Tunisia’s 90-year-old president, Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi, does not appear to slow with age. Since his legislative and presidential election victories in 2014, Essebsi, the founder of Nidaa Tounes, has rather become number one player in the political arena.
Tunisia’s 90-year-old president, Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi, does not appear to slow with age. Since his legislative and presidential election victories in 2014, Essebsi, the founder of Nidaa Tounes, has rather become number one player in the political arena. His recent removal of the former prime minister, Habib Essid, and his replacement with Youssef Chahed has been seen as a move to consolidate power.
Essebsi’s critics say that the president is trying to create a “disguised” presidential system by appointing a member of his party as prime minister, effectively creating a semi-parliamentary system.
President’s new clothes
Even before the announcement of a national unity government, currently led by Youssef Chahed, it was rumored that Essebsi was the prime actor in the country, especially after removing the former mrime minister without disclosing his intention to form a new government to tackle the economic crisis.
Essebsi does not conceal his desire to return to the presidential system that existed before the revolution. The president has regularly stressed the need to amend the constitution towards a purely presidential system at meetings or in TV interviews.
Adnen Manser, secretary general of Tounes Al-Irada movement – the movement of former president Moncef Marzouki – states that Essebsi is “deliberately exceeding his constitutional powers.”
In the Tunisian political system powers are split between the executive branch, represented by the prime minister and president of the Republic and the legislative branch, represented by Parliament.
The constitution does not allow any of these branches to unilaterally make decisions on major issues yet it invokes some kind of overlapping or conflict between them. For example, the constitution allows the president to pass a no-confidence decision against the government at any time. The political system is enshrined in the January 2014 Constitution, often described as a hybrid ‘semi-semi’ system because of the impasse the splitting of powers creates.
The constitution entitles the prime minister to implement state policies, run its day-to-day affairs, appoint top officials, and create and dissolve new ministries and offices. The president, on the other hand, represents the state in political affairs and security and foreign policy issues. Parliament mirrors the political landscape and the different parties.
Amin Mahfouz, professor of constitutional law, believes the constitution paved the way for a ‘distorted system’. “It has to be rectified towards a presidential or parliamentary system, through a reconsideration of the relationship drawn within the executive authority itself, or between the executive and legislative powers,” Professor Mahfouz told Correspondents.
Even members of the president and prime minister’s party are sceptical of the political system. Munji El-Harbawi, a Nadaa Tounes MP, told Correspondents that the present political system in Tunisia “creates a conflict” between the head of the executive authority (the president and prime minister) and the legislative authority (Parliament), which causes the country to live under a hard-to-implement system.” El-Harbawi believes that a political culture that recognizes Parliament as a supreme legislative and supervisory body “is not deep-rooted yet in Tunisia.”
Since the formation of the national unity government under Youssef Chahed the media have speculated about President Essebsi’s intentions to form a parliamentary bloc comprised of Nidaa Tounes members and other loyal parties. The ultimate goal is said to be to create a push towards a presidential system. Sources at the Palace of the Republic, the president’s office, deny these allegations.
The media have also suggested that the Ennahda Movement will not be included in the new united front because the party has pushed towards adopting a parliamentary system since the fall of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The Ennahda movement had earlier reluctantly accepted the implementation of a semi-parliamentary system in the aftermath of the severe political crisis that hit the country between 2012 and 2013, when it led the former Troika government.
Ennahda leader Ajmi Lourimi told Correspondents that it was “premature at this stage to speak about changing the political system” in the country because the present system has not existed long enough to be evaluated.