Kais Saied calls for dialogue, says targeted by assassination plot

The Tunisian president refuses that this dialogue should take place “the way previous dialogues were held”, or that it would be a “vain attempt to confer false legitimacy on traitors and crooks.”
Thursday 17/06/2021
President Kais saied meets with current and former prime ministers, June 15, 2021. (Tunisian presidency)
President Kais saied meets with current and former prime ministers, June 15, 2021. (Tunisian presidency)

TUNIS – Tunisian President Kais Saied called on Tuesday for a dialogue with political parties on the creation of a new political system and amendiment the 2014 constitution, which he described as “with locks everywhere‌,” in an effort to ease the ongoing political crisis.

The Tunisian constitution, approved following the 2011 uprising and the fall of the Ben Ali regime, has been generally praised as a modernist document. But many politicians and Tunisian experts admit that it includes many ambiguous provisions and needs amendment. More contentious is the claim by a number politicians and legal scholars that the country needs a shift from the predominantly parliamentary system in place today to a more presidential regime.

“Let us enter into a credible dialogue … to a new political system and a real constitution, because this constitution is based on putting locks everywhere and institutions cannot proceed with locks or deals,” Saied said during a meeting with Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and three former prime ministers.

In a video posted on the official page of the Presidency of the Republic, Saied added he is “open to dialogue”, but refuses that this dialogue should take place “the way previous dialogues were held”, or that it would be a “vain attempt to confer false legitimacy on traitors and crooks.”

“The dialogue will only take place if real solutions are sought to the problems of Tunisians,” he noted, adding “it will not take place the way previous dialogues were held.”

Saied also reiterated his commitment to defend the institutions of the state and protect them against “plots and schemes”, pending the establishment of a new political system.

The Presidency of the Republic will not be “a false witness, nor an ally for any party,” he said, recalling that he does not belong to any political party, alliance or coalition.

Participants in Tuesday’s encounter are said to have agreed to hold a new meeting as soon as possible to allow everyone to present their proposals.

Some experts expressed their reservations about the president’s position. Some found too harsh his criticism of previous dialogue sessions as “neither national nor dialogues” .

“Dialogue held after the assassination of leftist political figures Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi saved the country from the jaws of civil war and earned it a Nobel Peace Prize,” said a Tunisian political analyst.

Commenting on Saied’s call for amending the 2014 constitution, university professor of constitutional law Salsabil Klibi said an amendment would not be possible in the absence of a Constitutional Court.

“Abandoning the constitution to move, as proposed by the head of state, towards a transitional model represents a danger for the country. Questions will arise about the legitimacy of the process. Then, the success of such a move is not guaranteed as there will be a need for a general consensus,” she explained.

On the question of organising a referendum on the amendment to the constitution, the professor said differences remain unresolved, as the recourse to this option remains dependent on the approval of the parliament.

Other analysts said the agenda of the dialogue should include the health and economic crises, not simply the constitutional and electoral systems.

— Power struggle —

Saied’s most recent comments could pave the way for resolving a months-long political standoff with Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who is backed by parliament speaker Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda Movement, over powers and political alliances.

In April, Saied said that his powers as commander of the armed forces also cover the internal security forces, not only the army, ratcheting up his dispute with Mechichi. He also relied on a controversy over the interpretation of constitutional chapters.

While Ennahda, the biggest party in parliament, supports a full parliamentary system, Saied wants a presidential system. The current system is mixed, in which the president is elected directly, while most of the powers are in the hands of the prime minister, who is appointed by the ruling coalition.

Tuesday’s meeting suggested that Mechichi’s government is there to stay, despite heavy criticism of the prime minister, who is also acting minister of interior.

The meeting also coincided with the release of Nabil Karoui, head of Qalb Tounes, the second largest party in the parliamentary coalition in support of the government.

Tunisian political sources said Saied has abandoned escalation in an attempt to show goodwill toward the organisation of a national dialogue to end the crisis afflicting the country.

The sources, who spoke to The Arab Weekly on condition of anonymity, said that the secretary-general of Tunisia’s powerful Labour Union, Noureddine Taboubi played a key role as mediator to resolve the dispute between the president, the prime minister and the parliament speaker.

Ghannouchi had earlier said that the head of the Labour Union informed him that Saied had agreed to oversee a national dialogue, “and we are waiting to discuss the details, conditions and foundations of this dialogue as it is the only solution to resolve Tunisia’s problems, without excluding any party.”

Commenting on the meeting that brought Saied together with former heads of government, the leaders of the Ennahda Movement did not hide their optimism about the current moves to end the crisis, based on an initiative by the Labour Union.

“President Saied presented various proposals that were communicated by Taboubi to the head of Ennahda Movement, as well as the rest of the parties,” said senior Ennahda leader Fathi al-Ayadi.

He added that the president left the parties the freedom to determine the type of government, whether independent or political.

However, Tunisian journalist and editor-in-chief of Al Maghreb newspaper Zied Krichene did not voice the same optimism.

“The dialogue that the president is proposing will not address immediate problems, such as the problem of the cabinet reshuffle that has been suspended for four and a half months, the deadlock on the establishment of a constitutional court and the current crisis of state institutions. It seems all these issues are not among the priorities of the president,” Krichene said.

He noted the president’s proposals will prove divisive.

“Some will rush to support these proposals as being the only solution that will save the country from its crisis. Others will accuse the president of seeking to terminate the democratic experiment,” Krichene said.

A file picture shows Tunisian President Kais Saied (2-R), Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi (R) and Assembly (parliament) speaker Rached Ghannouchi (2-L) in the capital Tunis. (AFP)

“TV debates will take place and opponents will trade accusations but no one will give us an answer to the following questions: how can we overcome, even relatively, the crisis of state institutions and how should we all work to save what can be saved?”

— Assassination claim —

Saied’s Tuesday overtures were overshadowed by his statement claiming that some unspecified political parties have been plotting his assassination, according to the Tunisian presidency’s Facebook page.

“The true patriots do not organise meetings abroad, in order to get away to remove the President of the Republic even by assassinating him”, said Saied, specifying that he is aware of what he said.

In a reaction to the president’s statements, Democratic bloc MP Lassaad Hajlaoui called on Saied to expose the parties who wanted to assassinate him.

In January, the Tunisian presidency announced that Said had been subjected to an assassination attempt through a poisoned envelope, stressing that the president had not received the envelope directly.

The presidency explained in a statement at the time that the director of the presidential office Nadia Akacha opened the envelope and found it empty of any writing, but as soon as she opened it, she experienced  fainting and almost total loss of sight, as well as a severe headache.

Tunisia recently plunged into a political crisis after parliament voted to confirm a new government line-up announced by Mechichi.

Saeid refused to allow some of the new ministers to take their oath of office, amid the ongoing power struggle between himself and Mechichi.

The president argued at the time that he was not consulted on the process as required and charged that one of the proposed ministers is implicated in a corruption case and three others are suspected of conflicts of interest. Mechichi’s cabinet reshuffle was later approved by parliament, deepening the conflict between the prime minister and the president.

Tunisia is the only Arab country to have managed a peaceful transition to democracy after the so-called Arab Spring uprisings that swept through the region in 2011.

But the North African nation’s economy has been crippled by high debt and deteriorating public services, made worse by the global coronavirus pandemic.