Stalemate between Tunisia’s PM, president continues with no end in sight

As political elite engages in brinkmanship, concerns for democracy grow

Tunisia's President Kais Saied gives a speech at the government's swearing-in ceremony at the Carthage Palace outside the capital Tunis, Tunisia February 27, 2020 (photo credit: FETHI BELAID/POOL VIA REUTERS)
Tunisia's President Kais Saied gives a speech at the government's swearing-in ceremony at the Carthage Palace outside the capital Tunis, Tunisia February 27, 2020
President Kais Saied and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi continue to fight over whether the president or parliament will dominate the governance of Tunisia’s young democracy.
Citing corruption, Saied has declined to swear in 11 of Mechichi’s cabinet minister picks approved by the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, Tunisia’s parliament.
Under Tunisia’s constitution, the president has the power to pick the heads of the foreign and defense ministries, while the remaining cabinet members are the responsibility of the prime minister.
Absent a constitutional court to determine which party is abiding by the constitution, the clash continues with little prospect of resolution.
“It’s a test of power between the presidency and prime minister, … and Saied is trying to prove the center of the power is with the presidency,” Dr. Mariam Selehi, a research fellow at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center who focuses on transitional justice and Tunisia, told The Media Line.
Dr. Arnaud Kurze, a professor of justice studies at Montclair State University in New Jersey and a global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, said the infighting is a product of Tunisia’s mixed parliamentary and presidential system and has no quick fix.
“A complex and intricate power struggle has been unearthed in recent weeks as a result of these underlying institutional structures,” Kurze told The Media Line.
“An easy solution to the problem is highly unlikely, with some calling for constitutional reform and others for the Assembly speaker as well as the prime minister to step down so that the president of the republic will be able to call new elections, in the hope that this will lead to an Assembly more able to put forward a working and lasting cabinet,” he said.
Analysts differ on whether the Tunisian government is on the verge of collapse.
Dr. Julius Dihstelhoff, the academic coordinator at the Merian Centre for Advanced Studies in the Maghreb (MECAM) in Tunis, believes the current government’s end is imminent.
“On the one hand, this is due to the stubbornness of Saied, who as president has an exclusive claim to constitutional interpretation as long as the separation of powers is not complete in Tunisia,” he told The Media Line. “On the other hand, Mechichi and his cabinet do not have the courage for medium and long-term structural reforms.
“Government reshuffles are the panacea for political transformation,” Dihstelhoff added.
Dr. Radwan Masmoudi, head of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) in Tunis, disagrees.
“The president’s refusal to swear in the new ministers has caused a political crisis that can undermine the work and the stability of the government, [but] I don’t think the government will collapse,” he told The Media Line.
Selehi is concerned about the government breaking down but she believes failure is not an option.
“Tunisia can’t really afford to have the government collapse right now. It was so hard to form this government in the first place. There are so many crises going on,” she said.
With little ability to end the executive branch infighting, some of the political parties that support the prime minister, including the largest, the moderate Islamist Ennahda, have called on people to protest against Saied on Saturday.
“Actions like those of Assembly [Speaker Rached] Ghannouchi calling for street protests is what some have referred to as ‘playing with the fire,’” Kurze said.
“Mobilizing voters and inciting them to demonstrate in the streets of Tunisia is a politically calculated move by Ennahda to put pressure on President Saied,” he added. “Yet in the politically charged and socioeconomically precarious context Tunisia currently finds itself, such a move could potentially backfire, causing clashes not only between security forces and protesters but also between different protest groups.”
Dihstelhoff said these events might exacerbate the violent nature of recent demonstrations.
“Any form of protest will indirectly reinforce the already existing spiral of violence that was ignited in January around the anniversary of the [2010 Jasmine] Revolution [that brought democracy to Tunisia] and which has since been perpetuated in individual places in the country until today,” he told The Media Line.
Still, Dihstelhoff does not believe that protests on Saturday will lead to anything with widespread ramifications.
“It is unlikely that the political crisis in the executive will be causal for uprisings of the ‘Tunisian street’ and thus become the direct object of mass protests,” he said.
However, for Masmoudi, the demonstrations are symbolic of Tunisia’s new form of government.
Tunisia is the only nation to emerge a democracy from the Arab Spring, a series of revolts against dictatorships across the region that began in 2010.
“Peaceful demonstrations against the government or the parliament, or in support of them, are normal and natural parts of democracy, and those who support the democratic process and the government and parliament also have the right to express their opinions through peaceful demonstrations,” he said.
“We cannot let the streets be the exclusive property for the opposition or for the counter-revolution to weaken our nascent democratic institutions,” Masmoudi added.
Protests have taken place throughout Tunisia recently due to unemployment, which was high even before the coronavirus struck and has since risen to 18%.
This concerns analysts as it threatens the country’s hard-fought political progress.
“In 2021, according to recent studies [and] for the first time since [the Arab Spring], more Tunisians reject democracy as a general political model for Tunisia,” Dihstelhoff said.
“Ultimately, if Tunisia lacks a functioning government and finds itself in political and institutional limbo, Tunisian voters will suffer, which will certainly further fuel discontent, distrust and anger in the country’s leaders and institutions,” Kurze said. “For a young democracy like the Tunisian one, this certainly does not bode well.”