Kais Saied enjoyed a 70% victory in Tunisia's 2019 presidential election. In July this year, he suspended parliament. Photo: DPA / Khaled Nasraoui

Tunisian President Kais Saied’s decision to suspend parliament and fire prime minister Hichem Mechichi set off a long-overdue and unavoidable constitutional crisis rather than a coup d’état in the first representative democracy in Africa and the Arab world.

President Barack Obama meeting Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi in Oval Office on May 21, 2021

Facing mass protest and general discontent with the Tunisian government’s handling of Covid-19 lockdowns and stagnant economic growth, Saied on July 25 ordered the suspension of parliament, lifting MP immunity and declaring a 30-day state of emergency based on Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution.

The move by Saied was called a “coup d’état” by the founder of the country’s largest political party Ennahda and Speaker of the Tunisian parliament, Rached Ghannouchi, and condemned by Tunisia’s largest labor union, UGTT – two voices that are usually in fierce opposition.

Saied’s decree shocked all of Tunisia’s main donor partners and political allies. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement beseeching the country not to give up its hard-earned democratic gains, while the National Press Club in Washington condemned Saeid for closing Al Jazeera’s offices in Tunisia and the New York Times opined on the end of the Tunisian democratic experiment and the Arab Spring.

Tarak Ben Ammar, a Hollywood mogul and one of the three founding fathers of Tunisian multi-party democracy (with Rached Ghannouchi and Tunisian industrialist Hichem Elloumi), said that his and Ghannouchi’s center-right moderate Islamist party felt they had been “duped” by Saied, whom they initially supported as a neutral outsider.

Nessma and Spy Glass Media principal Tarak Ben Ammar during Tunisian PM Mehdi Jomaa meeting with President Barack Obama

Ben Ammar, whose uncle was progressive statesman and Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba, said that the country’s two closest allies – US President Joe Biden and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi – must use their personal influence to bring all parties back to the table.

Saied, a constitutional-law professor who ran on a man-of-the-people anti-corruption platform, is the third Tunisian president elected after free and fair elections were instituted in 2011, succeeding Moncef Marzouki and Beji Caid Essebsi.

The root cause of the present crisis was the failure by all political forces to establish a Constitutional Court as mandated by the Tunisian constitution ratified in 2014.

Political infighting since 2014, and most recently in April, has denied the country the proper legal institution to decide if Saied superseded his presidential authority by suspending parliament rather than dissolving it and calling new parliamentary elections.

Under the constitution, the president, parliament, and the judiciary each name four judges to the court, which then needs the approval of parliament and the signature of the president.

Questions over Tunisia’s commitment to democracy and rule of law could not come at a worst time for the North African nation or for the strategic geopolitical interests of the United States and Europe.

Tunisia’s economy last year contracted by more than 8% as the Covid-19 pandemic ravished the country’s vital tourism sector, while national debt has ballooned to more than 90% of gross domestic product.

Tunisia’s 2021 budget forecast borrowing needs at US$7.2 billion, including $5 billion in foreign loans. It puts debt repayments at $5.8 billion, including $1 billion due in July and August.

Tunisia is in the midst of critical negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington for new lending facilities while seeking billions of dollars in private-sector investment guaranteed by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), the US International Development Finance Corporation (US DFC) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

In fact, Tunisian Finance Minister Ali Kooli and central bank governor Marouane Abassi jointly led an in-person delegation in early May to Washington to hold face-to-face meetings with IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva and World Bank president David Malpass.

Finance Minister Ali Kooli and Central Bank Governor Marouane Abassi hold talks with the IMF and World Bank in Washington DC on May 2, 2021

The current crisis has in effect blocked work on a proposed $500 million deep seaport in Enfidha or Bizerte by the likes of Singapore’s Temasek, Australia’s Macquarie Group and US-based Bechtel.

American interest in developing a much-needed deep seaport in Tunisia is also part of Biden’s recently announced “Build the World Better” (BW3) scheme, whose aim is to limit encroachment by China’s Belt and Road Initiative by promoting and underwriting US and allied infrastructure investment.

Tunisia is also of critical strategic importance for both Biden and Draghi as the country acts as the neutral host for multilateral efforts to bring stability to Libya and a key interlocutor for Algeria, the two main suppliers of natural gas to southern Europe.

While Tunisia is a relatively small nation of 12 million, it competes with major Group of Seven countries on innovation and industrial capacity such as being the first nation to make a cross-border sovereign digital currency transfer and the sixth country in the world to launch a commercial satellite into space.

On July 8, Tunisian blockchain and digital currency group ProsperUS, founded by Walid Driss, executed a digital currency transaction from the Central Bank of Tunisia to the Bank of France, a global first proving Tunisia’s validity as a “regulatory” cryptocurrency sandbox for the European Central Bank and Bank for International Settlement (BIS).

Driss’ pioneering work in developing e-currencies such as the e-dinar won the recognition and small investment from Chicago-based Donald Wilson, a global leader in blockchain and bitcoin transactions through his DRW Trading and Digital Asset concerns.

Prosperus founder and CEO Walid Driss speaks at IMF/World Bank Spring Meeting in Washington DC on April 17, 2018

Regarding Saied’s move, a senior Tunisian Foreign Ministry official said, “This was not a coup. There is still freedom of the press despite one news outlet being closed, and there is freedom of assembly. The Tunisian people’s commitment to democracy remains unchanged.”

No one should yet write off Tunisian democracy or even an Oval Office invitation by Biden to Saied and the country’s new prime minister some time in 2021.

President John F Kennedy greeted Habib Bourguiba in the White House during a state visit in 1961, and Barack Obama welcomed president Caid Essebsi to the Oval Office in 2015.  

Maybe the next chief justice of the Tunisian Constitutional Court will be part of the presidential/government delegation to Washington. 

Peter K Semler is the chief executive editor and founder of Capitol Intelligence. Previously, he was the Washington, DC, bureau chief for Mergermarket (Dealreporter/Debtwire) of the Financial Times and headed political and economic coverage of the US House of Representatives and Senate.