The public scene in Tunisia has changed since President Kais Saied charted the democratic path on 25 July 2021 through issuing the Presidential Decree No. 117 of 2021 to build the New Tunisian Republic that is different from the pre-25 July Tunisia.
Political forces are divided about this path, which raises questions about the indicators of the New Republic, positions of the domestic political forces, and the potential scenarios of the situation of the state given the divergent positions and visions.
Indicators of the New Republic
President Saied took steps towards correcting the democratic trajectory in Tunisia, issuing the Presidential Decree No. 117 of 2021, which stipulated for transferring the parliament’s legislative powers to the President and the prime minister of the Tunisian Cabinet and the President’s signing of the legislative texts and publishing them in the Official Gazette of the Republic of Tunisia in the form of decrees after deliberation by the Cabinet.
While some saw this decree as an indication of the excessive concentration of power and consolidation of authoritarian rule, it was, indeed, motivated by the political crisis that was about to take Tunisia to a gloomy path, dissipating what the Tunisian people did in the Jasmine Revolution on 17 December 2010, where political tensions have exacerbated between the regime on the one hand, and the Ennahda Movement on the other, particularly since the suspension of Tunisia’s parliament. These tensions mounted following the announcement of suspending the Legislative Branch on 30 March through Presidential Decree No. 309 of 2022, following a coup attempt by the dissolved Parliament Speaker Rashid Ghannouchi who called for a virtual session that was attended by 121 parliamentarian out of 217 and chaired by the Parliament’s Deputy Speaker Tariq Al-Fetiti in an effort to cancel the exceptional measures taken by Kais Saied, which Ennahda and pro-parties considered a grave breach and a violation of Article 80 of the Constitution.
Following Kais Saied’s decisions, a state of controversy arose in Tunisia’s interior over his administration of the State through presidential decrees, starting from the exceptional measures that were taken in July 2021 and further extended on 24 August, involving suspension of the powers of the parliament, suspension of the judicial immunity for members of the parliament, removal of the Prime Minister Hisham Al-Mashishi from his post, and appointing Najla Bouden to serve as a head of the government. Building upon this, a roadmap was announced on 13 December 2021 that dictated the continued suspension of the Parliament till organizing new elections, arrangement of constitutional consultations, conducting a referendum on the constitutional amendments on 25 July 2022, and holding the legislative elections on 17 December 2022 under a new legislative law.
Over the past period, there have been ongoing conflicts between the Head of State, Head of Government, and President of the Parliament, which urged President Saied to take these measures on 25 July, to correct the political course in Tunisia, by eliminating the previous system that gave rise to parliamentary fragmentation, growing party conflicts, government instability, and political and economic crises.
The 2019 elections did not produce an overwhelming majority, which made formation of the cabinet very complicated, where the political calculations dominated paths of its formation, as has been evidenced in the formation of previous governments of Habib Jemli, Elyes Fakhfakh, and Hichem Mechichi. This situation necessitated correcting the path and finding solutions to the congested political situation, the deteriorating economic situation due to the financial crisis and the outbreak of Covid-19, and the rise of unemployment rate to 17.8 percent in 2021 and poverty to 3.7 percent in 2020, according to World Bank estimates. Perhaps the second aid package of the European Union to Tunisia amounting to €300 million and provided last May might contribute to alleviating the crisis.
Complementing the corrective steps towards building the New Republic, President Saied announced the appointment of Brigadier General Sadeq Belaid, as the Chair of the National Consultative Commission for the New Republic. The Commission is projected to submit its report to the President on 20 June. This decision came after consultations in the cabinet meeting on 19 May and the issuance of two decrees, the first relating to the creation of the National Consultative Commission and the other pertaining to a draft presidential order on a referendum to be conducted on 25 July. During a meeting of the President with the Chairman of the Independent High Authority for Elections on 18 May, it was emphasized that all obstacles would be eliminated in order to complete the elections and conduct them under favorable conditions. Then, Presidential Decree No. 32 of 2022 on the exceptional provisions for the referendum on the constitution was issued, stipulating that the new draft constitution be published after the referendum, no later than 30 June 2022.
Decree No. 30 of 2022 issued on 19 May stipulated that the National Consultative Commission be established and that it shall submit a proposal on a draft constitution for the New Republic to be submitted to the President. The Commission shall also put forward suggestions in the political, legal, economic, and social spheres. The Commission shall comprise the following committees:
- The Consultative Committee for Economic and Social Affairs: It will make proposals on the aspirations of the Tunisian people, particularly in light of the economic crisis Tunisia is suffering. This committee comprises the Tunisian General Labor Union, the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fisheries, the National Union of Tunisian Women, and the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights.
- Legal Advisory Committee: This committee comprises deans of the faculties of law and political sciences. It undertakes preparing a draft constitution that responds to the aspirations of the Tunisian people and guarantees the principles of justice and freedom in a true democratic system.
- The National Dialogue Committee: It comprises members of the previous committees and brings together proposals submitted by each committee towards establishing the New Republic.
The New Republic will be guided by the people’s majority and will be based on solid foundations that help achieve the integrity and continuity of the state and ensure Tunisians’ right to a decent life, building upon a referendum on the political system, the electoral law, and the new draft constitution on which the advisory body is based. Additionally, the New Republic shall be based on dialogue and citizen participation in building their country, particularly given the positive outcomes of the e-consultations, the citizens’ positive participation in these consultations, and the high voter turnout on the need to change the political system in Tunisia by 86.4 percent. During President Kais Saied’s statement, it was emphasized that the national dialogue would be one of the main mechanisms of the New Republic, with the participation of four institutions, namely the Tunisian Labor Union, the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Bar Association, while excluding those who contributed to the destruction of the state.
In the same vein and towards complementing the corrective path and tackling corruption in the state, President Saied used the powers assigned to him under the exceptional measures to enable the state to survive its crises. The latest of these steps was the adoption of a decision on 1 June 2022, to dismiss 57 judges from their positions, including primarily the head of the dissolved Supreme Council of the Judiciary Youssef Bouzakher, former head of the Court of Cassation Tayeb Rashid, and former undersecretary of the State Bashir Al-Akramy for their involvement in financial and administrative corruption cases, collusion with external parties, and disruption of terrorist tracking efforts, including primarily the assassination of activists Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid since 2013, which has not been resolved until this moment.
Additionally, a resolution was issued to prevent the head of the Ennahda movement Rashid Ghannouchi and 33 others from traveling abroad. The President also issued Decree No. 22 of 2022 on the Independent High Authority for Elections, appointing seven of its members, in an attempt to avoid the stalemate that prevailed before 25 July, by selecting trusted figures to supervise the upcoming elections, given the fact that institutions were previously based on the common interests of the ruling class and partisan quotas, and hence there has been fear that the previous election commission would reproduce the system that prevailed before July 25.
Discussions of the current national dialogue is likely to revolve around changing the political system and introducing some amendments to the electoral law given outcomes of the e-consultations that were conducted in March, where 86.4 percent of the participants supported a presidential system (preferring the individual-based voting systems by 70.7 percent), 60.8 percent favored amending the Electoral Law, 44.4 percent favored amending the Parties Act, 38 percent favoring amending the Constitution, and 26.5 percent supporting amending the Associations Law.
President Saied’s decisions triggered mixed reactions among the political forces, where dozens of citizens and representatives of human rights organizations protested in the capital on 9 April and in Sfax on 17 April, driven by the difficult living conditions and high inflation, and calling for bringing the constitutional path back. Additionally, there were demonstrations on 20 March, rejecting the decision to dissolve Parliament.
At the political elite level, the Tunisian General Labor Union (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail; UGTT) was supportive of some steps and critical of others, as has been evidenced by the statement of its National Administrative Department, stressing and supporting dialogue as a way out of the crisis that Tunisia is going through yet criticizing Decree No. 30 on the establishment of the National Consultative Authority for being declared without prior consultation or agreement, failing to respond to what the national forces were waiting for. However, the UGTT supported the decisions taken by the President on 25 July, refusing the return to the pre-25 July era that was dominated by failure and stressing the need to confront advocates of chaos who impinged on democracy through state agencies.
The UGTT statements made it clear that it does not tend to privilege one party over another and rejects any form of proforma hasty dialogue where roles are unilaterally defined and some civic and political forces are excluded. According to the statement of the UGTT Administrative Department on 27 May, the dialogue which President Kais Saied called for will not help diffuse the State’s crises but will rather deepen them. The UGTT rejects participation in the dialogue as declared in Decree No. 30, which requires coordination and consultation between the presidency and the UGTT, being the primary trade union organization, to avoid political stalemate.
Turning to the opposition parties, the Secretary-General of the Republican Party Issam Chebbi said that the July 25 trajectory would be disastrous for democratic transition and would give rise to a new republic that is only compliant with the perspectives of the President. As such, the party rejected participating in the national dialogue and referendum and plans to mobilize the political forces to stand up to this trajectory. Such opposing positions reflect the precariousness of the trajectory that may drift into an escalating and catastrophic one, taking the state backward and exacerbating its crises. Similarly, the National Salvation Front (NSF), which is headed by Ahmed Nejib Chebbi and comprises the Ennahda Movement, Amal Movement, Movement Party, Dignity Coalition, Heart of Tunisia party, Citizens Against the Coup movement, National Salvation Gathering, Tunisians for Democracy, Reunion for Tunisia initiative, Youth Gathering for Democracy and Social Justice, and the Coordination of Parliament Representatives, announced its rejection of the national dialogue.
The NSF was formed a few days after President Saied announced amending the Law on Electoral Authority and it aims at forming a transitional government for salvation to manage the transition until holding the elections at a later date. The NSF considered Decree No. 30 of 2022 as a de facto one, endorsed the statement of deans of the faculties of law and political sciences, rejecting participation in the legal Committee, and supported the petition signed by dozens of academics and former deans who refuse involving universities in the existing plans of the regime to unilaterally change the country’s constitution.
Furthermore, the Ettakatol party, headed by Khalil Al-Zawiya, objected to the establishment of a third republic without involving the various parties, seeing this as entrenching the authoritarian regime and promoting a return to dictatorial rule during the period from 1959-2010. The head of the Democratic Current Party Ghazi ash-Shawashi indicated that the amendments the president is making to the Law on Elections and Referendums are tailored to fit his purposes, noting, “We will work to bring this referendum down. The President despises all parties and organizations and will not engage them in the dialogue, and seeks to build a new Republic similar to that of Muammar Gaddafi.”
As for the Free Constitutional Party, it rejected the path taken by the President as well as the Presidential Decree No. 506 of 2022 and demanded that the President retreat, stressing that the party will not remain silent on the grave violations committed by the president.
That said, some political forces supported the decisions taken by President Saied and expressed their rejection of counter-demonstrations, under the slogan “You are demonstrating for a party, and we are demonstrating for a homeland”. For instance, The People’s Movement called for launching a national dialogue to break the exceptional measures and start the construction phase, provided that the President speed up the announcement of the legal committee and start the national dialogue to overcome internal and external pressures. Likewise, the majority of members of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights supported participation in the national dialogue but had reservations about the limited timeframe for committees and lack of clarity as to the tasks assigned to them, calling for refraining from interfering in the committees’ works, providing them with the financial and logistical support, and stressing the need to discuss the economic, social, political, civil and environmental rights-related rights towards establishing a republican system and a democratic civil state that respects human rights.
In view of these positions, the possible paths for Tunisia can be identified as follows:
Path one: The state’s possible drift towards instability or political stalemate, given the growing opposition of parties and political forces to policies of President Saied. These forces will likely hinder the path pursued by the President through different means, including vote rigging, inflaming the street, adopting violence, pressuring the regime through external forces, or boycotting or derailing the elections, particularly given their ability to capitalize on the pressing economic crisis and the societal tensions due to the difficult living conditions and the unions’ non-alignment to the policies adopted by the regime.
Path two: The state’s move towards completing the path pursued since July and proceeding with the remaining steps, i.e. pulling the national dialogue off, conducting the constitutional referendum next July, and holding the legislative elections next December. This path may be motivated by President Saied having power over the executive and legislative authorities, the support of several forces for the corrective measures, and their refusal of a return to the pre-25 July era, including primarily the UGTT, notwithstanding its impartial stance towards the national dialogue as there is, overall, an opportunity to handle the outstanding disputes between the Presidency and the primary trade union organization in Tunisia, through coordination and consultation with the presidency towards a consensual vision that serves the interests of the state.