From a human rights perspective, “good governance” is the process by which public institutions run public affairs, manage public resources, and ensure the implementation of human rights standards. Yet from the perspective of Tunisian President Kais Saied, governance will not be good unless the three branches of public power are replaced with Saied himself, as he is the only one who can see, know, and determine the needs of the state. And he is the only one who can eliminate political, social, judicial, and economic corruption in the country, and all the ills that may afflict it.
Since the first day the exceptional measures were announced on 25 July 2021, it has been clear that Saied will use all his might to go down the road of totalitarian rule, to ignore the will of the people, and even claim guardianship over Tunisia under weak pretexts and without constitutional basis.
Let's try to make sense of it all. Can a man who had—at the time the measures were announced—spent less than two years in power, never held any other political or military position, and had no actual influence in the state apparatus, implement all these measures that need a veteran dictator to actually apply on them on the ground?
We must search for Saied's powerful partners, who appeared with him in the televised speech when he announced the exceptional measures, but who have always preferred to work behind the scenes rather than in the spotlight. In fact, they have a fundamental opposition to a democratic form of government.
Signs of the Tunisian military's involvement in the new system began to appear as soon as Saied announced the presidential procedures. The army closed all entrances to the parliament's headquarters and prevented its president, Rached Ghannouchi, and some additional members from entering it—actions clearly aligned with Saied's controversial decisions.
Some might say that the army is obligated to carry out the instructions of the country’s president, but logic says the army's quick and decisive moves indicate its generals' involvement in planning for these exceptional measures. Given their level of influence, it is absurd to assume that the president has forced the generals to carry out his instructions using only his constitutional capacity.
The Tunisian army had largely remained neutral since the overthrow of the late President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, and had previously avoided direct interference in politics. Its undeclared support of Saied opens the door to a new dynamic reminiscent of several other Arab countries—military guardianship of a superficially democratic state.
If we look impartially and objectively at the developments in the post-25 July 2021 stage, it is evident that Saied is systematically carrying out a horrific slaughter against the rare democratic experiment in Tunisia. His exclusionary decisions affected almost all aspects of democratic life; he even decided to control the judiciary by dismissing judges on vague charges that only he verified. In the midst of making all these brash decisions, the president was keen to carry out periodic visits to security and military headquarters to flex his power in front of his political opponents, and as a public affirmation of the source of his strength.
Evidence for the military’s involvement in the current scene in Tunisia is too numerous to mention. It is more than sufficient to recall when a member of parliament as well as a journalist were—for the first time in Tunisian history—tried in a military court.
Tunisian security services were most likely ready and eager to implement dozens of decisions such as arrests (including house arrests), raids, travel bans, closures, and others against political opponents who refused the monopoly of power and repression, and journalists whose sole intent was to deliver the truth.
President Saied is proceeding at a fast pace with his decisions, which satisfies no one but his powerful partners. He called for a national dialogue that excluded all other political forces, and set a date for a referendum on a new constitution drafted by a committee that he formed himself. This committee works under his and his partners’ command, and if not for their support, Saied would not have been able to realize any of his goals—goals that have set Tunisia back years, to the darkness of dictatorship and the one-man rule.
It is not yet possible to accurately identify the reasons that prompted the military to partner with Saied to oversee the demise of Tunisia’s democratic institutions, but what should concern in the moment is the fate of any future democratic experiment in the country. Who has the power on the ground?
This answer may become clear after seeing the outcome of the current situation and the form in which Tunisia will emerge from this crisis. The task of the Tunisian president and his partners in demolishing democracy and controlling state institutions does not seem to be easy and smooth, given the efforts of organizing unions and political entities that have a long history of noble defense of their rights and gains. There are also timid international calls—not yet worthy of being called pressure—on the president to respect the will of Tunisians, end the policy of exclusion, and return to the democratic path.