Ruling by Decree, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied Now Faces a Reality Check

Four months after invoking Article 80 of the constitution to establish a “state of exception” in which he wields most executive and legislative powers, Tunisian President Kais Saied is still searching for a compromise between his vision of politics and the hard facts of economic reality.

Critics at home and abroad have cringed at the extent of the president’s prerogatives. His exercise of power is mostly unchallenged. With his indefinite suspension of the parliament, Said rules by decree. He is unlikely to face any challenge from new Prime Minister Najla Bouden. Under the new executive orders he issued on Sept. 22, the head of state is the one who appoints members of the cabinet, sets the “general policies and fundamental choices” of the government, while the prime minister just “leads and coordinates the actions of the government.”

Saied knows that the public follows closely all his moves and wants to know if he can deliver. In one month, his support has slipped by more than 10 percent and the initial streak of unbridled optimism is giving way to caution, according to a recent opinion poll.

But Saied still continues to enjoy the confidence of no less than 66 percent of the public. If he does not yet seem to face much opposition at home, it is because the majority of Tunisians remain averse to any thought of returning to the pre-July 25 days when the Islamist-dominated parliament held sway and conflicting interpretations of authority between the prime minister and the president kept the executive branch in utter paralysis.

Socio-economic challenges are not waiting for Saied to figure out which way to go. Recent figures show that unemployment has risen to more than 18 percent, with the figure among young people much higher, at an unprecedented 42 percent. It is too early to tell if and how Bouden, the 63-year geologist and first woman prime minister in Tunisia and the Arab world, will handle the conflicting pressures of financial constraints and social demands.

After being sworn in last month, she has mentioned a set of broad and non-controversial objectives she wants to achieve but has not offered any detailed program. Shoring up the faltering economy will undoubtedly loom large.

Saied and Bouden inherited from previous administrations such thorny issues as unemployment, a stagnant economy, a huge debt burden and a polluted environment. By ineptitude or lack of political will, these governments let the problems fester.

In his first reality check, Saied told unemployed graduates he would oppose the implementation of a 2020 law that would have provided public service jobs to university graduates who have been out of work for more than 10 years. His stance provoked street protests even though he had also promised to launch a system of locally-based domestic corporations to help the unemployed.

The crucial test, however, will be how to secure enough financial resources to fund the 2021-2022 budgets. On the eve of the formation of the Bouden cabinet, the Central Bank urged a high dose of financial diplomacy to convince regional and international donors to come to the country’s help. But finding that kind of support will not come easy, with or without strings attached.

Domestically, fixing the economy would also mean implementing painful reforms that none of the previous nine governments dared undertake. To balance the budget the government needs to curtail big spending, review its financial support to state-owned companies and trim the size of its bloated civil service. It will need to cut price subsidies to energy and food staples. All unpopular decisions. And it remains to be seen if the president’s favorable ratings will be enough to overcome resistance to the reforms.

Bearing such concerns in mind, Bouden has sought to reassure the powerful trade unions of the government’s willingness to keep all its pledges in terms of workers’ salaries and benefits. But it is not clear where the money for that will come from. Saied’s relationship with the unions has been uneven since he excluded them, as well as political parties, from substantial political consultations. Still, his recent phone conversation with the unions’ leader, Noureddine Taboubi, could mean he is adjusting course.

Despite the appointment of the cabinet, the rest of the political outlook remains hazy. Saied has refused to set any time limits for the emergency powers and his rule by decree even though he told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the weekend that the country is preparing to exit the “state of exception.”

Seizing the opportunity of his relatively resilient grace period, he announced his intent to submit his vision of political reform to an “online referendum” probably betting it will be approved by a landslide. The particulars of the referendum have not been made public but Saied is known to favor a presidential system and an emphasis on local politics. He is yet to unveil any clear plans for early elections but some of his supporters are already clamoring for a political party loyal to him.

The president sees the next stage as a “battle for national liberation” from corrupt practices, political meddling in the work of the judiciary and unfair economics.

His distrust of political parties and intent to set up a bottom-up “democratic regime where the people are the true holder of sovereignty” could mean a long period of political uncertainty, especially if he continues his pursuit of his political construct while keeping “traditional” political forces at arm’s length.

Saied has also to accommodate key partners in the West, especially the US and the European Union, which have put the future of Tunisian democracy under their spotlight. Tunisia will need their good will even if the majority of the public supports him in rejecting blatant foreign interference.

On both fronts, at home and abroad, much will depend on the willingness of Saied to strike compromises and involve others in search for solutions. Recent moves have shown a propensity on his part to adjust position under the pressure of reality.

Much will eventually depend on to what extent the hard facts of Tunisia’s challenges will guide him toward charting a more pragmatic course of change aimed at addressing the country’s many crises.

Oussama Romdhani is editor of The Arab Weekly. He previously served in the Tunisian government and as a diplomat in Washington.