Is Kais Saied’s Incremental Power Grab Failing to Impress Tunisians?

President Kais Saied of Tunisia is still going, sometimes with an apparent strength, despite all the rejections and disdain he has received lately from different political quarters inside the country. His planned next step is to have Tunisians go to the polls for a referendum on a new constitution. On July 25, the anniversary of…

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Dr Mustafa Fetouri

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President Kais Saied of Tunisia is still going, sometimes with an apparent strength, despite all the rejections and disdain he has received lately from different political quarters inside the country. His planned next step is to have Tunisians go to the polls for a referendum on a new constitution. On July 25, the anniversary of Mr. Saied’s power grab of 2021, voters are asked just one question: do you approve of the new constitution? The document itself is yet to be written and published for people to study.

Doing things in reverse order, by having a referendum on something yet to be written, is a clear way by the President of measuring the public mood before he goes ahead with something concrete. But it is also a risky political manoeuvre as it could backfire if the Tunisians reject the idea itself – an unlikely outcome, although it is difficult to be certain. If things go according to his plan, Tunisia will have a new constitution for what the President calls “new republic.” This will replace the 2014 document approved by the majority of Tunisians in October of that year.

In preparation, the President dissolved the country’s elections commission and reassembled it to his satisfaction by appointing Farouk Bouasker as its head, along with seven other members, most of whom have been members of the dissolved body.

The irony here is that he has repeatedly accused the Commission of not being independent – hard to substantiate this accusation since he was elected President under the same commission he just dissolved.

Since July, Mr. Saied has been running the country by decrees, without any due democratic process in what opponents describe as a coup against the State, which he claims to be safe from disintegration.

If the July vote comes out in favour of the new constitution, that would pave the way for his next step which is to restructure the entire political system in the country by holding legislative elections based on the new constitution on 25 December. This would bury, once and for all, the 2014 Constitution blamed by Saied and many Tunisians for the country’s ills – particularly the political inter-party bickering during most of the previous years that brought the country to a standstill.

Mr. Saied, still popular, making it possible for him to dismantle what he usually describes as a “corrupt” democratic process in Tunisia, once considered the jewel of the so called “Arab Spring” that chased former President Ben Ali out of power in an uprising in January 2011. Most democratic gains made after that uprising, are being reversed or sidelined.

Saied has been, incrementally, building political and social momentum to support his overhaul of the political system heading towards “final” victory in December with one aim: to bring back the presidential system which dominated life in Tunisia since independence – a system in which the president, not the prime minister,  enjoys stronger and wider executive powers.

Previously unknown and with no political experience, the President has been careful and overly cautious as he works to turn the pyramid of power upside down. For example, he never fully revealed his true political plan and got elected into the Presidency without any political party or any clear political manifesto spelling out his agenda. Once in power, he would usually test the murky political waters by announcing a rather populist idea and sit back, listening to the public reaction and looking for signs of approval. He kept his direct contact with the people in the country through visiting work places, meeting people on the streets and adopting a rather popular motto, largely echoing the 2011 uprising, “people want …” as his only agenda. His approval rating has slipped to only 23.2 per cent last February, but he does not seem to be bothered.

Most political parties have, so far, been critical of what they call Saied’s “coup” which saw almost all of them banned, however, implicitly. They have been sidelined from any consultations on any of the President’s decrees, starting with suspending the democratically elected Parliament last year.

As of yesterday, major political parties have formed what they call “National Salvation Front” to counter his “populist project”, which they accuse of seeking to “destroy State institutions”. The new political alliance, led by veteran politician, Ahmed Najib Chabi, includes En-Nahda Movement – the party with a majority in the dissolved parliament.

In another rebuff to Saied, Tunisia’s powerful General Labour Union (UGTT), which appeared to be supporting the President before, has decided to boycott his proposed “national consultation” accusing the President of acting unilaterally. In further escalation, the Union called for a general strike on 15 June, putting more pressure on the government at a time of serious financial stress.

Tunisia’s accumulated problems remain, overwhelmingly, economical with its tourism sector, the main hard currency earner, badly hit because of the COVID-19 pandemic and unstable politics. Unemployment stands at 16.1 per cent, while ordinary Tunisians find it hard to make ends meet, particularly after the war in Ukraine put further pressure on world commodity prices, driving consumer prices very high. The country imports some 80 per cent of its wheat from Ukraine, Russia and Europe. In 2020, the total wheat imports cost the treasury some $476 million, while the forecast for 2022/2023 projects an increase in imports, as the political uncertainty in the country makes farmers more cautious and risk-avert, sowing less land than they usually do. This will mean more hard currency spent on imports at a time when it is mostly needed.

Attempts to unlock some $4 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund have, so far, failed to reach any agreement. The main hurdle appears to be how deep reform requirements the country can afford. To pass any difficult reforms, the Fund might require the government needs the support of the UGTT to sell, what would be a hard pill to swallow.

Any reforms are likely to include the end of subsidies to certain commodities and capping the public sector pay. But UGTT has already been asking the government for a pay rise to counter the rising inflation standing at 7 per cent last April, and reinforcing its demands by the mid-June general strike.

It will be interesting to watch how Mr. Saied’s “new republic” fares out, after the July planned referendum. However it is hard to see how the President could prevail when he has, so far, failed to alleviate the economic hardships his political base has been looking for.  Ironically, the “new republic” is nothing but a return to an already rejected political system! (Memo)

[Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan academic and freelance journalist. He is a recipient of the EU’s Freedom of the Press prize.]