The fog of war in Ukraine has inevitably overshadowed remarkable developments in the Maghreb, where recent steps taken are likely to have long-lasting consequences. The case of Tunisia, where on 30th March President Kais Saied ordered the dissolution of the parliament, is particularly noteworthy, as it shows how political tensions brewing in the country have finally reached a tipping point. In a televised statement during a meeting of the National Security Council, Saied invoked art.72 of the Constitution to justify his decision, describing the move as vital to preserve the State and its institutions.
Nevertheless, a quick look at the constitutional article in question immediately raises serious doubts about the legitimacy of the presidential decision, once again. Indeed, Saied is not new to extensive and controversial interpretations of the charter, an issue that already came to the fore last year during Tunisia’s constitutional crisis.
In the absence of a Constitutional Court, yet to be established and that could have a final say on the matter, the dissolution of the Assemblée des Représentants du Peuple (ARP) could well indicate the increasing political isolation of Saied, upset by the severe shortcomings of the presidential roadmap announced at the end of last year. Only 530.000 people (7% of the total population) took part in the online national consultation process that wound down on 20th March, the same day in which more than 2.000 people rallied against Saied. The protest was organised by opposition parties such as the Islamist Ennahda and a popular movement known as Citoyens contre le coup d’État, but it is interesting to note that even political milieus that have been more than lukewarm towards Saied’s power grab have become more defiant. On 13th March the anti-Islamist and nationalist Parti Destourien Libre (PDL), led by Abir Moussi, staged a protest against the President’s rule, calling for snap general elections to be held earlier than December, as originally scheduled.
Sensing that his roadmap had started to lose momentum and facing the challenges coming from a revived ARP (which had just resumed activities online since the parliament’s building in Tunis remains closed), Saied’s swift retaliation underlines his deep antagonism towards the checks and balances commonly adopted in democratic systems and his constant undermining of the principle of separation of powers emerged several times during his mandate, including the dissolution of the Supreme Judicial Council by presidential decree last February.
While Tunisia struggles to extricate itself from a protracted state of exception, the exacerbation of the conflict between State institutions comes at the worst possible time. Indeed, widespread disillusionment pushing people to the street is not only driven by the uncertain political trajectory of the country, currently characterised by the implementation of an increasingly authoritarian project; but also, by its economic trajectory, which has raised several red flags. As Tunisian officials are negotiating a crucial deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on which the powerful Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) has already expressed conspicuous reserves, the consequences of the war in Ukraine on the import of wheat and energy prices are already being felt, laying the groundwork for more turbulent times ahead.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region