Ghannouchi’s constitutional spin exacerbates rift in Tunisia

The Islamist parliament speaker’s suggestion to render the president’s role purely “symbolic” seen as a self-serving attempt to hoard power.

Monday 01/02/2021
Tunisian Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi attends the presentation of government ministers put forward by Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in the capital Tunis on January 26, 2021. (AFP)
Tunisian Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi attends the presentation of government ministers put forward by Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in the capital Tunis on January 26, 2021. (AFP)

TUNIS – Tunisian Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who also heads the Islamist Ennahda party, pushed for a political stance that is likely to deepen the crisis between the country’s president, prime minister and parliament speaker, as he called for constitutional changes that would make President Kais Saied’s role purely symbolic.

Ghannouchi’s remarks, which included a re-interpretation of the constitution, stressed that the Tunisian president’s role in distributing powers among state institutions is “symbolic and not constitutive.” This reading of the country’s Basic Law is not without direct provocation to President Kais Saied, whose power, as stiuplated by articles 72 and 88 of the constitution, Ghannouchi seeks to limit.

In remarks made during a live virtual dialogue session with a group of Facebook activists, Ghannouchi went on to implicitly accuse Saied of tampering with the constitution, asserting that the stalling of the Constitutional Court  has “opened the door for the interpretation of the constitution by the president of the republic.”

However, he acknowledged that Tunisia is experiencing difficulties that stem from an uneasy mix of presidential and parliamentary systems within constitutional provisions.

He suggested that Tunisia’s political system be changed into a full parliamentary system, where the three branches of power are separated and the entire executive authority is held by the party that comes ahead in elections and selects a prime minister.

In his implicit accusation against Saied and accompanying admission of the failure of the country’s political system, Ghannouchi indicated he is not interested in restoring calm following escalating tensions between the the “the three presidents” — the president of the republic, the prime minister and the parliament speaker.

Ghannouchi criticised Saied for suggesting he would refuse to allow newly-appointed ministers to take the constitutional oath of office.

Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi recently introduced a cabinet reshuffle that was approved by the parliament.

Ghannouchi said: “He (Kais Saied) refuses to accept that the new team of ministers swears the oath of office, and therefore he rejects the cabinet reshuffle, as he believes that he has the right to accept certain ministers and reject others.”

The parliament speaker defended the new members of Mechichi’s cabinet who are suspected of “corruption and conflict of interest.” He said “the charge of corruption is a decision of the judiciary” and considered the accusations against the cabinet members to be the result of  “intrigues aimed at aborting the cabinet reshuffle.”

Saied objects to four new ministers in Mechichi’s government, and has refused to have them appear before him to take their constitutional oath of office that allows them to assume their duties.

The standoff has plunged the country into a constitutional crisis that threatens to paralyse its governing institutions.

The dispute between the three presidencies has repercussions that threaten to further escalate the crisis, amid sharp polemics where positions and opinions diverge.

Mohsen el-Nabti, the official spokesperson for the pan-Arabist Tunisian Popular Current, described Ghannouchi’s remarks as “pouring fuel on the fire, revealing his overt coup-type intentions through a unilateral interpretation of the constitution, and confirms that his ambition is higher than being a speaker of parliament, as he wants to inherit the state and be able to decide on everything and with everything.”

In comments to The Arab Weekly, Nabti called on Saied to “be steadfast and not to let the people be at the mercy of Ghannouchi, and to stay away from the formula of compromises and sharing the spoils that Ghannouchi has practiced with many politicians, as the country is at a crossroads that requires decisive nationalist stances to reject duplicity and the hoarding of power (by Islamists).”

For his part, Tunisian political researcher Khaled Abid considered Ghannouchi’s remarks to be “part of the crisis and illustration of the divide between the presidency of the republic, on the one hand, and the presidency of the government and parliament, on the other hand.”

“What is happening rekindles an old hope by the Ennahda movement when it was in power, as it pushed for a full parliamentary system within the constitution that was being drafted at the time, but it failed to do so. Here is Ghannouchi now trying to do exactly that against the background of the current impasse for which he wants to blame exclusively the president of the republic and deny any responsibility for himself,” Abid told The Arab Weekly.

Mohsen Marzouk, head of the centrist Project of Tunisia Movement, described Ghannouchi’s remarks about the the role of the presidency “as a sincere expression of his putsch-inclined thought.”

In a Facebook post published Sunday,  Marzouk said that Ghannouchi’s statement about the need to establish a full parliamentary system was “a truer expression of the Brotherhood’s desire for this type of system that dismantles the national state.”

This view was shared by Abid Briki, president of the left-leaning Tunisia Forward Movement, who in a post published Sunday described Ghannouchi’s words as a call for a “coup.” “Ghannouchi, who was elected by a few thousand votes, calls for a coup against a president who was elected by nearly three million voters,” he said.