The Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies organized a specialized online workshop entitled “Cabinet Reshuffle: context and implications” on January 29, 2021. It was chaired by Dr.Rafik Abdessalem, the Director of the Center. Three main speakers were invited: Nourddine Arbaoui, an MP and head of the Political Bureau of Ennahdha Party, Kamel Ben Younes, a journalist, and Nourdine Khatrouchi, a political analyst.
Dr.Abdessalem opened the workshop with an overview presentation explaining the background of the cabinet reshuffle. He also provided a thorough account of the reasons lying behind the overlapping political and constitutional crisis.
Arbaoui believes that the cabinet reshuffle is still incomplete, despite it won a vote of confidence. He states that such rejection and firm opposition echoes the president’s short-sighted view. The MP presents the general context in which the reshuffle took place characterised by political, social and economic instability. The fact of reaching a stalemate, unveils the political cleavage in Tunisia political landscape, argues Arbaoui. The MP talked about the unprecedented political instability that produced three governments in three months and admitted the policy-makers frustration as they were expecting that stability would prevail after Chahed rule. He also expressed his astonishment vis- à-vis the president attitude and rejection of the expected cabinet reshuffle asserting that it is an improper battle since it is between the head of state and the head of the government. This escalating conflict has a profound impact on the state and people who are keen to protect the government from tampering. Such power struggle marked the stage and ended up in a perceptible battle within the state institutions. The management of this conflict will have far-reaching effects in a country that is still suffering from multiple accumulated crises.
The crisis has twofold axes: an overlapping political and constitutional crisis. First, a constitutional crisis between the two executive leaders, the head of state and the head of government over the their possible constitutional legitimacy, which prompted the president to challenge what he described as restrictions erected by the 2014 constitution, threatening to swamp the prime minister prerogatives. President Kais Saied has said that he will not allow some of the new ministers to take their oath of office, amid an ongoing power struggle between him and Mechich. The second conflict is a struggle over electoral legitimacy, since the president thinks that he got a vast majority with a high legitimacy, but it must be noted that the true legitimacy of President Kais Saied is around 620,000, as he took 18,4% of the vote during the first round of voting. Tunisian President Kais Saied’s rejection of governmental alteration is a reflection of a wider political crisis, stemming from the disagreement between the presidency and the parliamentary majority over the form of the political system and the distribution of powers among its pillars.
Mr.Rachid Ghannouchi, the speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People and head of a Ennahdha Party, represents an important electoral legitimacy after the president. Therefore, we are facing a symbolic struggle: the Speaker of Parliament against the President of the State. However, both politicians bear no resemblance; Gannouchi is a high-calibre leader, spent half a century struggling against dictatorship and was committed to promote freedom and Human Rights, while Saied is a less experienced politician who is using populist narrative to differ from his rival. This struggle symbolism is countered by that of revolution and populism, each has its own credit.
Reasons and context
According to Arbaoui, the attempt to form a ‘Government of the President’ after the Jemli government is irrelevant. The so-called ‘Government of the President’ does not exist as a concept at the political and parliamentary level. Questions were raised about who is the most capable, politically speaking, to take action, but it turned to be a fundamental crisis of identity and dispute over the functions of the prime minister’s office and the limits of the president authority and interference in the operation of government. Even though we are in a quasi-parliamentary government framed by the constitution, which did not give the president broad powers and restricted his prerogatives, this very restriction created the discontent that began with Beji Qaid Essebsi but Kais Saeed took it away. Constitutionally speaking, the prime minister is allowed to correct the path if the president is abusing his power; the constitution gave him wide powers, and this is why he did so in the government of Habib Essid and its relationship with Beji Qaid Essebsi, then Ilyas Fakhfakh with Saied.
For Arbaoui, the implications of the reshuffle are of significant importance, which created a situation of anxiety in the equation of expected and required, and the prime minister has no choice but to achieve economic and social success. In case of failure, the government will be blown away by the rampant social protests. Thus political stability is needed to achieve the goals of the revolution, and restore reliability and trustworthiness at home and abroad, claims Arbaoui. Finally, he ended up with a quotation of former French President Mitterrand when he was asked how public authorities would function in light of the tensions between the president and the prime minister, he said, “I have one answer, and it is the only rational answer: the constitution is nothing but the constitution, the whole constitution.” And with these words, the French were able to coexist and balance power and country stability.
Khatrouchi believes that Saied rhetoric is devoid of all meanings that open up the dream for an unclear and jellied missionary project. Thus, we are facing a strange situation based on ambiguity and whenever he speaks, his flaws are exposed to the public and his legitimacy has faded away accordingly. Saied represents a new populism, with which we have no political memory. On the other hand, the president displays his hostility to the principles of the constitutional democracy. For instance, in attempt to demonize the Constitution, Kathrouchi illustrates his claim with Saied’s sarcastic phrases: "The constitution was eaten by the donkey" or when he said: "The constitution is what the youth wrote on the walls." Khatrouchi argues that Saied scores a high rate of arrogance and psychotic disorders with everyone he talks to in a miserable scene that interspersed with a chubby schoolhouse. Populism is manifested in the Free Destourian Party (FDP)’s spectacular acts. But the Party is also notorious for embellishing the former regime and demonizing the post-revolutionary era. Katrouchi thinks that the populist discourse has flourished recently due to the rising tensions within the political scene.This ministerial reshuffle, argues Ktrouchi, came within the framework of a struggle and a conflict over power. He states that any attempt to exacerbate the political scene, fuel political cleavage and polarization is considered to be a kind of corruption. As soon as the prime minister refused to submit, we entered into an absurd scene echoing the president’s failure and the ambiguity of his project. “I have said this since the beginning of the presidential election”, claims Kathrouchi, “and I have also said that this man will be the state’s ordeal, and now it is confirmed that Saied is the real state’s ordeal, and the prime minister together with the speaker of Parliament have nothing but to correct the course of democracy taking into account the national interest through helping Saied to return to his senses wear the state's duty again and exercise his constitutional powers” . Finally, Katrouchi ends up by inviting the major political actors to heal political division and to create a common ground.
Kamal ben Younes
Despite the malaise and despair, Ben Younes believes that this experience remained steadfast compared to Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt, which descended into fatalities. Ben Younes asked a question on whether the Tunisian experience is still promising and whether Tunisians could unleash human potential. According to Ben Youness, Tunisia is not dysfunctional, but rather a vulnerable state. He adds that since Tunisia is in emergency under the potential threat of covid-19 pandemic, social peace is required, which necessitates a rejection of demonstrations and protests that may worsen the situation.
According to Ben Youness the question is neither a legal nor a constitutional one, but it is rather political. He states that political actors may amend the constitution. He suggests that overcoming the political situation is possible and can be carried out through consensus, either by toppling the government and proposing another government agreed upon by the national group, or amends the constitution towards two-parliamentary systems. BenYounes ends his speech by further exploring the threats caused by lobbies and group interests who exert pressure on policy-makers and fuelled polarization and political cleavage. Such threats have started since the establishment of the first Republic in the aftermath of independence and manifested in the conflict between al-Burguiba and Salah Ben Youssif, which led to major political assassinations that almost destroyed the nation and its capabilities. It was also manifested in Ben Ali crackdown of the Islamists, their pressure and influence continued after the revolution to abort reform, succeeded to break the October 18 movement, and disrupt the parliament.
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The Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies is a research institution covering a large regional territory, including the Maghreb, Africa and Mediterranean countries, with a focus on Tunisian affairs. The Center has two main headquarters in London and Tunisia.