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Tunisia Turmoil is Not a Coup on Islamists

In the past decade alone, Tunisia has gone through several extreme political transitions; three of which stands out as the most decisive turning points. They are: the Arab Spring revolution against Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime, in 2011; the step-down of the Islamist-led government, in response to massive popular protests, in 2013; and the sudden death of President Beji Caid Essebsi, amidst an economic depression, in 2019. Astonishingly, the Tunisian state managed to survive all of these major political transitions. These days, some pessimistic expectations of state failure in Tunisia are circulating among political analysts, following the radical decisions that the Tunisian President Kais Saied took, on the Republic Day anniversary, a few days ago.

In a surprise move, on the night of July 25th, Saied, who worked for decades as professor of law and constitution, used the powers given to him by Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution to grab all state civilian and military powers in his own hands. Saied justified the motion by the need to control the risks aroused by the massive angry protests that erupted all over Tunisia on that day against the failures of the government and the parliament in running state affairs and recovering the depressed economy. Understanding what motivated Saied to launch this ruthless war against the government and the parliament of his own regime, is key to envisioning whether Tunisia is going to survive this major transition, too.

As a first step, Saied decided to suspend the two parallel authorities governing the country shoulder-to-shoulder with him. He fired the Prime Minister and froze the Parliament because he could not dissolve it. The Tunisian Parliament is dominated by the Islamist Ennahda Party. Then, he dismissed the ministers of defense, interior, and justice. At the moment, a curfew is announced and all businesses, expect security, health, and educational facilities, are closed.

Pro-Islamist propagandists, on social and traditional media platforms, came out immediately claiming that Saied’s decisions are “a coup d’état” and are directly targeting to finish the Islamists. They even tried to compare what is currently happening in Tunisia to what happened in Egypt in June 2013, when the military had to respond to popular protests to remove the Muslim Brotherhood regime from power.

Actually, a primary school student can tell how ridiculous this comparison is. Let alone, downsizing the whole scene to an ideological dispute between Kais Saied and the Islamists of Ennahda Party is nothing but an act of naivety, that is purposefully disregarding the pleas of the Tunisian people to end their economic sufferings through a political reform.

In other words, Saied’s fight is not against Islamists, but for political and economic reform. Saied’s decision to freeze the Islamist-dominated parliament must be seen within the bigger picture of the paralyzing system of governance in Tunisia, and through a political, not ideological, lens.

Out of fear of falling back into the authoritarianism of the deep state, the post-revolution constitution in Tunisia tailored a system of governance that is neither presidential nor parliamentarian. Rather, it is based on balancing the decision-making process between three authorities – or “presidencies” as the Tunisians call them. They are: the President of the State, the Prime Minister (the head of the government), and the Speaker of Parliament (the head of the legislative authority).

In theory, the “three presidencies” may look like an innovative democratic system that involves all and excludes none. But, in practice, it has proven to be a difficult and paralyzing system. For three years, since Kais Saied was elected, Tunisia could not achieve any tangible progress under three presidents, whose agendas and visions are inconsistent. The conflict between the three governing authorities in Tunisia reached a climax point in mid-March, in a way that paralyzed political decision-making and economic flow in the country, and eventually aroused nation-wide protests calling for reform.

That being said, can the already-exhausted Tunisia survive the current turmoil, as it survived all the major previous political transitions that took place in the past ten years? That is a difficult question to answer, while the proceedings of the turmoil are still unfolding. However, we can at least understand that the problem of Tunisia is much bigger and much deeper than having members of the Muslim Brotherhood in power.

Also, read on The Levant