Tunisia’s Political Turmoil: Announced a 30-day Suspension of the Parliament
Complex geopolitical dynamics behind the institutional crisis. What is going on in Tunisia is much more the result of geopolitical balances in the region than a circumscribed institutional confrontation.
On Sunday 25th July, Tunisian president Kais Saied dismissed Hicham Mechichi’s government and announced a 30-day suspension of the Parliament, along with a lifting of the immunity of its members.
This comes after wide-spread protest around the country, during which demonstrators denounced the inability of the government to deal with the difficult situation Tunisia is currently facing.
More precisely, the Tunisian crisis, which has been defined by several analysts as the worst one since 2011, develops on three interconnected levels: healthcare, economy and politics.
As regards the health sector, the nation is witnessing the gradual collapse of its hospital system, due to one of the highest level of mortality and infection of coronavirus in the region, in the face of a still low immunisation rate across the population.
Turning to the economy, COVID-19 containment measures and the drop in tourism connected with the pandemic have led to skyrocketing unemployment (16,1%), to a 34% decline in per capita income, and to a sharp increase in public debt (from 39% to 112% of GDP).
Finally, with respect to politics, the previously latent contrast between the presidency and the premiership is finally coming to the surface, as it had already began to in January 2021, when the two insitutions clashed over the composition of the cabinet.
Now going back to the event of July 25, Mr. Saied has justified his actions by invoking Article 80 of Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution, which, “in the event of imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions or the security or independence of the country”, entitles the President of the Republic to “take any measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances”. To date, the constitutional legitimacy of the move is still being debated: on the one hand, there is Mr. Saied, who argues for the need of such an intervention in order to settle the current institutional impasse and put an end to rampant corruption; on the other hand, some constitutionalists denounce the lack of the necessary conditions for the implementation of Article 80, being neither the health crisis nor the ongoing political turmoil equivalent to a direct threat to institutions or state security.
Predictably, particularly opposed to the President’s decision is Rachid Ghannouchi, the speaker of the Parliament and leader of Ennahda, Tunisia’s largest political party. To him, the happenings of last week amount to a fully-fledged coup, not dissimilar from he toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood that took place in Egypt in 2013. What is in any case certain, irrespective of the legitimacy of the parliamentary recess, is that the President has taken advantage of an institutional vacuum that plagues the country since the entry into force of the 2014 Constitution.
Indeed, the Constitutional Court, theoretically in charge of resolving this sort of conflicts among institutions, has never been nominated, with the works for its establishment having being repeatedly hindered even by Mr. Saied himself. Against such a backdrop, if the fragility of Tunisian democracy was already well known, all its limits are now coming to light, to the point that they cannot be further ignored.
This said, while most observers have so far focused on the flaws of Tunisian democratic check and balances, discussing whether Tunisian exceptionalism has effectively come to an end, the role of external powers in the affair has gone largely and mistakenly neglected. Quite the opposite, what is going on in Tunisia is much more the result of geopolitical dynamics in the region than it is a circumscribed institutional confrontation.
Specifically, as the Italian analyst Dario Fabbri has pointed out, President Saied’s act can be deem as an attempt to curb Turkish influence over the country. In fact, Ankara has lately been seeking to expand its political clout in North Africa and, in Tunisia, it has done so through Ennahda, which is closely linked with the Turkey-dependent Muslim Brotherhood.
In view of this, rather than a coup d’état, the seizure of power by President Kais Saied is plausibly an effort to prevent an Islamist takeover, and thus repel any looming Turkish meddling in the country. In this endeavour, Mr. Saied will likely find support from France, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, all countries that share an interest in ousting the Turks from the region.
Such an interpretation of the facts appears to be corroborated by the recent visit to Tunis in June this year by the French Prime Minister Jean Castex, presumably aimed at reminding Tunisians about the deep relationships that binds Tunis to Paris. By the looks of it, President Saied seems to get the message, but from now on much will depend on how far is Ankara willing to go to prevent its grip on Tunisia being severed.