The political storm in Tunisia continues unabated. Since President Kaïs Saied assumed full powers in July 2021 after establishing a state of emergency, dissolving the government of former Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspending parliamentary activity on the grounds of 'protecting the state' in a context of institutional weakness, the country has been going through a crisis at all levels, the outcome of which remains a source of deep concern for the international community. The gradual authoritarian drift led by Saied points to imminent constitutional reform.
The 64-year-old professor of constitutional law, a member of the committee of experts that participated in the drafting of the Magna Carta adopted in 2014, now wants to dismantle the document in order to build a new text that would eliminate the deficiencies that, according to him, hinder the development of the small North African nation, plagued by a pressing political division since the 'a priori' successful revolutionary outbreak of 2011, which took place in the framework of the Arab Spring and ultimately initiated the phenomenon.
Embarked on his crusade against corruption, the Tunisian leader sought to unilaterally establish a new presidential system, similar to the French one, in order to put an end to the flawed distribution of power that had resulted from the last Constitution, which divided authority into legislative, executive and presidential institutions without limiting their prerogatives. A triad that, coupled with rampant Islamist corruption, blocked political initiatives to solve multiple social problems. But external pressure has pushed Saied to involve civil society in the process.
The national dialogue took the form of an online popular consultation, a digital survey issued in January in which the president, who has ruled by decree since July, sought to gather the concerns and proposals of Tunisian citizens through some 30 questions related to six key issues: politics, quality of life, the economy, sustainable development, social affairs, and education and culture. The presidency also sought to find out which political regime the respondents preferred.
But the referendum was a failure. Only 500,000 Tunisians took part during the two months it was available, half a million out of a population numbering almost 12, a derisory 5% of the electorate, according to government statistics. The low turnout could be due to the widespread problems of internet access suffered by part of the population, especially those living in rural areas, although analysts point to popular weariness and the growing disrepute of the president, who is incapable of fulfilling his promises of improvement, as a more plausible hypothesis.
Tunisia's economy remains stagnant. Unemployment is rising and the state has fallen behind in paying civil servants' salaries. Commodity prices, already high, have soared again as a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. This has pushed the country into the arms of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with which it is negotiating a desperate bailout on condition that subsidies and wages are cut, measures that are harmful to the middle and lower classes.
In the roadmap outlined by Saied, who for months has amassed omnipotent power, a constitutional referendum was planned for 25 July - coinciding with the anniversary of the coup - and legislative elections for 17 December. But these plans were challenged by parliamentarians, who held an extraordinary remote meeting last week to annul all presidential decrees adopted during the state of emergency.
As many as 121 of the 217 deputies in the Islamist-majority House of Representatives took part in a move described by Justice Minister Leïla Jaffel as a "conspiracy" to reverse Saied's measures. And the president responded forcefully by decreeing the dissolution of parliament, eight months after freezing its activities, in a measure aimed at halting the attempted "coup d'état", according to the president. An action that pushes for legislative elections to be held within 90 days.
But the president has once again contravened the current constitution, which he describes as "illegitimate", in order to avoid an early election. "Those who dream of the application of Article 89 of the Constitution are deluding themselves," Saied said, stressing that the 17 December date for the elections would be maintained. This decision was made public after a meeting with Prime Minister Najla Bouden, and was supported by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the country's largest trade union.
On the occasion of the parliamentary session, the anti-terrorist brigades summoned the leader and founder of the Islamist Enhada party, Rachid Ghanuchi, also the president of parliament, to appear last Friday for having rallied lawmakers to vote unanimously against Saied. The other 121 deputies who took part in the session have been summoned to testify on Monday before the courts, which will deliberate on Tuesday whether the action constitutes a crime. But it will not be the Supreme Council of the Judiciary (CSM), the highest judicial body in the country, that will rule, but a "temporary" substitute, as it has also been dissolved.
Kaïs Saied preserves an agenda aimed at undoing the institutions with the connivance of the security forces. The charisma-poor constitutional law expert, who swept the 2019 presidential elections with more than 70 per cent of the vote, maintains his aseptic and forceful image against corruption, as well as the support of the majority of the Tunisian people. Away from the language of populism, his reserved mood has allowed him to undertake his post-revolutionary state reform in the face of warnings from the international community.