(MENAFN- Syndication Bureau) By Oussama Romdhani
More than a month after the Tunisian president, Kais Saied, invoked emergency powers to suspend parliament and dismiss the prime minister, the contours of his political style are beginning to emerge, but not his future plans. Saied clearly prefers that political power be centralized. He has created all the conditions for that as he froze parliament “till further notice” and did not appoint a prime minister despite promising to name one within “days.” In short, it does not appear that Saied intends to relinquish or delegate power anytime soon. But how he uses that power will depend on his yet-to-be-disclosed plans and how well he can continue to satisfy the various constituencies in Tunisia’s political circles and civil society.
For now, there is no viable alternative to the system he has put in place, nor a competing power to him. Saied has replaced cabinet members with aplomb. He has received officials and foreign dignitaries and engaged them without the intermediation of aides, leaving no doubt who is in charge. Videos of his speeches, which are posted on social media, have become the main source of daily news.
His current status is bolstered by three factors.
First, he is popular. Although some of his more recent decisions have sparked objections and criticism from a number of political parties and civil society groups, Saied enjoys broad public support. An opinion poll conducted in mid-August showed his favorability rating at more than 90 percent.
The changed landscape is seen as a relief from the days of parliamentary impasse and chronic bickering, a trademark of the now-eclipsed political order. Those who object to his indefinite extension of the “state of exception” and his de facto dissolution of the national assembly are for now in the minority.
Next, he enjoys support from the military. There is no doubt that Saied could have implemented the emergency measures without the unequivocal support of the armed forces, whose role was decisive in preventing any outbreak of violence. Since then, he has prioritized naming a senior presidential security corps officer as minister of interior. He has wasted no opportunity to highlight his trust in the military, whether in carrying out their regular duties or in managing the Covid-19 health crisis. He even appointed an army doctor as minister of health.
Lastly, he enjoys either support or forbearance by the international community.
The most conspicuous expressions of foreign support for Saied have come from Arab Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. Relations with Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Qatar, foreign backers of the Islamist political party Ennahda, have been cool to frosty. Saied has not seemed to mind their lack of full support. This is a clear reflection of the regional polarization over political Islam. In between the two camps, Algeria has established itself as the watchful “big sister.”
The West, for its part, is in a wait-and-see mode. The US and European states have weighed the popular backing for Saied and are wary of public sensitivity to any perception of Western interference in Tunisia’s domestic affairs. Thus, while Washington and European capitals have reiterated calls for a commitment to the democratic process, it is telling that a visiting senior US delegation in August signaled a desire to err on the side of prudence. Overall, Saied seems to have been granted time to flesh out his plans for the future of democracy, while dealing with the exigent demands of the country’s myriad crises.
Yet, a 90 percent favorability rating can be dragged down fast by gravity, and forbearance can erode quickly, too.
There is, to be sure, already some frustration – even among Saied’s supporters – over a lack of clarity about his larger goals and for his marginalization of many stakeholders, including friendly political parties and the powerful trade unions.
Frustratingly for his allies, Saied has refused to pin himself to any precise “roadmap,” vowing only that there will be no return to the status quo ante. He has said that his politics will follow “the will of the people.” But what that actually means remains to be seen. Perhaps this might take the form of a referendum on constitutional and electoral changes that would crystallize his preference for an executive president and “bottom-up” representation. But all this could take many more months to come to fruition, if at all. Meanwhile, uncertainty rules.
Tunisia definitely needs change. Despite all the promises made by successive governments in the last decade, there would only be a series of deepening social and economic crises. Consequently, Tunisians know exactly the type of political system they do not want. But they are waiting for Saied to suggest the shape of an alternative.
While Saied’s ad hoc decrees have been accepted by the population, it remains to be seen if these decrees can address the many daunting challenges the country faces. From a larger perspective, the public is eager to discover how his future initiatives can satisfy “the will of the people.”
The test of whether Saied can maintain his power base will hinge on the tangible changes he will introduce while preserving freedoms. He might come to discover that being in sole possession of all the levers makes him increasingly vulnerable to criticism. He might find that he has to make compromises and engage with political parties and civil society groups, which he has kept thus far at arm’s length.
But for now, his most urgent task is to dispel the mist around his decision making, and show he can effectively steer the ship of state to safe harbor. The country is willing to wait for Saied to deliver. As all the governments since 2011 know, Tunisians want a positive turn to their fortune.
Oussama Romdhani is editor of The Arab Weekly. He previously served in the Tunisian government and as a diplomat in Washington.
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