In new dispute with PM, Tunisian president lays claim to security powers

Some Islamists in social media went as far as to accuse Saied of harbouring “putsch” designs.
Monday 19/04/2021
President Kais Saied (C), Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi (R) and Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi (L)  attend a ceremony,  April 9, 2021 in Tunis. (AFP)
President Kais Saied (C), Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi (R) and Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi (L) attend a ceremony, April 9, 2021 in Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS – Tunisian President Kais Saied said on Sunday that his powers as commander of the armed forces also cover the internal security forces, not only the army, in the latest escalation of his dispute with the prime minister.

“The president is the supreme commander of the military and civilian armed forces. Let this matter be clear to all Tunisians … I do not intend to monopolise these forces, but the constitution must be respected,” Saied said in a speech attended by his two key political adversaries, the speaker of parliament and the prime minister.

Domestic security forces include the police, the national guards and the customs.

Saied also said that “the president of the republic is the one who assumes (responsibility for) dismissals and appointments to the highest military and diplomatic positions that are related to national security; and this after consulting with the prime minister.”

Mechichi responded to Saied’s speech by saying, “there is no need for individual, odd readings which, moreover, are taken out of context.”

Tunisia was meant to establish a constitutional court to adjudicate such disputes by 2015, but politicians have been unable to agree on the names of the judges to sit on it.

On the sidelines of the inauguration of a new wing at the Hospital of the Internal Security Forces in La Marsa, in the northern suburb of Tunis, Mechichi added that “the laws of the state are implemented, and those who see that there are unconstitutional laws, can resort to specialised institutions and bodies that can decide on such issues.”

The prime minister also considered that Saied’s statements “do remind (us) of the urgent need for the creation of a Constitutional Court, which is the only body entitled to decide on such matters.”

Saied’s comments threaten to draw the sensitive Interior Ministry into the political arena and potentially divide the security establishment as Tunisia’s young democracy grapples with a coronavirus-induced slump as well as militant Islamists.

The president’s statements triggered criticism by a number of analysts, especially in pro-Islamist circles. Some Islamists in social media went as far as to accuse Saied of harbouring “putsch” designs.

A number of jurists also found the president’s re-interpretation of the constitution to be a reflection of a power struggle with the prime minister. Some saw in it “a silent race for prerogatives” at a time when the country is mired in a major health crisis as well as a dire economic situation. Some of Saied’s allies in the parliament have however defended his stance.

Tunisia’s 2014 constitution has until now been widely interpreted as putting the internal security forces and the Interior Ministry under the control of the prime minister.

Saied is a professor of constitutional law whose surprise election victory in 2019 has rattled Tunisian politics.

The dispute erupted when Saied refused this year to approve a reshuffle that included the dismissal of ministers close to him including the Minister of Interior Taoufik Charfeddine.

Seven newly-appointed ministers, including the minister of the interior, are still waiting for Saied to allow them to swear the oath of office before him as stipulated by the constitution.

Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi has held the position of acting interior minister while pressing the president to set a time for the swearing-in ceremony.