Analysis

OPINION - Tunisia’s dangerous moment: A self-coup

Many people in Tunisia dream of a change that could address the people’s basic socioeconomic expectations. Saïed’s Don-Quixotesque experiments, however, will not fulfil those expectations

Dr. Tarek Cherkaoui   | 25.08.2021
OPINION - Tunisia’s dangerous moment: A self-coup

The writer is Manager at TRT World Research Centre and the author of “The News Media at War: The Clash of Western and Arab Networks in the Middle East.” Dr. Cherkaoui is an expert in the field of strategic communications.

ISTANBUL

On July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saïed announced that he had frozen the parliament, dismissed the prime minister, and removed the immunity of the members of the parliament by invoking Article 80 of the Constitution. This act was the latest episode in a series of crises that the country was grappling with.

While President Saïed and his followers repeatedly dismissed accusations that he has staged a “coup,” they say that the Constitution allowed him to use extraordinary measures in the case of an imminent threat. However, it is clear that Saïed’s move is not only based on an incorrect interpretation . of Article 80 of the Constitution, but his initial decisions mirror the putschist playbook. He suspended parliament and seized all executive powers, including those of public prosecution and internal security.

Saïed’s minions object to the “coup” label because he was already the head of state and his actions were bloodless. Such an objection is pathetic because what Saïed plotted falls under the category of “self-coup”, also called “autocoup” (from the Spanish autogolpe). A self-coup, as academic Charles Call explains it, “is perpetrated by the head of government rather than military officers or others against that chief executive.” In fact, the first self-coup recorded in modern history was conducted by Napoleon III in 1852. Code-named “Operation Rubicon,” Napoleon III’s coup dissolved the National Assembly and granted dictatorial powers to the then head of state.


What is next?

Based on Saïed’s statements over the past two years and the actions he took since July 25th, one can foresee the trajectory. First and foremost, Saïed will very likely continue on his path of seizing all powers. He will move to change the Constitution, which has been his target since day one. Among the key changes to be expected is the weakening of the parliament’s powers and checks and balances vis-à-vis the presidential institution. Moreover, electoral laws will be reviewed so that no party could emerge as a clear winner from these “elections.”

It should be noted that Saïed has never been part of a political party before. Thus, he has no effective political platform to lead his vision from ideation to implementation while ensuring public support. Some pundits speculated that he would soon create his own party, but this is less likely to happen. Saïed has previously expressed his opposition to the idea of a political system based on political parties as its basic architecture. He has also expressed his support for a full-fledged state decentralization via a leftist fringe idea known as “councilism,” which makes local councils the fundamental pillar of Tunisia’s political system.


Lack of legitimacy

As Saïed lacks international legitimacy, his ability to remain in power is contingent on two outcomes: Western support and assistance from the Arab axis of autocracy (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt). To appease the former, Saïed will very likely privatize national companies such as Tunis Air, Sonede, STEG. At the same time, the powerful workers’ unions, which have played a major role in crippling the reforms initiated since the 2011 revolution, will be heavily curtailed. Such steps will ensure the blessing of Paris and other Western capitals. Meanwhile, there will be no genuine war on corruption or any dismantling of the powerful lobbies. Merely a month after his coup, Saïed closed the headquarters of the Anti-Corruption Authority and fired its director, which offers strong indications on things to come.

To woo the autocracy axis, Saïed has already increased his charm offensive towards Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Cairo. To that end, he closed Al Jazeera’s offices in Tunisia, as the Qatar-based network remains a perennial irritant for autocrats in the region. He then closed the borders with Libya’s legitimate government in Tripoli because of its misalignment with the aforementioned Arab capitals. Moreover, he decided to review the trade agreement with Turkey even though there are more considerable deficits in similar accords with China and Italy. Furthermore, Saïed seems obsessed with Ennahda, trying to pin imaginary assassination plots on this party to ban it from the political sphere.


What lies down the line?

Currently, many people in Tunisia dream of a change that could address the people’s basic socioeconomic expectations. Saïed’s Don-Quixotesque experiments, however, will not fulfil those expectations. While perhaps nice on paper, Saïed’s experimentations are perilous, costly, and doomed to fail because they have never been tried anywhere else.

Worse still, a large body of literature indicates that coups lead to more political instability. For example, Political Scientist Patrick McGowan, who researched putsches that occurred in Africa over half a century, found that successful coups, failed coups, and even coup plots damaged the chances of stability. Similarly, Aristide Zolberg’s research suggests that “coups engender other coups.” Furthermore, Bienen and Van De Walle assert that leaders who seize power via coups are much more likely to be toppled in a coup.

Seen in this light, Saïed could well be the “useful fool” who has opened the anti-democratic Pandora’s box, only to produce another coup d’état down the line once his chimeric experimentations fail. Only this time, the instigator would likely come from the security apparatus; a hibernating beast that Saïed has fed and nurtured.


* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.


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