It is just under two weeks since Tunisia’s President Kais Saied broke through the deadlock in that country by invoking Article 80 of the constitution and using the executive powers it gives him to dismiss the Prime Minister, Hichem Mechichi, whose government was underwritten by the Ennahda Party, the local version of the Muslim Brotherhood.
President Saied’s decision was cautiously welcomed by many of the democracy activists who made the original revolution in Tunisia in 2011, by many journalists, who had been feeling the pressure as Islamist rule solidified in the country. Despite accusations from Ennahda and its supporters that Saied was engaged in a “coup,” the sacking of what had been a chronically dysfunctional, corrupt, and increasingly brutal government was welcomed by an overwhelming majority of Tunisians—a full 87% of them, according to one poll.
President Saied has briefly frozen parliament while he tries to reset a political system that had spun out of control. One action Saied has taken is to sack the director-general of special [intelligence] services at the Interior Ministry, Lazhar Loungo, and replace him with Muhammad Cherif. The Ennahda-dominated security forces had engaged in attacks on civilian protesters during the months-long effort, beginning in January, to bring the government to some kind of account. Loungo is now under house arrest. Firm measures have been taken against others trying to derail this transition process.
One reason that the claims of illegality by Saied have rung so hollow—other than the fact that as of now, only the domestic Islamists and autocratic Turkey abroad is making them—is that, as Amine Ben Naceur, who studies democratic transitions, explained, “The arbiter of [Article 80’s] legality—as well as the body responsible for its termination—is the constitutional court. This court does not yet exist.” The attempt to create a post-revolutionary legal regime has been underway since at least 2014, and in all that time Ennahda has had a dominant role over the state. In short, the claims of illegality from the Islamists are undone by their own hand, and only draw attention to the failures of their rule that brought Tunisia to this point.
As Naceur pointed out, those who jumped to the analogy with Egypt in 2013 erred rather badly: Tunisia’s military stays out of politics, and the consensus about this new path forward cuts across Tunisia’s most powerful institutions—from the army to the trades unions—meaning that any effort to instigate bloodshed as the Brotherhood did after its fall in Cairo will likely not succeed. Further undermining the possibility of turmoil, this consensus now appears so strong that it includes the Islamists themselves.
Rashid Ghannouchi, the Ennahda leader, sent out a message on 4 August telling his supporters that they should not fight to overturn Saied’s decision; rather, they should view it as “a stage of the democratic transition”. This is an opportunity for reform, said Ghannouchi. And Turkey, whose Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had stopped short of calling Saied’s decree a “coup”—Erdogan’s spokesman said Ankara was worried about “the suspension of the democratic process”—seems to have reconciled itself to the course set by Saied, removing the biggest threat of instability from outside.
After the sound and fury of the first few days, it appears that the most mature democratic experiment of the Arab spring has once again risen to the occasion: Tunisia’s mainstream was able to consolidate quickly enough to marginalize extremist voices, and the opportunity now exists to start a new chapter, having learned from prior mistakes.