The president of Tunisia, Kais Said, focused all attention on his country when on July 25, 2021 he suspended the functions of Parliament and assumed the main powers of the State. This 64-year-old jurist based his decision on a controversial interpretation of article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution, which allows the president to take “exceptional measures” in a situation of imminent danger to the country. The “exceptional” context was the health crisis caused by the pandemic, and the institutional confrontation between the presidency and Parliament. Until then, the president’s powers were limited above all to security and foreign policy. Nine months have been enough for Said to dismantle the constitutional architecture of the only country where the Arab Spring and monopolizes a good part of the three constitutional powers. But none of Said’s actions have detracted from his popularity.
Hassen Zargouni, director of Sigma, the main Tunisian polling company, told this newspaper after the dissolution of Parliament at the end of March that the president had the support of 66% of the citizens and an intention to vote of 88% if the presidential will be held now. Another company survey, from last December, already pointed out that 84% of Tunisians had a good opinion of the presidential regime, and 53% even very good. 95% wanted reforms of the political system in the face of the crisis the country is experiencing.
Said adopted the last drastic measure on March 30, when he dissolved Parliament after 124 of the 217 deputies of the Chamber met through an Internet application to try to annul the decrees approved by the president since he implemented the state of emergency. in the country on July 25. Said accused them of planning a coup d’état and the Ministry of Justice launched a judicial investigation against them accusing them of threatening the country’s security.
Said Benarbia, head of the Maghreb for the NGO International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), indicates in a telephone conversation that Kais Said has “systematically dismantled”, since July 25, 2021, “all the counter-powers”, all the institutions that can exercise control over its management. “He is a president who reigns by decree. His decisions cannot be contested or appealed, not even before the courts”. And he warns: “If he does not respect the Constitution, this can lead to a conflict situation.”
Regarding the dissolution of Parliament by a president, Benarbia explains that the Constitution provides for this option. “But it has to be produced outside the state of exception. And then, the president would have to organize legislative elections in the shortest possible time. But we continue in a state of exception that was never lifted.”
The Tunisian essayist Mehdi Kattou indicates in an email that the dissolution of Parliament seems very serious to him, but he warns that, in his opinion, it is not the first “transgression”. “The average Tunisian sees it rather as a relief, because he believes that deputies are the source of all evil. And people expected such a decision on July 25 [de 2021]when he suspended his functions, not eight months later”.
Join EL PAÍS to follow all the news and read without limits.
Along the same lines, Youssef Cherif, director of the Tunisian branch of the Columbia Global Centers university center, considers that with the dissolution of the Chamber the president certifies a “fait accompli”, after suspending his functions when he assumed full powers. But he warns that the door is opening to new dangers. “If Kais Said prosecutes the deputies and they end up in jail”, he warns, “this could provoke demonstrations by Ennahda [partido islamista]a rejection by part of public opinion, and international consternation, and lead to further isolation of Tunisia”.
Cherif assures that the president is still popular and could assume the imprisonment of the deputies. And he believes that the dissolution of Parliament can be beneficial if Said announces early elections within three months, as the Constitution contemplates in this situation. Cherif believes that this would be a way to get the country out of the “constitutional mess” in which it finds itself. But Said has already assured that he will not call legislative elections in the next three months.
The dissolution of Parliament comes on top of other drastic measures. Thus, in February, Said closed the Superior Council of the Judiciary (CSM), an independent body created in 2016 and made up of 45 magistrates, which is responsible, among other functions, for appointing judges. And in September, Said already approved a law that authorizes him to govern by decree in matters as sensitive and disparate as the organization of information, the press and publishing, the organization of political parties, unions, associations or the organization of the Army.
On this occasion, President Said was counting on the explicit support of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), the main trade union in the Arab world, with more than a million members in a country of 11.8 million, to dissolve Parliament. population. The general secretary of this organization, Nordín Tabubi, made a call on March 29 to dissolve Parliament and organize early elections. He claimed not to understand Said’s hesitation in making the decision. “If the president cares about reassuring foreign sectors, avoiding dissolving Parliament, this must end,” he declared.
The general secretary of the UGTT sees in Parliament the incarnation of the political system that Said decided to fight by suspending his functions. At that time, 76.8% of Tunisians supported the president’s decision in the polls, according to the Sigma company.
The essayist Kattou believes that the objective of the UGTT is to get out of this transition period. “The union’s appeal is far from being an endorsement of the president. Because what the UGTT really wants is for the political panorama to be clarified, in one way or another”.
Said announced his road map last December, which provided for an online consultation as a first step to ask the population, among other questions, if they preferred a presidential system of government. The current one is a mixed regime between the parliamentary and the presidential. 86.4% of the participants opted for the presidential system, according to official data. The problem is that participation has been very low: only half a million people over the age of 16. In the last presidential elections, in 2019, there were seven million Tunisians over the age of 18 with the right to vote.
This low turnout has not discouraged the president, who intends to hold a referendum on July 25 on his draft constitutional reforms. The next step will be the calling of legislative elections for December 17. Until then, Said himself will continue to assume legislative, executive and judicial powers.