After the medical coup of 1987, the constitutional coup of 2021?

On November 7, 1987, Tunisians woke up to the news that the “Father of the Nation” Habib Bourguiba had been deposed. On July 26, 2021, they wake up to the freezing of Parliament. 

By Vincent Geisser*

Vincent Geisser-RR

It is still too early to comment on the way President Kais Saïed will use Article 80 of the Constitution. In principle, it can be activated only ” in the event of imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutionsor the securityor independence of the country, and hampering the normal functioning of the state.”

However, despite the social, economic and health hardships faced by Tunisia for several months, we are far from being in a situation of danger (war, foreign invasion, full institutional deadlock, etc.).

Three scenarios :

1- RESTORATION OF AUTHORITANISM: the first stage of a real “Sisi”-style coup equals to a scenario aimed at establishing an authoritarian presidential regime, backed internally by the army and the security sector and externally by such foreign powers as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that have never accepted the slightest democracy in the Arab world and are therefore willing to break off the Tunisian experience even through the most brutal repression.

2- TUNISIAN DEMOCRACY’S SHIFT TOWARDS PLEBSICITE referring to the dream of the President of the Republic to create a new “democracy” based on a kind of trust between the head of the executive (the President) and the people. This would imply an in-depth reform of the Constitution of January 26, 2014, considerably reducing the powers of the Parliament and the Government and accordingly lead to a constitutional referendum in the medium term.

3- ESTABLISHMENT OF TEMPORARY BALANCE OF POWER: The President intends to exploit the social and health crisis situation to force the parliamentary majority to a political compromise more favorable to the presidential bloc, temporarily neutralizing the action of political parties, particularly Ennahdha. From this temporary balance of power, the President hopes to strengthen his popular base and impose his views, without deeply affecting the constitutional edifice.

“If President Kais Saïed relies on an “Egyptian scenario” ending the democratic process, he would probably face a real resistance from large segments of Tunisian society”

These three scenarios are, surely, not mutually exclusive. They can be intertwined.

In any case, the future belongs to Tunisians. The Tunisian society is no longer the same as in Ben Ali’s years. Fear has changed sides: it is no longer on the side of the people but of the rulers. It is clear that if President Kais Saïed relies on an “Egyptian scenario” ending the democratic process, banning parties and repressing the opposition, with the support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, he would probably face a real resistance from large segments of Tunisian society, including among anti-Islamists, who are nevertheless supporters of the January 14, 2014 democratic Constitution. 

Tunisians are strongly attached to their unique democratic destiny and they do not want their country to become a pale copy of Sisi’s Egypt, let alone the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia. The patriotic pride of the Tunisians now hinges on the unconditional defense of their democracy which they have shown the entire Arab world the way to.

Vincent Geisser, July 26, 2021.

Vincent Geisser is a researcher at the CNRS, specialist for Tunisia, he wrote several books on the country, including, co-authored with Amin Allal (ed.), Tunisie, une démocratisation au dessus de tout soupçon? Paris, CNRS Editions, 2018, 480 p.

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