Tunisian president clings to absolute power

A month after granting himself exceptional powers, Kaïs Saïed has neither appointed a new prime minister nor presented his roadmap

Ricard G. Samaranch
3 min
Tunisian President Kais Saied is protected by security guards on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis.

TunisTunisian President Kaïs Saïed seems to enjoy exercising absolute power so much that he finds it hard to let go of it. On Monday, just before the one-month deadline he had set himself, Saïed decided to extend the "exceptional measures", decreed by himself on the basis of a very forced interpretation of an article of the Constitution designed for cases of "imminent danger" to national security. Among the measures adopted was the freezing of parliament and the assumption of full executive powers after replacing the prime minister, Hichem Mechichi.

Although the head of state had been expected to address a message to the nation for days, the extension of this period of exceptionality was made through a message posted on the Facebook page of the Presidency at midnight. However, the note assured that the president would appear in "the next few days". Despite pressure from Western chancelleries and Tunisian civil society to appoint a new prime minister and present his roadmap, Saïed has done neither.

In fact, Saïed has not even clearly explained the "dangers" that led him to resort to Article 80. The country has been experiencing a serious political and economic crisis for months, compounded by a virulent summer wave of covid-19 infections. This week, however, Saïed has attacked Tunisia's political class as a whole, suggesting that their incompetence could be the reason for his coup d'état. "With the way they work, the political institutions are a danger to the state. Parliament itself is a danger to the state".

Broad popular support

According to polls, the president enjoys broad support among a population fed up with the corruption and mismanagement of the political class that has ruled the country for the past decade, that is, since the revolution that dethroned the dictator Ben Ali. Precisely, Saïed, a 63-year-old independent who swept the 2019 presidential elections, owes much of his popularity to his reputation as a man of integrity and austerity.

According to rumors circulating in Tunisia, the prestigious governor of the Central Bank would have responded to Saïed's offer to lead the government with a programme, which would not have pleased the president. "This man doesn't want to consult anyone, he hasn't even received a representative of the political parties! He only allows himself to be advised by a very small circle of advisors", says the leader of one of the country's main civil society associations, who is as worried as the opposition about a possible authoritarian drift by Saïed, who has always insisted that he does not aspire to become a dictator.

Last Thursday, Amnesty International warned the head of state about the arbitrary nature of some of his anti-corruption measures. "We have found that dozens of people have been prevented from leaving the country without any clear reason, without knowing who has taken the decision and against international standards and even the country's own law", says Tunisian Amna Guellali, vice-president of this NGO in the region, who describes the profile of those affected as "politicians, businessmen, senior officials".

During a recent visit to Tunis airport, Saïed assured that freedom of movement was in force in the country. "The only people affected by the travel ban are those who are wanted by the justice system, suspected of corruption, or who have to regularise their situation before the justice system", he said. Even so, most of those affected do not have any known open cases.

One of the "exceptional measures" Saïed took last month was to lift the immunity of deputies. A dozen of them have been arrested - although most of them have since been released - or placed under house arrest. Among them is Yosri Dali of the ultra-conservative Karama Coalition. "I've been under house arrest for a week and I still don't know why. They haven't shown me any court order", he complains in a telephone conversation.

Some senior officials, such as former Chawki Tabib, are also under house arrest. Rumours suggest that the reason is revenge for uncovering a corruption scandal that led to the resignation of the former prime minister, Elies Fajfaj.

Despite this scenario, there is a sense of calm on the streets thanks, above all, to the fact that the main opposition party, the moderate Islamists of Ennahda, have refrained from mobilising their militants for fear of triggering a civil confrontation. Moreover, the party is very weakened and is going through strong internal turbulence that has led its leader, Rached Ghannouchi, to dismiss the executive committee.