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July 25 Presidential decisions in Tunisia: A coup against legitimacy or a correction to the course of the revolution?!

Tunisian President Kais Saied’s decisions on July 25, 2021 caused a sensation in Tunisia and the Arab region, with reactions divided between supporters of the decisions in a state of victory over the ruling political forces and those opposing them in fear and anxiety about dragging the country into a state of security instability and the loss of the democratic transition process in which Tunisia is an advanced model compared to other Arab countries. Thus, is what is happening in Tunisia currently a political struggle to save the state from descending into failure and anarchy, or a political battle for power and the annihilation of rivalries? And, in light of all that has occurred, what is the role of Tunisian youth in the so-called “Supreme Council for Youth”?

Tunisia prior to the president’s decisions:

During the previous decade, Tunisia exported an Arab model of the will for radical political change when the Arab revolutions were sparked by a revolution based on the duality of freedom and dignity, which led to the fall of the Tunisian political regime, followed by the fall of political regimes in a number of Arab countries. As a result, Tunisia has been dubbed the “capital of the Arab Spring,” as the only Arab model to reach democratic transition settings in comparison to the rest of the nations that saw revolutions, demonstrations, and civil conflicts. Tunisia created a model of political consensus and alliance across political factions for the purpose of the country’s interest following the revolution. The facts and conditions changed with time, and the preoccupied political struggle became more intense. It misjudged the importance of the young component, which was the nerve of the revolution and its field leadership, in its pursuit of power and expanding its bases of influence, and ignored social and economic building in the post-revolutionary era in favor of political gains.

Studies and election results in Tunisia after the revolution show a gradual decline in popular participation in political work, particularly among the youth component, which believes the revolution was stolen from it and that closing political work spaces in front of it and keeping it out of decision-making has become a systematic work by the existing political forces, and because it is a demographic momentum in Tunisia, and its political reluctance has played a significant part in the lack of confidence between people and the state.

The strength of Tunisian youth in change is evident when they boycotted legislative elections (parliament) and actively participated in presidential elections (head of state) and supported a candidate from outside the traditional frameworks and non-partisan, as a punishment and reaction from him to the existing political forces, thus contributing to President Kais Saied’s arrival.

Young people in Tunisia account for 60% of the entire Tunisian electorate, which influences the course of the general elections and public perception of them. Despite this, the road of political apathy among the young generation began soon after the first parliamentary elections held after the ratification of the new Tunisian constitution in 2014, in which 1,327 individuals competed for office in a list representing 120 political parties. Young people did not lead any list in these elections, which was reflected in the youth group’s presence in the legislative institution, as their proportion did not reach 3% of the total House of Representatives members.
Tunisian youth interest in public affairs has diminished, according to a 2018 study conducted by the Observer Network and one to one in collaboration with the German political foundation Heinrich Böll, which found that 47 percent of Tunisian youth are disinterested in political life and local affairs following the municipal elections in May 2018.

The results of the parliamentary elections in 2019 revealed electoral hesitation and voter polarization among a substantial proportion of young people, with participation rates falling below 15%. In terms of the most recent presidential elections, while there was not a big young turnout, what was notable and novel about them was the election victory of one candidate. The results of the parliamentary elections in 2019 revealed electoral hesitation and voter polarization among a substantial proportion of young people, with participation rates falling below 15%. In terms of the most recent presidential elections, while there was not a big young turnout, what was notable and different about them was the success of one candidate to win the majority of young votes compared to other candidates in a political precedent in Tunisia, which is something that had never happened to any candidate in the elections so clearly, as more than 37% of the youth participating in the elections, between 18 and 25 years old, voted for the independent candidate, Kais Saied, while 11% voted for the independent Alsafi Saied, 8.7% for “Tunis’ Heart” candidate Nabil Karoui and 5.4% for then Prime Minister Yousef Chahed. The preceding numbers demonstrate Kais Saied’s monopoly on the youth vote, and even allow him to mobilize an electoral base that has never voted in an election before. According to the same data, 62 percent of Kais Saied’s first-round voters had never voted in an election before.

Decision data and timing indications:

First, in March 2021, large rallies took place on Tunisian streets to commemorate the 65th anniversary of independence (National Day), and it is noteworthy that the participation was more popular than partisan, implying that it was spontaneous and unorganized, despite the absence of celebrations due to the Corona pandemic. Rallies went to the streets in support of President Saied, the first of its type organized by his supporters in the capital.  According to the protestors, they demanded the dissolution of Parliament, the resignation of Hicham Al-Mechichi’s government and the accountability of political parties that broke the law. Some of the phrases on the demonstrators’ banners represented the principles that Saied had advocated for and expressed during his electoral campaign, such as the focus on popular rule and the activation of Article 80 of the Constitution.

Second, in Tunisia, the Higher Youth Council, which is made up of independent youth political currents, played a significant role in rallying young people to demonstrate in what was dubbed the “Statement to Save the Republic.” The statement titled “The Uprising of July 25, 2021” provided a number of reasons that advocate for a second uprising, as well as a vision for some demands, such as “the arrest of all politicians, advisers, heads of government, ministers, representatives, state clerks, and the dissolution of all parties,” which many analysts and observers found “unrealistic,” despite the fact that many of these demands were implemented by Saied in his recent orders.
It is worth noting that the Supreme Council for Youth communicates and reviews data through secret Facebook groups, and many Tunisian youth on social media responded to the protest call, seeing it as an “opportunity” to bring about real change in Tunisia through the “new uprising.” On the other hand, youth groups warned Youth political parties against participating in the activities of the “Supreme Youth Council,” and what many find politically independent in the work of the Council; that the opponent of the Ennahda movement, Abeer Moussi; rejected and criticized these activities, and in a recorded video, warned her supporters not to participate in the demonstrations and activities held by the council.
Previously, political parties confronted the Youth Council’s attempt to stage a military coup and demanded its closure and the accountability of those responsible, disrupting the Council’s work on the ground, yet it stayed active on social media, and accusations were leveled at the existence of Arab political agendas attempting to exploit the Council’s work and trying to push the public to revolt against democracy.

Third, on the morning of July 25, the day President Saied’s decisions were issued, a number of Tunisian cities saw popular protests in response to calls launched on social media platforms to protest the situation, which coincided with the celebration of Republic Day, and a number of protesters gathered. Protesters in Bardo, as well as in other cities like as Gafsa, Monastir, Kairouan, Bizerte, Tozeur, and Nabeul, demanding the dissolution of Parliament and a reform in the system, as well as the accountability of those responsible for Tunisia’s health, social, and economic condition. According to news accounts, some of these cities witnessed efforts to storm the Tunisian “Ennahda Movement” headquarters. Demonstrators shattered the façade of many of the movement’s offices, and furious teenagers in Kairouan removed the banner of the movement’s office there, while some protesters stormed the movement’s office in Tozeur, southern Tunisia, and destroyed its equipment.

Constitutional controversy surrounding the July 25 decisions:

After presiding over an emergency meeting of military and security leaders at Carthage Palace, Tunisian President Kais Saied invoked Article 80 of the constitution, announcing in a speech broadcast on state television the termination of Prime Minister Hicham El Mechichi’s duties, the freezing of parliament, and the lifting of deputies’ immunity.

According to the text of Chapter 80 of the Tunisian Constitution, regarding exceptional measures, “the President of the Republic, in a state of imminent danger threatening the integrity of the country and the country’s security and independence, with which it is impossible for the normal functioning of the state’s wheels, to take the measures necessitated by this exceptional situation, after consultation with the government, to take the measures necessitated by this exceptional situation. The people’s representatives must notify the president of the Constitutional Court, and the actions must be announced in a public statement.”

The second paragraph of the same chapter states, “These actions must seek to guarantee the restoration to regular working of the state’s machinery as soon as possible, and the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (Parliament) is deemed to be in perpetual session throughout this period.” In this situation, the President of the Republic may not dissolve the Assembly of Representatives of the People because no censure sheet against the government may be filed.”
The third paragraph of Article 80 states that “30 days after the entry into force of these measures, and at any time thereafter, the Constitutional Court is entrusted to decide whether or not the exceptional situation should continue at the request of the Speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People or 30 of its members.” According to the last paragraph, “the court publishes its judgment publicly within a maximum time of 15 days, and the execution of such measures shall be stopped when the reasons for them cease to exist.” In this respect, the President of the Republic should issue a statement to the people.

Opponents accuse Tunisia’s president of violating the constitution by imposing the exceptional state without adhering to what is stated in Article 80 that governs it, particularly the need to consult the head of government and the Speaker before making a decision, as well as his initiative to freeze Parliament while the constitution requires the House of Representatives to remain in session. While the president stated in his speech that he adhered to the constitution and consulted professional parties, this was clearly in response to Tunisian Prime Minister Hicham Mechichi’s reluctance to consult him on the government reshuffle last January, which was accompanied by the parliamentary majority Ennahda movement, that Said described as not respecting the constitution. As a result, he answered with a generic formal consultation that avoided procedural details. As a result, the Tunisian president here, a constitutional law scholar, distinguishes between consultation and agreement and relies on the most important and powerful sections of the constitutional article.

Scenarios for the post-July 25 decision phase:

In the middle of Tunisia’s difficult political environment, Kais Saied gradually rose into the public eye, adopting a rhetorical stance against the whole political elite. He appeared unconcerned about present political institutions and rebelled against conventional party structures, connected to the military institution, through which he may find a procedural definition of the conception of Tunisian patriotism that he is addressing. Despite this, three options for the future of Tunisia’s problem may be anticipated:

First, was what President Said accomplished an implied coup against the constitution, or was it a reversal of the Tunisian revolution’s course? In addressing this issue, political forces that consider what transpired to be a coup against democracy and legitimacy might unite, and here we refer to political forces that profited politically from the scenario before to the decision. On the other side, a social bloc may emerge, supported by political forces that are not abusing their power to demand the renewal of the revolution against the revolution, under the guise of altering the present situation, which is incapable of providing new answers.

Second, the president’s decisions can continue to have an impact during their one-month constitutional period, and then political life can return to its previous era with the achievement of dismissing the government as a form of teaching the political lesson to marginalize the president, respond to popular demands, and regain the trust of the street.
Third, the reactions to which the ruling political forces mobilize, particularly the Ennahda movement, might drive the president to transfer additional powers to the military council, as has previously occurred in Egypt, resulting in violent clashes.

Conclusion:

Observers believe that what happened in Tunisia on July 25 is a natural end to the absurdity and political failure to achieve economic and social growth over the past years, as well as the selfishness of political parties and their narrow-mindedness for the public good, which endangers the Tunisian democratic transition. With a warning and fear that enthusiasm would drive the street to punish politicians and accuse the president of undermining legitimacy by allowing for violent disruption.

Given the short time frame specified in the constitution for the Tunisian president’s choices, it has become vital to hurry the establishment of an independent body to manage the crisis, comprised of a diverse range of professionals, wise men, and opinion leaders in Tunisian society. To prevent foreign interventions that are looking to score political points at the expense of the Tunisian people’s interests, and, most importantly, to continue the democratic transition by evaluating and reforming the political system to enable the involvement of a representative division in decision-making.

Margin Notes:

1.  أحمد عثمان، الشباب التونسيون من صناعة الثورة إلى العزوف الانتخابي (حالة الثورة التونسية). ورقة منشورة في كتاب للمركز العربي للأبحاث والسياسات عام 2019. الصفحة 439. بعنوان: الشباب والانتقال الديمقراطي في البلدان العربيَّة.
2. راجع/ي تقرير بعنوان: “مشاركة النساء والشباب في الحياة العامة والشأن المحلي”، 19 ديسمبر 2018مؤسسة هاينرش بول الألمانية: https://tn.boell.org/ar/2018/12/19/ntyj-drs-hwl-mshrk-lnwswlshwbb-fy-lhy-lmw-wlshwn-lmhlwy-47-mn-lshbb-gyr-mhtmyn-blhy-lsysy
3. ورقة بحثية منشورة في الموقع الإلكتروني لمبادرة الإصلاح العربي بعنوان: الشباب التونسي والحياة السياسية: صحوة من ركود؟
4. راجع/ي  العربي الجديد، وليد التليلي، دعوات للحوار في العيد الوطني التونسي.. ومطالب بحل البرلمان، شوهد في 26 تموز 2021. bit.ly/3y5iYdj
5. المجلس الأعلى للشباب، مبادرة غير حزبية، مكونة من شباب وشابات فاعلين في المجتمع المدني التونسي، تأسست في نهاية عام 2018، تضم في عضويتها جمعيات تعنى بقضايا الشباب من مختلف المناطق التونسية، ومن بين أهداف المجلس التي تأسس من أجله “تمكين الشباب من فرصة أخذ القرار في تونس على المستوى السياسي والاقتصادي، وأن يكون للشباب دور فاعل في هذا المشهد”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EvOi9jaqQco&list=PLWuYED1WVJIMb5G40KGYcE-Lw7VB3jQO5&index=2
6.  راجع/ي الموقع الإلكتروني لقناة الحرة، الأوضاع في تونس.. دعوة للتظاهر للضغط على السياسيين، منشور بتاريخ 19 يوليو/تموز 2021، شوهد في 26 يوليو/تموز 2021.
7.  الدستور التونسي، الفصل 80: https://anc.majles.marsad.tn/uploads/documents/TnConstit_final_1.

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