Kais Saied blazingly overrides the Constitution and strengthens One-Man Rule

  • Kais Saied to rule by decree, extend the freeze on Parliament.
  • Opposition describes it as a ‘coup’ and power grab. 
  • Points to a larger trend of democratic backsliding

Why is President Kais Saied’s temperature BLAZING?

Answer: President Saied is strengthening his one-man rule through a ruling by decree and through freezing Parliament. He has become the sole executive power in Tunisia at the moment. 

On the 22nd of September, Tunisian President Kais Saied announced that he will rule the country by decree, solidifying his power and allowing him to appoint members of the cabinet and set policy while bypassing parts of the constitution. The announcement was made in a series of tweets where the President also extended the 30 days frozen status of parliament and disallowed parliamentary immunity from prosecution. The news comes after Saied’s decision to dissolve Parliament on July 25th and to dismiss Prime Minister Hechmi Mechichi, a move that caused speculation by many and uproar across the world

Criticism from the media, opponents, former allies, political parties, and even supporters have coined Saied’s actions as a “coup” and many see it as an attempt to strengthen his one-man rule. However, on multiple occasions, Saied has defended his actions by stating he is not acting like a dictator and instead aims to change the political system to transform Tunisia into a ‘true democracy’ envisioned in the Arab Spring.

Saied, who was previously under pressure by western donors and political players in Tunisia to elect a new government and name a Prime Minister, elected the country’s first female prime minister this month. A geology professor and women’s rights activist with no previous experience, Saied seems to be avoiding electing anyone that could be a potential rival within his government. 

Who is changing Saied’s temperature?

Answer: The socioeconomic crisis that led to widespread anti-government protests and the 2014 Constitution supported Saied in being able to accumulate all executive and legislative powers. 

By the time Saied was elected in 2019, Tunisia had already seen a decade of high unemployment, incessant corruption, increasing poverty, as well as political deadlock that led to widespread anti-government protests across the country this year. Dissatisfaction in the political system was primarily focused on the Ennahda party, the largest in Parliament and the status quo party since the 2011 Arab Spring that ousted long-standing President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The developing lack of trust in the government was due to an overall decline in public service quality, the country’s state of economic stagnation, and the government’s poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This prompted Tunisians in July to sound a call for the dissolution of parliament, the removal of Hechmi Mechichi as Prime Minister, a call for early elections and overall social and economic reforms. The movement was already there, Saied just had to channel it towards action.

Therefore, when President Saied announced the dissolution of Parliament and Mechichi’s removal from office, protestors celebrated the President’s sweeping decision. The protests gave the President the legitimacy and space to accumulate not only all executive power but also control over the three branches of government since Tunisia’s constitution splits powers of the executive between the President and Prime Minister. With the Parliament out of the way and public opinion on his side, Saied turned to bypass the constitution to rule by decree and realize the political transformation he was propelling.

However, since his decision to rule by decree, more than 2000 Tunisians have protested against Saied, denouncing him for ‘stealing’ the 2011 revolution while political parties have been uniting against him, accusing him of carrying out a ‘coup against democratic legitimacy’ and describing his actions as a ‘clear tendency towards absolute authoritarian rule.’ 

However, Saied argues that his actions were legal as they fall under Article 80 of Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution that grants the President ‘exceptional powers in cases of imminent danger.’ According to Saied, disbanding Parliament, and subsequently deciding to rule by decree, was ‘necessary to save the country from an economic and social crisis.’ Therefore, the use of the constitution as a strategic tool has allowed Saied to become the sole decision-maker in the Tunisian political scene, strengthening his one-man show.

The new measures taken by Saied go beyond the steps he took in July. Saied is currently only abiding by the preamble of the constitution and certain clauses that do not limit his executive and legislative powers and has added certain rules in the gazette that grant him almost unlimited power. Although Saied did not put any time limit on his seizure of power, he said he would appoint a committee to help draft amendments to the 2014 constitution and establish “a true democracy in which the people are truly sovereign”. While critics question whether the president has overstepped the use of this article, the absence of a constitutional court in Tunisia means that the matter cannot be disputed.

What is driving Saied?

Answer: Saied, isolated and a one man show, is driven by the resurrection of the Arab Spring to return power to the Tunisian people. 

Kais Saied, a professor of law, was elected in 2019 after campaigning on an anti-corruption stance. He successfully distanced himself from the ‘despised elite’ that had dictated Tunisian politics since the Arab Spring. To Saied’s supporters, his electoral win was likened to ‘a new revolution’ in Tunisia as he represented the ignition to restart the 2011 revolution.

To his opposition, he is ‘inexperienced, isolated and uncompromising’ and they fear that he will turn autocratic although Saied himself denies this characterization. Saied confides in a close circle and maintains few relationships, many assume that he is the one making all the decisions right now as he continues to fail to meet with Tunisian political leaders or labor unions for weeks on end.

As a professor of law, Saied argues that he knows legal texts very well, has studied and admires the US Constitution, and, therefore, has no intention of turning into a dictator like many before him. In fact, in an interview with the New York Times, when prompted about his ‘autocratic tendencies,’ Saied quoted Charles de Gaulle when he said “Why do you think that, at 67, I would start a career as a dictator?” This was Saied’s way of convincing the public that he will not strip away the hard-fought freedoms of Tunisians.

According to Saied, it is not personal ambition that drives him, but “a sense of responsibility and religious duty to return power to the youth and the poor who ignited Tunisia’s 2011 revolution.” His sincere nature has placed him in some sort of a demagogue position. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: It undermines the democratic efforts made in the Arab Spring and points to an overall trend of ‘democratic backsliding.’

Most succinctly, this was not supposed to happen. For years Tunisia has been celebrated as the success story of the Arab Spring, the only country to see a movement towards “true democracy” that has been working. Saied’s power grab is seen as threatening this success and all other democratic efforts envisioned in the Arab Spring. The fear remains that if Tunisia experiences degradation of the country’s democratic successes, then it threatens the stability of the region and questions the depth and longevity of the democratic transitions in other Arab countries.

Not only can it set a dangerous precedent for the region, but the speed at which democratic principles and the balance of powers are being eaten away within Tunisia point to a trend of “democratic backslidingwhich, if kept unchecked, is likely to land Tunisia in the same fate as Turkey under Erdogan and Hungary under Orban. 

This reality would also implicate Tunisia’s relations with foreign powers, most specifically the US, who is clinging desperately onto the ‘lone democracy’ in North Africa, previously supporting its transition to democracy and security efforts to combat violent extremism. With Biden’s focus on a ‘values based’ foreign policy, the question begs how much longer the US is willing to support Tunisia in its efforts of democratization under a President who seems to be bypassing those sanctified values of democracy.

And for Tunisia’s two main Gulf Partners, the decisions of Saied are likely to reverberate across Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as Tunisia plays a central role in understanding the implications of the Arab Spring, worsening political and economic deadlock, and the future of political pluralism in the Middle East. 

Although previously undisputed, it might be time to question the ‘success story of the Middle East as a means to understand Saied’s current decisions. 

Arielle Combrinck

Research & Analysis Member