TUNIS – Political tensions have not subsided after Tunisian President Kais Saied called earlier this week for a dialogue between the main actors in the country about legal and constitutional reforms.
Saied’s comments about previous dialogue sessions have sparked sharp criticism from the trade unions which had previously endorsed the role of the president as an arbiter in any new round of the national dialogue.
Noureddine Tabboubi, Secretary-General of the Tunisian Workers Union, the country’s main trade union known by its French acronym UGTT, pushed back, Thursday, against Saied’s remarks where he described the previous dialogue sessions, including the one held in 2013, as being “neither national nor dialogues.”
The UGTT had taken part in the 2013 dialogue as part of a “Dialogue Quartet”, which also included the country’s business federation, the national bar association and the human rights league.
On 9 October 2015, the quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Much of the union’s resentment is likely due to the sharper connotation conveyed by Arabic equivalent of “Watani” in the term “Hiwar Watani” used in Arabic to mean national dialogue. “Watani” can mean both “national” or “nationalist”.
The UGTT “denounced” Thursday the statements by the president. It stressed that without the 2013 dialogue, ” we would not have been able to avoid a civil war that was to shake the country after the assassinations which targeted political symbols, security and military troops and citizens”.
Saied denied having meant to raise doubts about the patriotism or nationalism of any of the parties to the 2013 dialogue.
In a video recording posted Tuesday on the official page of the Presidency of the Republic, Saied had declared that he was “open to dialogue”, but rejected the idea 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, he said, “will not take place the way previous dialogues were held.”
Some experts expressed their reservations about the president’s position and endorsed the unions’ viewpoint.
“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.
Saied had advocated on Tuesday a dialogue on the creation of a new political system and amending the 2014 constitution, which he has described as a basic law “with locks everywhere”.
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 numerous politicians and Tunisian experts have admitted that it includes many ambiguous provisions and might need amending. More contentious has been 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.
Such a viewpoint has been opposed by opponents of the presidential system, especially the Islamist party Ennahda.
“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 current Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and three former prime ministers.
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 and proceeding, as proposed by the head of state, to 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.
Other analysts said the agenda of the dialogue should include the health and economic crises, not simply the constitutional and electoral systems.
In media comments, Tabboubi has confirmed Thursday that 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.
The president has for months blocked the swearing in of seven members of government over suspicion of “corruption.”
But Tabboubi said Thursday Saied still insists that four members of the cabinet proposed by Mechichi will have to be replaced.
The Tuesday 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.
The freeing of Karoui, who faces a judicial probe over tax evasion and money laundering, could ironically complicate matters as Saied is not expected to approve his participation in the dialogue.
Tunisian journalist and editor-in-chief of Al Maghreb newspaper Zied Krichene was sceptical about Saied’s planned dialogue.
“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.
The trade unions called Thursday for “the resolution of the political and constitutional crisis at the earliest possible time or to move to early elections.”