Tunisia Needs to Resist the Strongman Temptation

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It is a good omen for Tunisia’s young democracy that Prime Minister Youssef Chahed will not be running for president in December. Instead, his new party, Tahya Tounes, has decided to nominate a young, relatively unknown politician for the position. Better yet would be if Chahad’s bete noire, the incumbent Beji Caid Essebsi, did the same.

Tunisia’s presidency needs to be reduced to a mostly ornamental office, allowing the legislature-led government more space to do its job. That change would also help break the perception, all too common in the Middle East and North Africa, that Arabs can only be ruled by a "strong" man.

Under the nonagenarian Essebsi, the presidency has enjoyed more power than responsibility, undermining the separation of authority defined in Tunisia’s 2014 constitution and contributing to the dysfunction of North Africa’s only real democracy.

Under the constitution, the president and the 217-member parliament are voted to office by universal suffrage, in separate elections. This system resembles that of Ireland, where an elected president performs a mostly ceremonial role while the head of government, known as the Taoiseach, comes from the legislature.

But in Tunisia, this separation was blurred by Essebsi’s election in 2014. Why? Because Essebsi also leads the Nidaa Tounes party, which at the time had the most seats in parliament. For all practical purposes, Essebsi was the prime minister’s political boss, giving the president political power over the government. This state of affairs runs against the spirit of the constitution.

A split in Nidaa Tounes left it the second-largest group in parliament, after the Islamist Ennahda party, with which it had a loose alliance. When Essebsi’s first nominee as prime minister lost a vote of confidence, the president was able to name another Nidaa Tounes member — Chahed — to replace him. But the two men fell out over party politics, leading to Chahed’s ouster from Nidaa Tounes. He was able to remain prime minister because of support from Ennahda, but he has struggled to govern, at a time when Tunisia’s crumbling economy desperately needs reform.

The constant sniping between president and prime minister has caused many Tunisians to despair about their democracy — the only one to succeed after the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011. Some influential figures are already thinking aloud about amending the constitution to vest the presidency with more power. “The division of powers is not a good formula,” says Mohamed Ali Boughdiri, secretary general of the powerful, disruptive labor union best known by its French acronym, UGTT. “What suits Tunisians the best is the presidential form [of government].”

Some young Tunisians, frustrated by the lack of economic progress since 2011, agree. “We need a powerful presidency,” says Nizar Chaari, a publisher with political aspirations. “We need to concentrate power, so we can take quick decisions.” Chaari and Boughdiri are quick to add that an all-powerful president should be, in the union leader’s words, “enlightened and responsive to parliament.”

But Tunisia’s own history — never mind that of the rest of the Arab world — doesn’t allow for much optimism. “We had two presidents ruling us for 60 years,” says Yassine Brahim, leader of the Afek Tounes party.

Besides, a more powerful presidency would put Tunisia on track to repeat the Egyptian post-2011 experience, where Islamists won the office, and were toppled by a military-backed upheaval, returning the country to a pre-Arab Spring state. If a proposed constitutional amendment goes through, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi could remain in power until 2034. Although Ennahda is not nearly as radical as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, secular groups regard it with suspicion, even hostility. The parliamentary system, in which alliances of small parties can stymie larger ones, has allowed them to limit the influence of the Islamists, who have themselves shown little interest in the presidency. That would change if the head of state were to be given more power.

Essebsi, now 92, is keeping Tunisians guessing about whether he will stand for a second term. One of his close advisers says he worries that stepping down would leave the Islamists with too much power. But the solution to that is for Essebsi to seek election to parliament, where he can compete with Chahed and Ennahda for the prime ministership — a role that comes with responsibility as well as power. There’s a risk he might lose, of course; but Tunisian democracy would be the winner.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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