Tunisian justice points to Islamism and opens investigation against Ennahda over foreign funding

Uncertainty mounts in Tunisia as President Saied's coup d'être is over
Rached Ghannouchi

PHOTO/REUTERS  -   The President of the Parliament, Rached Ghannouchi, in the Parliament building in Tunis.

A decade after the outbreak of the Jasmine Revolution, the match that lit the fuse of the Arab Spring, the first and only Islamic country to witness democratic openness is experiencing decisive days for its future. President Kaïs Saied's coup d'état to Tunisia's political scene has put the international community on edge and opened a period of constitutional crisis that must be resolved in the next 30 days. 

Saied assumed full powers on Sunday after dismissing the prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, and suspending parliament for a month. The president also dismissed the ministers of defence, interior and justice and decreed a curfew in force until 27 August, along with a ban on gatherings of more than three people in public places. On Tuesday, Saied also dismissed more than 20 senior government officials, including the attorney general.

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PHOTO/ TUNISIAN PRESIDENT'S OFFICE/via REUTERS TV - Tunisian President Kais Saied addresses the nation in this picture taken from the office of the Tunisian President, Tunis 25 July 2021.

In this context, the deputy prosecutor of the Tunisian Court of First Instance, Mohsen Dali, announced on Tuesday the opening of an investigation against Ennahda and two other political parties for "financing from abroad and accepting donations for electoral campaigns", part of the main bloc in parliament.

The Tunisian president, a profile far removed from the establishment and with no political platform behind him, took the controversial decision in response to the wave of demonstrations against the health and economic management exercised by Ennahda's Islamist government, which took place last Sunday in Tunisia's main cities. He announced this in a televised speech that same night after holding a meeting with his hard core at the Carthage Palace. 

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AFP/ FETHI BELAID - In a photo taken from President Kais Saied's television channel, President Saied (2R) announces the dissolution of parliament and Prime Minister Mechichi's government as he sits with his military staff.

After hearing the news, thousands of Tunisians once again took to the streets. Some to celebrate; others to protest against Saied's pardon. The clash highlighted the deep social fracture the country is experiencing after more than a decade of crisis and political instability. Clashes soon broke out between Saied's supporters and Ennahda's followers, so far without serious incidents.

The cause behind this social eruption points to the devastating COVID-19 crisis. In the last seven days, the North African country has recorded more than 64,000 new infections and 2,317 deaths, 164 of which were recorded on Tuesday, one of the highest mortality rates on the continent. Others, however, focus on the precarious economic situation and the scarcity of job opportunities. Ten years ago, the figure of Mohamed Bouazizi symbolised the feelings of a generation faced with a lack of opportunities. Today, with the overthrow of the regime that kidnapped them, the situation does not seem to have changed: youth unemployment stands at 40.8% and the economy contracted by 8.8% of Tunisia's GDP in 2020.

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PHOTO/REUTERS - Supporters of Tunisia's President Kais Saied gather in the streets as they celebrate after he dismissed the government and froze parliament, in Tunis, Tunisia July 25, 2021

The problems plaguing Tunisia are structural and deep-rooted, at least that is President Saied's diagnosis. The austere constitutional law professor, with no previous political experience, campaigned in the 2019 elections to amend the 2014 constitution - of which he was one of the drafters. Saied, 63, swept the polls with more than 72 per cent of the vote by rallying voters disenchanted with the system.

In this sense, Saied's justification for arrogating full powers to himself lies in Article 80 of the Marga Charter. This title states that the president of the republic may take exceptional measures "in case of imminent danger that threatens the institutions of the nation or the security or independence of the country, and that hinders the normal functioning of the state", a field open to interpretation.

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PHOTO/REUTERS - Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist party Ennahda

However, the content qualifies that the decision should be issued "after consultation with the head of government and the president of the Assembly of People's Representatives and informing the President of the President of the Constitutional Court", criteria that have not been implemented. Firstly, because of the growing distrust between Saied and the Islamist executive, as well as the total disconnect with the Speaker of Parliament, Rachid Ghanuchi, himself a founding member and leader of Ennahda. Moreover, the Constitutional Court does not even exist.

Saied conveyed to civil society that the emergency situation was temporary and assured that he would protect "the democratic path". Ghannouchi, for his part, accused the president of staging "a coup d'état" and called on his activists to demonstrate to "recover democracy and the revolution". The intensity of the criticism of President Saied has subsided in recent hours. Part of the opposition has given him its support, while the other half advocates a "constitutional meeting".

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PHOTO/REUTERS - Demonstrators clash with police during an anti-government protest in Tunis, Tunisia, Tunisia, 25 July 2021.

Part of public opinion is critical of the ruling party. Known as the Renaissance Party and inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, Enhada represents Tunisia's main political force and has been present in every government since 2011 until coming to power alone in 2019. In a traditionally secular country, Enhada professes a strong political Islamism that forced it to withdraw from the Troika in 2013 after being accused of instigating the assassination of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, two leftist leaders. However, the party ended up forming a coalition government a year later with the main secular party.

Serious allegations of infiltration of the security forces and the judiciary did not prevent Ennahda from winning the 2019 elections. After the elections, the party took on the task of governing in a parliament with more than 30 political forces, the most fragmented in its history. In this scenario, the inability to reach agreements and allegations of corruption led to the resignation of Prime Minister Elyès Fakhfakh in 2020.

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PHOTO/REUTERS - Former Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechich

It was Saied himself who nominated the technocrat Mechichi, then interior minister, for the post of prime minister. Once in office, he weaved alliances with various parties against the president's line. Mechichi accepted Saied's decision and announced that he would facilitate the transfer of power. "I have taken decisions that are unpopular in the eyes of some," he acknowledged, although he qualified that these were necessary given the state's limited capacities and deteriorating economic situation. 

International reaction

International reactions were swift. The first to speak out were the media in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, who welcomed President Saied's decision. Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo linked Enhada to the Muslim Brotherhood and accused him of fomenting terrorism. All three reject political Islam outright. 

Tunisian Foreign Minister Othman Al-Jarandi has taken this line and sought to reassure his regional neighbours. Al-Jarandi has held a series of telephone conversations with the Saudi, Emirati and Kuwaiti authorities, among others. The diplomat's aim was to send a message of calm and to win the backing of his partners.

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PHOTO/AFP - Libya's new foreign minister, Najla al-Manqoush (left), meets with her Tunisian counterpart, Othman Jerandi, in Tripoli.

For his part, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, has stressed in a statement on behalf of the EU-27 that democratic roots, such as respect for the rule of law and the constitution, must be preserved at all costs, while at the same time heeding the demands of Tunisian society. A society that seems to be demanding winds of change.