Editor’s note: this article is an edited version of Mr. Hammami’s remarks at POMED’s August 5 event, “Examining Tunisia’s Political Crisis.”
The only way to understand President Kaïs Saïed’s system of political beliefs—to the extent that he has a coherent one—is to go back to statements that he has made since the revolution.
We can find several videos in which Saïed, a former law professor, expresses his rejection of the post-revolution transition. For example, a week before the October 2011 National Constituent Assembly elections, he criticized the decision of the Ben Achour commission to prioritize political parties within the electoral law that it had drafted. Saïed described the electoral law as giving total control of the political system to parties that did not participate in the revolution.
Saïed’s remarks make clear that he opposes a system whose basic entity is a party. He considers parties anti-revolutionary tools of power-grabbing, political machines that provide access to power to “phony” candidates who are not necessarily revolutionary. He has alluded to political parties as being more interested in having access to the presidency than in serving citizens. Saïed also has said that a party system promotes identitarian agendas, brings back old debates on “settled topics” such as the personal status law, and represses local and regional leaders who contributed to the 2011 revolultionary dynamic. Notably, Saïed’s critique of parties is becoming more and more popular among Tunisians.
In addition to his opposition to political parties, Saïed has indicated that he wants to radically decentralize the state through the establishment of bottom-up governance based on local councils. He is inspired by “councilism,” a theory that in the past was marginally popular among some leftist organizations in Europe. Saïed is not the first Tunisian to be in favor of radical decentralization: Gilbert Naccache, a prominent Marxist leftist thinker from the Perspectives movement of the 1960s who passed away in December, held this view. Today, however, councilism is not prevalent anywhere in the world, except perhaps in Saïed’s own circles.
Saïed’s ideas might seem interesting to discuss in intellectual circles and might sound nice, but they are not that coherent. For instance, although he uses decolonial rhetoric and claims to reject imported political concepts, Saïed is actually borrowing a lot from Western thought, even if not necessarily mainstream thought.
The big question is whether Saïed is really intending to push for the implementation of an alternative political system. We simply do not know. He may change his views in the coming period. Or he may start by trying to change the electoral law to exclude political parties. He has said that he wants elections to be held on individual-based lists rather than on party-based lists. He has also stated more than once that he wants to amend the 2014 constitution, mentioning this implicitly in December 2019 remarks in Sidi Bouzid, for example, and more directly in June. He strongly favors a presidential system instead of the current constitution’s power sharing among the prime minister, parliament, and the presidency.
But changing the system would be a very risky, adventurous, and probably costly journey. I am not sure that there is a critical level of support for such a project. And even if he starts this journey, it is not guaranteed that Tunisia will end up in a safe place. Maybe the process will break in the middle, and we will find ourselves with a different type of regime—perhaps even a super-presidential system like what Tunisia had during the dictatorship.
We already have a great constitution from 2014—on paper. We just have not fully implemented it yet. We don’t have a Constitutional Court. We have not created several independent institutions specified in the constitution, such as the new anti-corruption body, or the commission that is supposed to guarantee the rights of future generations.
What is more, taking the risk to change the constitution is not guaranteed to have a positive outcome. We should keep in mind that almost 11 years after the adoption of Tunisia’s first post-independence constitution, President Habib Bourguiba started attacking it and then amended it to concentrate his power and remain president for life. Changing the constitution, therefore, is not necessarily the solution.
Despite Saïed’s sometimes enigmatic or incoherent political views, his past statements make very clear his disdain for parties, his support for radical decentralization, and his desire for a presidential system. How he will act on these ideas—and whether his actions will alleviate or deepen Tunisia’s crisis—remains to be seen.
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