Doubts surround ‘leak’ about Tunisian presidency ‘s discussion of ‘coup’

The latest “leak” claims the president’s office has discussed a plan for a “coup.” The implausible document could be a reflection of Qatari discontent at the president’s strident anti-Islamist remarks. It could also reflect unhappiness by a faction within Ennahda about de-escalation between Saied and Ghannouchi.
Tuesday 25/05/2021
A file picture shows Tunisian President Kais Saied (C), Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi (R) and Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi (L) in the capital Tunis,  attending a ceremony. (AFP)
A file picture shows Tunisian President Kais Saied (C), Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi (R) and Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi (L) in the capital Tunis, attending a ceremony. (AFP)

TUNIS--A British news website close to Qatar published an allegedly leaked document claiming to expose plotting in the Tunisian presidential palace to foment a “coup” based on Article 80 of the Constitution which, under certain conditions, can grant emergency powers to the president for a limited period of time.

While the war of the leaked documents and wiretaps has become a fixture of Tunisian political life, the latest allegations published by a pro-Qatari website could be, according to some Tunisian analysts, a reflection of Doha’s annoyance with President Kais Saied after his recent visit to Egypt and the vehement statements he made against political Islam.

According to others, the document could have been “placed” in the British website by Tunisian Islamists who were displeased with signs of more cordial relations between the president and Ennahda’s leader Rached Ghannouchi.

Supporters of the Islamist-backed government of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi see Saied as hindering the swearing-in of about half of the cabinet over constitutional reservations. They claim the president wants to obstruct the work of the government by any means, including discouraging foreign investors from coming to the country, as he did in a recent interview in Paris.

Presidential adviser Walid Hajjam dismissed the “leak” as “a futile and ill-directed theatrical play.”

Some Tunisia watchers suspect Saied’s Islamist arch-rivals to be intent on dragging the president into a maelstrom of statements and counter-statements in the hope of destabilising him.

These analysts note that the implausible memo quoted in the article does not bear any signature and does not reflect Saied’s style of writing nor arguing. Some of Ennahda’s figures admit this. Former Islamist minister of health Abdellatif Mekki concedes “there is no evidence that links the published document to the president.”

The “leak” reads more like a new episode in a series of apparently contrived disclosures aimed at influencing the public’s perception of the president, who remains highly popular in the polls.

An opinion poll published Tuesday showed Saied would be the frontrunner in any presidential election with more than 43% of the votes, trailed by Free Destourian leader Abir Moussi by slightly more than 14%.

A hard-line  Islamist MP claimed recently he had proof the US government financed Saied’s election campaign. The allegation was refuted by the US government and has been taken up by the  courts.

There is however a new development in that the most recent “leak” did not appear in a local media outlet nor in a video tape or telephone call recording that was directed at Tunisians, but was published instead in a British website reputed to be close to Qatar.

It could mean that Islamists have used their Doha connections to ratchet up pressures against the Tunisian president using  the credibility of the web site that most Tunisians have not heard of till now. Since the controversial article appeared, Tunisian social media platforms have been rife with comments highlighting the pro-Qatari and pro-Islamist biases of the news outlet.

The Middle East Eye website said the document was “leaked from the office of Saied’s chief of staff Nadia Akacha. It claimed that it was labelled “absolutely top secret” and dated May 13.

The anonymous author of the memo urged President Kais Saied to invoke Article 80 of the Constitutions that deals with “emergency situations”, as “a means to concentrate all powers in the hands of the President of the Republic.”

Tunisian watchers say that the publication of the “leaked” document could reflect infighting within Islamist ranks over relations with Saied. It could also mirror a change of heart by Qatar towards Kais Saied after having received him on a recent visit and promised him support. It could also imply both.

Analysts pointed out that President Saied’s visit to Doha was aimed at appeasing tensions with the Ennahda Movement and its president, Rached Ghannouchi. Some sources said Qatar has even worked to forge an alliance between the two leaders but when Saied continued to voice his harsh criticism of Ennahda, Ghannouchi and the Islamist-backed government, Qatar ended up re-assessing its position and dropping its promises.

The same sources did not rule out that the “leak” was a direct reaction to Saied’s visit to Egypt and his attacks against political Islam and the Union of Muslim Scholars, the Doha-based political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.

A day after his visit to Cairo, the  president said in a speech at the Zeitouna Mosque in Tunis that “the Koran was directed to Muslims, not to the Islamists, nor to the Association of Muslim Scholars.”

Islamist unhappiness about his visit to Cairo could have had to do in particular with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s talk about “Egyptian-Tunisian cooperation to dry up sources of terrorist financing and confront extremist ideology,” and “the need to strengthen ways to combat terrorism in all its aspects,” which was understood to mean the Muslim Brotherhood and its various branches in the region.

On the sidelines of Ghannouchi’s recent visit to Doha, it was rumoured that Saied had refused a Qatari offer of support, conditioning the acceptance of such assistance upon the resignation of the Mechichi government.

According to some observers, there have nonetheless been timid signs of improved relations between Ghannouchi and Saied in more recent weeks, including an exchange of Eid al-Fitr greetings earlier this month. Analysts speculated that Ennahda’s leadership was divided over such a change of mood. Some argued the dire situation of the country, which faces an unprecedented political and economic crisis, would justify Saied and Ghannouchi lowering the level of tensions between them and establishing some form of dialogue over contentious issues. A faction of Ennahda was said, however, to have opposed de-escalation between the two, continuing to see Saied as a “threat” to the Islamist party.

Ghazi Chaouachi, Secretary-General of the Democratic Current (pro-President Said bloc in parliament), downplayed the value of the “leaked” letter, saying that it is “an anonymous document with no handwriting or signature and we should not take it seriously and I do not think it has anything to do with the (presidential) palace.”

Talking to The Arab Weekly, he added that, “Whoever thinks that the president can renege on legitimacy, state institutions or the  will of the people by invoking the provisions of Article 80 of the Constitution or using this mechanism for the same purpose is delusional”.

He stressed that “Kais Saied is a man of constitutional law and I do not think he is considering a coup.”

He suggested that “the document was fabricated and the parties that published it aim to deepen the crisis between the president, the government and the parliament and it should not be given any importance by wise people who are looking for ways to bring the views of Tunisians closer.”

Ennahda spokesman Fethi El-Ayadi told The Arab Weekly that “the document’s credibility is reflected by its content and the fact that the ideas it contained were expressed elsewhere in more than one occasion (regarding calls to invoke Article 80.”

Ayadi added, “The president must come out and confirm in a speech the process is still on track. We do not accuse Saied, but what is required is to spread an atmosphere of confidence and curtail rumours and accusations.”

Asked whether Ennahda was behind the leak of the document, Ayadi said, “We do not leak this (this type of) document,” wondering, “How can we leak it when we do not believe in Article 80?”

The document suggested invoking Article 80, “calling for an urgent National Security Council meeting and inviting senior officials to attend it, including Parliament Speaker Rashid Ghannouchi,” but then “adjourning the session afterwards without allowing attendees to leave the Carthage Palace.

“The head of state would then address the people in the presence of the speaker of parliament and the prime minister to announce the exceptional measures.”

Saied would declare a “constitutional dictatorship” that would allow for “concentrating all powers in the hand of the President of the Republic. The armed forces will be deployed at the entrances to cities and vital facilities and at the same time key people will be placed under house arrest.”