Tunisia on edge as deadline to end presidential control nears

It is likely President Kais Saied will extend the 'exceptional period' beyond the 30 days allowed by the constitution

The morning after July 25, when President Kais Saied announced emergency measures to consolidate power in an attempt to lead Tunisia out of its political quagmire, new security roadblocks appeared around the presidential palace in Carthage.

In the weeks since, the barriers – both physical and political – between Mr Saied and the outside world have risen higher. The president has spent much of a 30-day "exceptional period", in which he has taken all executive, legislative and judicial power in his hands, out of view of both the public and the political class.

Although Mr Saied won public support with a nationwide vaccination campaign amid a Covid-19 surge, and the easing of a curfew in the last days of the summer holiday, he has not yet appointed a new head of government nor outlined a plan to lead the country out of the crisis.

As the Tuesday deadline for the end of the exceptional period approached, politicians from across the spectrum, civil society leaders and analysts were increasingly concerned about Mr Saied's isolation and what it could mean for Tunisia's future.

'Thirty days are not enough'

Despite the lack of a roadmap out of the crisis, Mr Saied enjoys broad support from a public that largely views the current political system as ineffectual and out of touch with its needs.

“We felt like we’d been suffocating for a decade," said Saied Shoura, a supporter of the president living in the coastal city of Sfax. "We were patient for 11 years, why not one more month?”

Many supporters hope Mr Saied will follow through on campaign promises to root out rampant corruption plaguing politics and business.

One of his first moves was to offer amnesty to an unpublished list of more than 400 corrupt businessmen from the Ben Ali era in exchange for their investment in special projects in the interior. Mr Saied said the businessmen had been responsible for $4.8 billion in losses over the years.

On Friday, he dismissed the head of the government's anti-corruption bureau. Security forces had raided the bureau's offices and removed files earlier in the day.

"It is naive to think you can root out 30-plus years of corruption in 30 days," said Kais Bouazizi, a Saied supporter in the interior town of Sidi Bouzid, who said it could take months for Mr Saied to tackle the problem.

It is likely Mr Saied will extend the exceptional period beyond the 30 days allotted in the constitution, some political watchers said. The only formal body that could challenge such a move is the constitutional court, which has yet to be formed even after six years of contention around seating justices.

Earlier this year, Mr Saied blocked legislation that would allow the court's creation, saying the parliament had failed to meet the deadline laid out in the constitution.

In the first days after his consolidation, Mr Saied met leaders of civil society organisations, including Neila Zoghlami, the president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, to assure them his intentions were democratic.

But in the weeks since he has gone silent, leaving many to question what is happening behind closed doors at the palace.

“We cannot really predict what will happen at this point," said Ms Zoghlami. "The only thing we’re sure of is Saied telling us that 30 days are not enough and that he will be extending.”

A dearth of dialogue

Should the 30 days elapse without a concrete plan from the palace, Ms Zoghlami said her organisation and several others who have called on the president to swiftly form a new government will present their own "action plan".

Mr Saied has long been resistant to outside influence on his agenda or political dialogue with what he calls a corrupt system.

"The problem is, so far, Kais Saied has refused any dialogue with any political party," said Radwan Masmoudi, a member of the Ennahda party and president of the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy.

"This has been the problem not just since July 25, but since last December when everybody was calling for a national dialogue."

As Tunisia's political situation deteriorated in late 2020, the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), which won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for its role as a mediator after the 2011 revolution, called for a national dialogue.

Mr Saied balked and continued to refuse participation even as anti-government protests often aimed at his hand-picked prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, spilled on to the streets in January and February.

The UGTT declined to comment for this article, saying it will wait until Mr Saied presents a plan.

In an interview in Jadaliyya, Hamma Hammami, the head of the Workers' Party, said Mr Saied's isolationism is "disturbing".

"He has not done anything, it seems, to discuss the destiny of Tunisia with the Tunisian people themselves," Mr Hammami said.

"Saied’s preferred modus operandi is to seat people, lecture them, and then dismiss them."

Mr Saied often peppers his lectures — to ministers, foreign delegations, and even Tunisia's Olympic gold medallist — with hints of what may come.

During a recent hour-long meeting with an interim minister, Mr Saied suggested he may soon appoint a head of government. Later in the conversation, he said those looking for a road map should "consult a geography book".

A war about governing

The silence from the palace at Carthage has created fertile ground for speculation about what may happen next.

"Saied is taking advantage of that ambiguity," said Habib Sayah, a Tunisian political risk analyst.

While many are speculating how Mr Saied will pull the economy out of the tailspin or fulfil his promises to battle corruption, Mr Hammami said the president's objectives were more myopic.

"The war between Saied and political parties is not a war over differing approaches to Tunisia’s economic problems. Neither is it a war about corruption. It is, at its core, a war about governing."

Many close watchers of the president say this war is his fundamental motivation, which explains why he is not consulting with current civil society leaders and politicians.

Mr Saied has long railed against the existence of political parties and advocated for a radically decentralised government.

"Since the electoral campaign or even before he has been focusing on his vision for an entirely new regime which would involve amending or even throwing out the current constitution," Mr Sayah said.

Mr Sayah is among many who think Mr Saied will present a new constitution for a referendum, a move Mr Masmoudi called "undemocratic".

"You cannot change the constitution by referendum," he said.

Still, Mr Masmoudi is clear-eyed about the discontent Tunisians are feeling after decades of poor economic growth and increasing unemployment.

"There are a lot of reasons for people to be angry, and I agree with them that we need to reform the political system," he said. "But we need to reform it through political or through democratic means, not by destroying the democratic process."

Ghaya ben Mbarek contributed reporting

Updated: August 23rd 2021, 10:35 AM
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