Since the start of the year, political tensions have run high in Tunisia, resulting in an unprecedented institutional crisis that is threatening the only democratic success story stemming from the Arab Spring. President Kais Saied’s constitutional suspension has created considerable uncertainty, being perceived as between the continuation of the democratic experiment and the feared re-appearance of authoritarian pulses. Unfortunately, the lack of meaningful reforms has stalled the economic transition, making Tunisia over reliant on the loans from international financial institutions. Against this backdrop, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing socio-economic grievances, offering a springboard to advocation of power by Saied this summer.
On 23 August, the state of exception has been extended indefinitely. The measures, firstly announced on 25 July, include: the suspension of the parliament until further notice; the lifting of the immunity of the members of the Assemblée des Représentants du Peuple (ARP, the Tunisian parliament) and house arrests and travel bans of opposition MPs, businessmen, officials and judges.
These measures have been criticised by non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International that have called on the President to respect the right of Tunisians to freedom of movement. Saied invoked art.80 of the 2014 Constitution allowing exceptional measures to be taken in the case of an imminent danger to the national security. However, provisions in the same article, requiring that the parliament should be deemed in a state of continuous session throughout such period and that the president cannot dissolve it, reveal a controversial interpretation of the law, on which a Constitutional Court should have a say, if it only had been established.
At the same time, the dissolution of the coalition government led by Hisham Mechichi shed light on the ongoing political contention, that polarised the political scene and put Islamist parties into a corner. Facing mounting internal pressure and calls to step down, the ARP speaker Rachid Ghannouchi has been forced to reshuffle the executive committee of Ennahda and create a crisis committee, promising change and more accountability, also on rumoured corruption scandals. In this challenging political climate, Ennahda is likely to maintain a low-profile, as already occurred in the past.
Nevertheless, adopting a non-confrontational stance with Saied will bear its fruits only in the long term, considering a changing regional landscape that is proving extremely detrimental to political Islam and its supporters. Even before Saied’s extension of the exceptional measures adopted in July, diplomatic activity was already very indicative. As Tunis was announcing an urgent review of its trade agreement with Turkey, that has close ties to Ennahda, due to a widening trade deficit, a visiting Saudi delegation was pledging assistance and expressing full support to the president.
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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