the state and the informal focus of political and economic arbitration. The pandemic has shown that a presidential regime amplifies the leader's errors more than it assures the efficacy of public actions.

Thierry Brésillon is a journalist, reporting from Tunis.

This article was originally published by our partners at OrientXXI.

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.