Category Archives: Middle East and North Africa

Tunisia – Sliding back towards presidential authoritarianism?

From its independence to the January 2011 uprising, presidentialism in Tunisia was synonymous with dictatorship. Indeed, former presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali had both concentrated power in their own hands, with the legislative and judiciary branches acting as extensions of this power. In the aftermath of the January 2011 revolution, the interim government and later the elected constitutional assembly opted for a semi-presidential system. Indeed, nearly all political parties agreed that such a system was essential to decentralize executive power in order to prevent the return of an authoritarian presidentialism. However, in the last few years, the current President, Hafedh Caïd Essebsi, has been arguing that a lack of centralized executive power is preventing Tunisia from progressing both in its political reforms and its economic development. Could this be an early sign that Tunisia is slipping back into a form of authoritarianism?

Presidential authoritarianism: Bourguiba and Ben Ali

After years of civil unrest and guerilla warfare, Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956. Habib Bourguiba, a member of the nationalist New Constitutional Liberal Party (commonly known as Neo Destour), became prime minister following elections held in the last days of the French protectorate. Bourguiba quickly enacted measures to solidify his position. After setting up special courts to prosecute former collaborationists and his enemies in the nationalist movement, Bourguiba maneuvered to oust the Bey and head of state, Muhammad VIII al-Amin by pressuring the national assembly into declaring a republic and then assumed the title of president. During Bourguiba’s rule, dissent was stifled. Bourguiba stressed that Tunisian democracy was to be an expression of national unity. Opposition parties were barely tolerated and Tunisia’s bicameral legislative body, comprised only of Neo Destour members, was but a rubber stamp parliament. Indeed, after serving three five-year terms as president, Bourguiba was named “president for life” by this parliament in 1975. Bourguiba’s presidency ceased only when, in 1987, prime minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali summoned a group of medical professionals who officially declared the ailing president mentally and physically incapable of exercising his duties

As the Tunisian constitution stipulated that the prime minister would succeed the president in the case of the latter’s death or severe illness, Ben Ali replaced Bourguiba as president of Tunisia following what was to be called the 1987 “medical coup”. Initially, Ben Ali cultivated the image of a political reformer keen on introducing a more representative democracy in the nation. Indeed, his political rhetoric relied on terms such as democracy, further economic integration with Europe, as well as individual freedoms and rights. Seemingly in order to prove his good will in these matters, in 1988 Ben Ali introduced a constitutional amendment abolishing the lifelong presidency and capping term limits to two five year mandates. However, as the years went by, it became clear that Ben Ali was only interested in democracy as a façade. Indeed, while a few seats were set aside for opposition parties in parliament, Neo Destour members constituted its vast majority. Further constitutional amendments only confirmed the authoritarian nature of Ben Ali’s regime: in 1997, a third term was added to the previous two-term presidential limit; and in 2002, term limits were abolished altogether, ushering in a de facto return of the lifelong presidency.

The January 2011 revolution and the Essebsi presidency

In January 2011, Tunisians went to the streets demanding freedom, dignity and equality. Moreover, one of the protesters’ staunchest demands was the departure of Ben Ali from the presidency. After a few weeks of public unrest, Ben Ali fled the country with his family, being granted political asylum in Saudi Arabia. A new interim government was established, with former Prime Minister Muhammad Ghannushi becoming pro tempore president. The neo Destour party was formally dissolved. One day after being appointed president, Ghannushi resigned and was succeeded by Fouad Mebazaa. The interim government quickly announced elections for a constituent assembly, which were held in October. The constituent assembly later announced, in December, that during the transition period, which was to end when Tunisia had a new constitution, Moncef Marzouki was to succeed Mebazaa as president.

The new constitution of Tunisia of 2014 limits the mandate of a president to two five-year terms and imposes checks from the legislative, judiciary and part of the executive branches on the office of the presidency. Indeed, under the new system, the direction of the government is explicitly assigned to the Prime Minister, who is responsible before the legislative branch. The first president to be elected under the new constitution is the incumbent, Beji Caid Essebsi (sworn in in December 2014), with Mehdi Jomaa as Prime Minister. It soon became apparent, however, that Essebsi had a view of the presidency that was closer to that of Bourguiba. Nowadays, despite the strong presence of the islamist Ennahdha party in parliament and their apparent commitment to upholding the gains of the 2014 constitution, Essebsi is busy building a personality cult and has repeatedly complained to the press of the inadequacies of the 2014 constitution. Indeed, in a 2016 interview with the national daily La Presse, Essebsi laid out his plan to eventually amend the constitution to disentangle the “interwoven powers” of the executive branch in order to concentrate them in the office of the presidency. A major factor in government inefficiency, he added, was the “independent constitutional bodies”, that is, the independent agencies mandated by the constitution to monitor elections and combat corruption. Moreover, Essebsi, following the example of Bourguiba, has extended the powers of the presidency. On one hand, he has begun acting as an arbitrator in legislative affairs, making the Prime minister a simple instrument through which presidential prescriptions are applied; on the other hand, he has yet to set up the Constitutional Court, which was supposed to have been operational by January 2015.


Tunisia’s new constitution was designed to prevent the return of authoritarian presidentialism. However, “the strength of a constitution depends on the political determination to breathe life into the letter and the spirit of it”1. With the Tunisian economy still weak seven years after the 2011 revolution, many Tunisians understandably feel that further political and economic reforms are urgently needed. If these are not undertaken soon, there is a definite chance that the electorate, in desperation, will agree with president Essebsi that the current constitutionalist regime needs to be overhauled to bolster the powers of the presidency.


  1. Thierry Brésillon (2017). Tunisia: towards the restoration of personal power [online at]

The author would like to thank Alessandra Bonci for her advice on writing this blog post.

Egypt – The 2018 presidential election

This is a guest post by Jean-Francois Letourneau of the Department of Political Science, Université Laval, Canada

Between the 26th and the 28th of March, Egyptians were called to cast their ballots in a presidential election. The intentions of the regime, though, were very clear: all serious opposition candidates had been either arrested or pressured to quit the race. Only one candidate was to win, and the outcome could easily be predicted.

The context

The history of modern Egypt as a truly sovereign polity began with a military coup against the monarchy in 1952. The Free Officers, under the leadership of Nasser, redistributed much of the state’s infrastructure to loyalists, who were unprepared for and in some cases uninterested in the entrepreneurialism that had led Egypt to be one of the most advanced economies in the then “Third World”. Indeed, since the historic coup, capital accumulation and the capture of rents have been mostly limited to an elite close to (or members of) the three pillars of the Egyptian state: the presidency, the armed forces, and the security apparatus.

Presidential and parliamentary elections were introduced by President Sadat, Nasser’s successor, but from the beginning were intended only to give the regime a façade of democracy working in synergy with a increase in crony capitalism catalyzed by neo-liberal reforms. Under Sadat’s successor, President Mubarak, the regime very slowly descended into a “social-fiscal trap”: although elites increasingly benefited from more market-oriented policies, the state, which had lost its direct control over most of the economy, found itself less able to finance its immense public sector (which constitutes half of the country’s nominal GDP) or to maintain high subsidies for basic foodstuffs and essential commodities. Eventually, the regime collapsed, unable to bear the weight of its own contradictory nature, at which time the armed forces stepped in to pick up the pieces. The results are well know: free elections led to a Muslim Brotherhood government and presidency, which was later overthrown (with the support of a large segment of the population) by the armed forces.

The presidential elections held in 2014 led to the victory of Abdel Al-Sisi, the very man who, as head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), had ordered the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi.(1) Since the beginning of his first mandate as president, Al-Sisi has pursued policies quite similar to those of his predecessors (with the obvious exception of Morsi), albeit he has maintained closer ties to the military and allowed it to accumulate more economic and political power. It is perhaps a testimony to his political acumen that he has, up to now, successfully based his legitimacy on his role as a bulwark against terrorism.

The Constitution

In the last 6 years, Egypt has seen two new constitutions. The first of these was mostly written by members of the 2012 constituent assembly (CA) loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood and included controversial clauses, such as the creation of a non-elected “Shura council” and the granting of a legislative veto to Al-Ahzar University. The second constitution was drafted by a new CA formed after the overthrow of the Egyptian Brotherhood government. The draft was then approved by a referendum in early 2014 “in an atmosphere marred by street fighting, terrorist attacks, political apathy, and a large Islamist constituency boycotting the vote altogether”. This new constitution considerably bolstered the role of the military: no longer was there any pretense of accountability to the parliament or courts. Indeed, the armed forces now had a clear mandate to interfere in civilian affairs if its leading officers and the president felt it was needed. Moreover, the powers of the presidency were increased: the president now had the explicit capacity to call cabinet meetings and make policy without consulting the prime minister. As for the judiciary, the constitution admitted that its independence “should” be maintained, but that this would be accomplished through legislation.(2)

The candidates

A number of candidates entered the race in January 2018 (the official beginning of the presidential campaigns). However, one after the other were either arrested or pressured into rescinding their candidacy. One important threat to the incumbent was the candidacy of Sami Anan, a retired general and former chief of staff of the armed forces.(3) Having announced, on January 20th, that he represented a real alternative to president Sisi, he was later arrested on the rather dubious charges of having forged his release as a reserve officer in the armed forces. Another high-profile potential candidate, Mohamed Al-Sadat, the nephew of former president Sadat, announced in mid-January that he would not be participating in the campaign, explaining that it would “be like committing suicide running against someone like [Sisi]”(4). Perhaps most threatening to President Sisi was the candidacy of Ahmed Shafik, former commander in chief of the air force and presidential candidate in the 2012 election, which he lost by 48% to 52% in a runoff against Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi. Shafik was in the UAE when he declared his candidacy in the 2018 election. UAE police soon deported him and his whereabouts remained unknown to his family until a video of him appeared in the Egyptian media reminiscent of the Moscow trials: downtrodden and submissive, Shafik announced that he had reconsidered and was no longer running as he was “out of touch” with Egyptian politics.(5) With no candidates remaining, the regime appears to have hastily propped up a lone candidate to oppose Sisi: a obscure politician named Mostafa Moussa who, before registering himself as a candidate, was campaigning for the incumbent president. As could be expected, the “campaign” itself was mostly a matter of a variety of electoral posters and billboards exhorting Egyptians to vote for the incumbent president.


Although the victory of the incumbent president was almost certain, and there were little “campaign issues” outside the menace of violent jihadists, there are numerous pressing issues that the re-elected president will need to address. One is the effects of the austerity measures on the Egyptian people: lower subsidies, fewer public servant jobs and high inflation could easily lead to a storm of discontent, perhaps worse than what occurred during the so-called “bread riots” that followed an attempt to lower subsidies under president Sadat. Indeed, the very fact that two generals attempted to run as candidates could be a signal that some parts of the military are discontented with Sisi’s policies.(6) Moreover, the grandiose infrastructure programs announced by Sisi have yet to take off: the building of the “New Capital” on the east side of the Greater Cairo area has been plagued with delays and contract cancellations, and the plans to supply the new metropolis with water seem somewhat implausible considering the scarcity of the already available water supply and the very real possibility that water will become even scarcer as Ethiopia begins to fill the reservoir behind its newly constructed “Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”.(7) Only time will tell if President Sisi will be able to successfully address these imminent crises.


[1]Robert Spingborg. Egypt, Polity, 2017

[2]EU Directorate-General for external polices. Egypt: in depth analysis of the main elements of the new constitution, 2014

[3]Madaonline []

[4]Ruth Michaelson. The Guardian,  Jan 15th 2018

[5]BBC world newsonline []

[6]Carnegie Middle East Center. Why Sisi seams worried[]

[7]Carnegie Middle East Center. River of Discontent[]

Nathalie Bernard-Maugiron – Should the 2014 Egyptian Constitution be Amended to Increase Presidential Powers?

This is a guest post by Nathalie Bernard-Maugiron, Senior Researcher, Institute of Research for Development, Paris

Between 10 and 25 January 2016, the Egyptian Parliament ratified in 15 days more than 300 law-decrees adopted by President Abdelfattah al-Sisi since his election in June 2014.[1] In spite of calls by Egyptian experts[2] and NGOs[3] not to ratify abusive decrees that had, among other things, banned protests, legalized emergency police powers, and expanded military court jurisdiction over civilians, all the laws were rubber-stamped by the House of Representatives without much debate or discussion. Only the new Civil Service Law was rejected by the deputies.

These laws were endorsed on the basis of Article 156 of the 2014 Constitution according to which in case an event requires taking urgent measures which cannot be delayed while the House of Representatives is not in session, the President of the Republic may issue decrees having the force of law, provided that they are presented to, discussed and approved by the new House of Representatives within fifteen days from the commencement of its session.  When the Parliament met for the first time in January 2016 after the parliamentary elections, not only did they not challenge the urgent nature of these laws but they also decided to review only those that had been issued after January 18, 2014, meaning after the approval of the Constitution in a popular referendum, and not after July 2013, the dissolution of  the Upper House of Parliament and the appointment by the armed forces of an interim president to replace President Mohamed Morsi. The newly elected Parliament, therefore, gave a restrictive interpretation of its supervisory powers under the 2014 Constitution. In addition, many newly elected MPs declared that they wished to amend the ‎constitution to grant the president greater powers.[4]

  1. Should the President’s Term be Extended?

Newly elected members of the Parliament wish to increase the ‎president’s term in office to more than four years and to end the two-term limit. Since 2005, the president has been elected by direct universal suffrage. The 2014 Constitution (art. 140)  provides that he will be serve for four years and may be reelected only once. He must be an Egyptian, born to Egyptian parents, and neither he nor his parents nor his spouse may have held any other nationality (art. 141). He must enjoy civil and political rights, have performed military service or have been exempted therefrom by law, and shall not be less than 40 years (art. 141).

In order to be accepted as a candidate for the presidency, candidates must receive the recommendation of at least twenty elected members of the House of Representatives, or support from at least twenty five thousand citizens enjoying the right to vote, in at least fifteen governorates, with a minimum of one thousand supporter from each governorate (art. 142).

The constitution does not provide for the appointment of a vice president. In case of the temporary disability of the president, the Prime Minister shall act in his place (art. 160). In case of permanent vacancy, the Speaker of the House of Representatives shall replace him (art. 160). In case the House of Representatives has not been elected, this task falls to the president of the Supreme Constitutional Court (art. 160). The interim President may not run for the presidency or request any amendment to the Constitution or dissolve the House of Representatives or dismiss the Government.

Al-Sisi’s supporters wish to reinstate the provisions of the 1971 constitution, as amended, according to which the president was elected for renewable six-year terms.[5]

  1. Should the Powers of Parliament be Decreased?

It may seem paradoxal that members of the Parliament have called for a decrease of Parliament’s powers and an increase in those of the President.

Parliament and the Choice of the Prime Minister

Some members of the parliament wish to grant the ‎president greater powers. They have particularly criticized the provisions related to the appointment of the Prime Minister (art. 146). According to the new constitution, the President of the Republic shall assign a Prime Minister to form the government and introduce his program to the House of Representatives. If his government does not win the confidence of the majority of the members of the House of Representatives within thirty days at the most, the President shall appoint a Prime Minister who is nominated by the party or the coalition that holds the majority or the highest number of seats in the House of Representatives. If the government of such a Prime Minister fails to win the confidence of the majority of the members of the House of Representatives within thirty days, the House shall be deemed dissolved, and the President of the Republic shall call for the election of a new one within sixty days from the date on which the dissolution is announced. In the event the government is chosen from the party or the coalition that holds the majority or the highest number of seats in the House of Representatives, the President of the Republic shall, in consultation with the Prime Minister, choose the Ministers of Defense, Interior, Foreign Affairs and Justice.

Al-Sisi’s supporters consider that the President should be able to choose and dismiss members of his government without considering the opinion of Parliament, as was the case under Mubarak.

Parliament and the President’s Responsibility

Some members of the Parliament also wish to amend the conditions for impeaching the president. According to Article 159, accusing the President of the Republic of violating the provisions of the Constitution, treason or any other felony must be based on a motion signed by at least the majority of the members of the House of Representatives. The indictment shall only be issued by the majority of two-thirds of the members of the House of Representatives and after an investigation by the Prosecutor General. As soon as this indictment is issued, the President of the Republic shall be stopped from carrying out his duties; this is considered to be a temporary impediment precluding the President from performing his competences until a verdict is issued in the case. The President of the Republic shall be tried before a special court headed by the President of the Supreme Judicial Council with the membership of the most senior deputy of the President of the Supreme Constitutional Court, the most senior deputy of the President of the State Council, and the two most senior Presidents of the Courts of Appeal; prosecution is to be carried out before such a court by the Prosecutor General.

The 2014 Constitution also provided, for the first time, for a confidence removal mechanism. The House of Representatives may propose to withdraw confidence from the President of the Republic and hold early presidential elections upon the filing of a motion to be signed by at least the majority of its members and upon approval of two-thirds of the members of the House (art. 161). Upon approval of the proposal, the matter shall be put to public referendum to be called by the Prime Minister. If the majority approves the decision to withdraw confidence, the President of the Republic shall be relieved from his office and presidential elections shall be organized. If the result of the referendum is negative, the House of Representatives shall be deemed dissolved, and the President of the Republic shall call for the election of a new House of Representatives within thirty days as of the date of dissolution.

It is unlikely that such a procedure would ever reach its term or be initiated. The electoral system chosen for parliamentary elections, the fact that the president may appoint 5% of MPs, and that the assembly will be dissolved in case of failure of the referendum makes it almost impossible that there would be a two-thirds majority of members calling for the dismissal of the president.

  1. Should the President’s Powers be Increased?

The constitution of 2014 is presented by its opponents as having significantly reduced presidential powers in favour of the government and parliament. For instance, they consider that the president should be able to commit the armed forces abroad after a simple notification of Parliament instead of its approval by a two-thirds majority. The new Constitution, though, grants the president extensive executive and legislative powers.

He is the head of state and head of the executive power (Art. 139), and the supreme commander of the armed forces (art. 152). It establishes, in conjunction with the Council of Ministers, the State’s general policy (art. 150). He appoints and dismisses civil and military employees (art. 153), has the right to issue pardon after consulting the Cabinet (art. 155). He represents the State in its foreign relations (art. 151), accredits diplomatic corps (art. 153), declares war and sends armed forces outside after consulting the National Defence Council and with the approval of the House of representatives by a majority of two thirds (art. 152); makes peace and concludes and ratifies treaties (art. 151).

He has the right to propose laws (art. 122), promulgates  them (art. 123) and can use his right of veto (art. 123). As we have seen above, in the absence of parliament, he may issue decrees having the force of law in case an event requires taking urgent measures that cannot suffer any delay (art. 156). He can call for a referendum on issues relating to the supreme interests of the state (Art. 157). He may also propose constitutional amendments (Art. 226).

The President may declare a state of emergency, after consultation with the Government and with the approval of Parliament, for a maximum period of three months, which may be extended for a similar period with the approval of two-thirds of the members of the House (art. 154).

He may appoint up to 5% of the members of the House of Representatives (art. 102). He may dissolve the House, after a referendum, but is not required to resign if he does not get the support of the majority of voters (art. 137).


A common trait among all Egyptian constitutions of the republican era is the presence of a hybrid system, a mixture of presidential and parliamentary systems, increasingly unbalanced in favor of the executive. The 2014 Constitution has retained the same organization of powers while strengthening the concentration of power in the hands of the head of state.

A semi-presidential system is considered by supporters of the president as being incompatible with the security requirements of the current situation and there have been calls for the establishment of a presidential system. To be adopted, such amendments would require a two-thirds majority of the House of Representatives to be submitted to referendum (art. 226). The current composition of the Chamber of Representatives should not make reaching such a majority difficult for the proponents of such amendments.

In September 2015, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi declared that the 2014 Constitution had been written with good intentions, in particular the provisions giving broad powers to the parliament, but that this was not enough to govern a state.[6] This statement was considered as an implicit call to amend the constitution. A few days later, however, the president declared that amending the constitution was not on the table at the current time.[7] This was not enough, though, to ease the worries of the drafters of the 2014 Constitution who decided with public figures in February 2016 to form a committee to protect the Constitution against  those supporters of President Al-Sisi who consider that the constitution unduly limits the president’s powers.[8]


[1] The Tahir Institute for Middle East Policy, Legislation Tracker. Extraparliamentary Laws passed by President Sisi, 9 January 2016,

[2] Ziad Bahaa Eldin, Egypt parliament’s first job: reviewing 340 laws, 13 January 2016,–laws.aspx

[3] Human Rights Watch, Egypt: New Parliament Should Fix Abusive Laws, 12 January 2016,

[4] Gamal Essam Eldin, Egypt’s newly elected MPs vow to amend constitution, 3 November 2015,

[5] The 1971 Constitution had been amended in 1980, to cancel the limitation to two presidential terms (Article 77) and had been amended again in 2005 to establish presidential elections by direct public ballot (Article 76).

[6] Ahram online, Egypt’s 2014 Constitution was Written with Good Intentions but is not Enough: Sisi, September 13, 2015, accessed October 24, 2015,–constitution-was-written-with-good-intenti.aspx. This statement raised criticisms from Nour Farahat, a prominent law scholar (, and from the novelist Alaa al-Aswani, (, for whom the constitution should represent an obligation on all citizens, especially the president. This statement sparked questions around possible amendments of the constitution to reduce the powers of the parliament and increase those of the president.

[7] Ziad Bahaa-Eldin, “Egypt: Reclaiming the Constitution”, Ahram online, 17 October 2015,

[8] Mona al-Nahhas, « Amend or Upend ? », Ahram Weekly, 26 February 2016,

Iran – Former vice-president Baghaei arrested

In this photo taken on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010, then Vice President Hamid Baghaei, second right, and then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visit the National Museum in Tehran, Iran. Iranian authorities on Monday, June 8, 2015, arrested Baghaei, who served under Ahmadinejad, in the second such detention of a senior official from the hard-line former leader’s administration, the official IRNA news agency reported. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

On June 8th, the former vice-president in charge of executive affairs, Hamid Baghaei, was detained for questioning on undisclosed charges, but it is believed that he is suspected to be linked to an embezzlement scandal the Iranian judiciary system has been investigating since last year. This is part of a nation-wide effort to punish and prevent money laundering and corruption promoted by Hassan Rouhani’s government. Since when he was elected as president in June 2013, Rouhani has been one of the staunchest critics of the previous administration, led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), accused of facilitating and being involved in a number of corruption scandals.

Judiciary spokesperson, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ajai, declared to Fars News Agency that ‘former vice-president Hamid Baghaei had a charge sheet issued against him by the judiciary and the prosecutor summoned him today for questioning’, but no further detail was added. Baghaei’s arrest is the second during this year. In fact, in January the former vice-president Mohammad Reza Rahimi was condemned to 5-year imprisonment and to pay a fine of nearly 10 billion rials, corresponding to 300,000 Euro, in connection with money laundering and an embezzlement scheme worth billions of dollars. Although Mohseni-Ajai did not specify the charges against Baghaei, it is believed that the two arrests are linked, therefore outlining a broader scenario where the very final objective might be the one of putting the former president Ahmadinejad under pressure.

Despite facing fierce opposition from the Supreme Leader, the current administration, the parliament and the security apparatus, Ahmadinejad seems to be willing to come back on the national political scene. Former vice-president Rahimi, a friend to Ahmadinejad, apparently wrote a letter to him after his arrest. The letter was later leaked and it linked Ahmadinejad to the corruption scandal. In May 2014, Iran executed billionaire businessman Mahafarid Amir Khosravi, accused of being at the heart of a state bank scam worth 2.6 billion dollars that started in 2007. Although Ahmadinejad denies any involvement, many believe that during his administration corruption was rife throughout those that controlled the country’s economy. Khosravi’s case was the largest fraud case since the 1979 Revolution.

As vice president, Rahimi faced allegations that he was the head of the ‘Fatemi Street Ring’, a group of government appointees and associates that during Ahmadinejad’s governments engaged in a number of embezzlements and bribe takings. Journalists and MPs have accused Rahimi of blackmailing the board of the National State Insurance Company with reports on the company engaging in financial impropriety, thus forcing the directors to sign off millions of dollars into accounts Rahimi controlled. Because Rahimi was appointed as vice president after Ahmadinejad got re-elected as president in 2009, it is speculated that he had a crucial role in help securing funding to sustain the president’s ascent.

On Sunday, president Hassan Rouhani called for the establishment of a ‘completely secure banking system’ to prevent money laundering as part of his administration’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign. Rouhani also stated that Parliament ‘is expected to speed up passing the money laundering bill.’ Rouhani held a cabinet session on June 7 to promote government transparency, stating that ‘A completely secure banking system for official and legal activities …[that] is extremely insecure for illegal activities must be established so that no one can abuse the banking system for money laundering’. The president urged officials to utilize legal measures to strengthen financial transparency and said that the ‘government and judiciary have to cooperate in this regard and the Parliament is also expected to speed up passing the money laundering bill.’

Currently, in Iran all top political figures are supporting efforts for increasing transparency, communicating to the private sector that the new government is cleaning up the scene to attract more genuinely private investments. Gholam Hossein Shafei, president of the Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Mining, has presented his road map for fighting corruption. His guidelines include: ‘political and structural reforms; serious reforms in management concepts; genuine privatization; growing role for nongovernmental organizations and civil society; growing space for independent media to supervise business and government activities; and the promotion of codes of conduct in the private and public sectors.’

The Supreme Leader seems to have given free hand to Rouhani’s efforts, considering that he effectively control Iran’s judiciary system. He is believed to have played a crucial role in making Rahimi’s arrest to happen, and it is likely that he had a similar relevance also in Baghaei’s current detention. It is no coincidence, in fact, he repeatedly called for transparency. Iran is indeed in the middle of a 20-year plan to decentralise and privatise its economy. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly warned officials against using the transition program as a chance to enrich themselves.

Abdalhadi Alijla – From Saleh to Hadi: Who destroyed Yemen?

Abdalhadi Alijla is a Swedish-Palestinian academic and the Regional Manager for ‘Varieties of Democracy Institute’ for the Gulf countries at Gothenburg University, Sweden. He is the executive director for the Institute for Middle East Studies, Canada (IMESC).


As the Arabian’s coalition strikes against Yemen stop, a new era starts with the question “What next?” Yemen’s crisis is not a new one. It is not even a crisis of the post-2011 demonstrations against former President Ali Abdulla Saleh. Rather it dates back to the 1960s. On many occasions, violence has been part of the atmosphere, yet it was managed through the common ground political equation and the strong informal institutions of Yemen (Tribal system). In most of the previous Yemeni crises and the current crisis, the causes have their roots in the political system, specifically the Head of the State.

In the 1960s, the Republic of Yemen in San’a fought against royal forces for about seven years. It ended with a so-called national reconciliation. After southern Yemen’s independence from Yemen in 1967, two wars between the south and the north erupted in 1972 and 1979 respectively. In 1982, the People’s Conference was established, setting its agenda as the unity of the two Yemens. As a result, a new commission and supreme council were established by the conference. A ministerial joint committee worked together until unity was achieved in 1990. They set a time period of two and a half years as a transition phase to merge institutions. The unification agreement included the decentralization of institutions, neutralization of the military, a modern electoral system, and new local governance arrangements. The two leaderships signed the agreement in Amman in February 1994. In the summer of 1994, a new war erupted between the military of the two countries and ended with a defeat for southern Yemen and its socialist party.

The historical legacy of fragmentation in each part of Yemen and the proliferation of militias based on ethnicity and tribalisms suggest that what is currently happening in the country may bring about something worse than what we could have expected.

The latest data from ‘Varieties of Democracy Institute’ shows that there is a huge crisis of the executive in Yemen. V-Dem has collected a unique database of data on democracy from 1900 until today. The aim of the project is to provide better and clearer measures of democratic development for practitioners, academics and policy-makers. Using V-Dem data, we can measure the role of the executive in undermining democracy and peace in countries such as Yemen.

In the following graphs (Graphs Nos. 1 and 2), V-Dem data show how Head of States in both South Yemen and Yemen respected the constitution from the 1950s until 2012. Surprisingly, the Head of the State (Ali Abdullah Saleh) had violated most provisions of the constitution without any legal consequences after the unification of South Yemen and Yemen. Comparing that to the pre-unification agreement in 1990, Southern Yemen had a higher ability to take legal measurements whenever the executive violated the constitution. The second graph shows the Head of the State’ s ability to propose legislation. According to V-Dem data, the Yemeni president could propose legislation in all policy areas or share this power with the legislature.

Within a society such as the Yemeni society where informal institutions, tribalism, nepotism and patrimonialism prevail over good governance and respect for laws and the constitution, the Yemeni president undermined democratic values and liquidated the constitution by appointing relatives to the military and high official posts. Not only that, but he founded and organized paramilitary troops that are loyal to him, violating the constitution signed in 1990 that states that only minister of defense manages and controls the military of the state.


Ymen_Propose legislation

More surprisingly, after the unification of the south Yemen and Yemen, the level of judicial constraints on the executives (Head of the State, Head of Government and Ministers) decreased significantly in south Yemen and by a few degrees in Yemen (Graph 3 below). This can be explained by the collapse of the unification agreement. The war in 1994 between south Yemen and Yemen (after the unification) ended with the defeat of the socialist party. After the war, the South Yemen governmental and formal institutions collapsed, and the People’s Conference took over south Yemen. After that, the unification agreement between South Yemen and Yemen ended by amending the constitutions along the lines of a presidential system (not a presidential council as the agreement stated). The new constitution gave the president complete authority over all policy areas, including judiciary and legislative ones. With corruption widespread, Yemen’s president appointed his relatives and loyalists.

YemenJudical constraints

The current Yemeni crisis is not about the Houthi or Iran’s influence in the area. Taking a look at the egalitarian index of democracy (below) for both south Yemen and Yemen, we see a huge difference between the two. The dissatisfaction among southern Yemeni increases as they were excluded from power. “The egalitarian principle of democracy addresses the distribution of political power across social groups, i.e. groups defined by religion, and ethnicity. This perspective on democracy emphasizes that a formal guarantee of political rights and civil liberties are not always sufficient for political equality. Ideally, all social groups should have approximately equal participation, representation, agenda-setting power, and protection under the law, and influence over policymaking and policy implementation. If such equality does not exist, the state ought to seek to redistribute socio-economic resources, education, and health so as to enhance political equality”. As graph No. 4 shows South Yemen had a higher egalitarian index than Yemen. However, after the unification, both countries had a significantly lower egalitarian index which reveals that some part of the population was excluded from some of their political or social rights. With increasing voices by Southern Yemeni for separation, it seems that the unification has failed, not because the population failed, but because the political system failed (1).

yemen Egalitarian

It seems that the present crisis is not a political one linked to the Houthi and political reform, rather a political, economic and societal dilemma between the Southern Yemeni and Northern Yemeni. The complexities of presidentialism in Yemen accompanied by corruption, nepotism and exclusion of the southern Yemeni led to ongoing deadlock. What is needed is a new political system, preferably power-sharing with southern Yemeni to avoid separatists increasing influence among Yemeni, which may not be a good omen for the future of Yemen.


Al-Sisi’s Egypt: vulnerability and paranoia in the ‘fierce state’

by Marina Calculli and Gennaro Gervasio

In the aftermath of the historic fall of Hosni Mubark, on 11 February 2011, nobody would have predicted that, 4 years later, Egypt would have become an autocracy led by a (harsh) military-backed regime. Since the military coup of July 2013 (backed by the Tamarrod movement), which led to the forced ousting of the elected but unpopular President Mohamed Morsi and to the Presidential elections that sanctioned the triumph of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the new President has embarked on an effort to restore the authoritarian regime. A wide-reaching quest for security and order within the State has enabled al-Sisi and his Military entourage to undertake a “corrective” adjustment to the thawra (‘revolution’), after the weak performance of the Muslim Brothers during their short stint governing the country.

Al-Sisi’s power is entrenched in the legacy of the 2011 revolution, in which he primarily sought – and partially found – his legitimacy. The Tamarrod movement, together with a huge number of anti-Brotherhood intellectuals, underpinned his ascendance to the presidency. The Military, which had embraced the revolution in 2011 (albeit reluctantly in the beginning), was again explicitly called upon to save it, and was pardoned for having attempted an authoritarian takeover just after the ousting of Mubarak.

Though al-Sisi himself likes to be compared to Gamal Abdel Nasser, his move to seize and consolidate his power looks more like a Napoleonic 18 Brumaire than the Free Officers’ Revolution of 1952, which overthrew the monarchy of Farouq. The Muslim Brothers’ bogeyman are continuously portrayed as a ‘Jacobin threat’, from which the General has to step up to save the Republic.

Many of those who supported al-Sisi in 2013 may have come to realize the intimate will of the rais and the Military. However, in al-Sisi’s Egypt there is no room for dialectics. Whilst the Muslim Brothers have been declared a terrorist group, massacred and imprisoned, by virtue of their alleged attempt to “undermine the stability of Egypt”, the main leftist and liberal activists, once hailed as the “heroes of the revolution”, are also in jail. The recent sentence against Ala Abdel Fattah, inter alia, confirms the regime’s paranoia, and its fear of the ‘revolution’ that it originally claimed to defend.

In other words, contrary to his professed will, al-Sisi, less than a year after his election as president of Egypt, has expressly cut all links with the 25 January revolution. The bloody repression of the peaceful celebration of the 4th anniversary of the revolution has just made the attempt to destroy its legacy more explicit.

At the same time, the regime is unwilling to reinvent a narrative of social reconciliation within – and with – the State.

Distrustful of society, brutally repressive, and with its clumsily handling of socio-economic issues, such as poverty and unemployment, the regime feels it has no option but to assert violent control in order to secure its power.

In other words, Al-Sisi’s Egypt has become what Nazim Ayubi called a ‘fierce state’ – a state in which a huge security apparatus is the main guarantor of regime stability. It is noteworthy that, during his 9 months in office, the President has expanded military powers through Presidential decrees.

Such a state, however, is weak and vulnerable, since its authority rests mainly on widespread fear and coercion.

Not surprisingly, al-Sisi has mainly turned towards the search for an external – rather than domestic – legitimacy.

At the regional level, al-Sisi has been strengthening his links with oil-rich countries – especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE – that have already donated more than $22 billion to the state and the military apparatus, de facto saving Egypt from going bankrupt. In an attempt to secure Saudi support, al-Sisi has embraced the Saudi regional policy of effacing the Qatari-sponsored Muslim Brothers from the Arab World.

At the international level, Egypt is trying to depict itself as the main regional pillar in the fight against Islamic terrorist organisations, especially the ‘Islamic State’. For the first time in 24 years – i.e. since the Gulf War of 1990-91 – the Egyptian Military has engaged in military operations outside its borders – notably in Libya – to fight against ISIS.

Parenthetically, the President also called for the formation of an Arab Army under Egyptian command and supervision, trying to implicitly persuade stable Arab monarchies (which called for the formation of such ‘Arab Army’ in the first place) that Egypt is the only Arab power able to protect their stability.

Moreover, al-Sisi has spoken up against extremism, which – in his words – “offends the image of God”. The rais, who has always tried to depict himself as a “good Muslim”, also urged for a reform of Islamic discourse to meet the challenges and the needs of “the modern world”, and to remove “old misconceptions”. Needless to say, in the wake of the international war against ISIS, his words resonate all over the word, leading many politicians and commentators in the West to depict him as the most modern and genuine Arab leader.

Al-Sisi has managed to gain international recognition and support, while, domestically, the Military – a huge organization, which holds more than 100 billion $ of assets, and controls virtually every sector of the economy – is more powerful than ever.

President al-Sisi is a General, coming from the Military, in line with the career of all of the presidents of Egypt, except Morsi. He has greatly contributed to expanding the political role of the Army, which is nowadays much more politically powerful than in Mubarak’s days. However, this move could jeopardise the role of the President, by turning him into a mere puppet of an immensely huge Military structure, which represents the real power in the current ‘fierce state’ of Egypt.

Yemen – President resigns amidst turmoil

There are few historical coincidences as ironic as the simultaneous occurrence, last week, of the resignation of Yemeni President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.

The recent takeover of power by the Shi’a Houthi movement had been one of the major anathemas in Abdullah’s life. After the Houthi’s Ansar Allah (‘Partisans of God’) occupied the Yemeni capital Sana’a in September 2014, forcing the government to resign, their ascendance has been overwhelming. As a result, Saudi Arabia has completely lost control over its neighbouring country, after a long tradition of political indirect patronage, fuelled by personal clientelist relations. Saudi’s last residual share of influence on Yemen withered away with the resignation of President Hadi, the trustworthy man of Ryad.

President Hadi’s resignation came after it became de facto impossible for him to exert his authority, as by now the Houthis control a share of the Yemeni territory stretching from Sa’ada, at the northern border with Saudi Arabia, to the southern province of Thamar. That said, he does not lack popular support. On 24 January around 10,000 people took the streets to protest against his decision to step back, thus formally accepting the Houthis’ coup d’état.

In the meantime, some reported that the international community has already started talks with the young and charismatic leader of the movement, Abdel Malik al-Houthi. If true, this would also explain why President Hadi – once backed by US and Saudi diplomacies – has hastened his resignation. Nonetheless, the political impasse that is afflicting the country is nowhere near approaching its end. On the contrary, new and old dynamics are dangerously merging to create an explosive cocktail.

Ansar Allah’s triumph over Sana’a has been generally depicted as one of the many ‘hot’ proxy wars between the two rival Middle Eastern powers – Saudi Arabia and Iran – that are fighting a Cold War for the regional leadership. Yet, it is not a mystery that the sophisticated weapons in the hands of Ansar Allah militants are of Iranian origin, and that Teheran’s funding of the Houthis  increased tremendously after 2011 at the peak of the Saudi-Iranian Cold War. The Houthis are also depicted as a Yemeni Hezbollah, the main proxy ally of Iran in the region – although their organisation and their ambitions sharply differ from those of the Lebanese ‘Party of God’.

In the same vein, some have provided a sectarian explanation for the current political turmoil in Yemen, claiming that the current impasse is the outcome of the fitna between the Sunnis and the Shi’a in the Middle East.

President Hadi is a Sunni from the southern province of Abyan, among the most active regions of Yemen, reviving irredentist claims of secession from the north. However, it would be reductive to see southern secessionist stances as a mere reaction to Houtis’ advancement. In fact, this claim goes back to South Yemen’s ‘persistent objections’ to the unification of the country in 1990, cyclically reviving during periods of Yemen’s long-standing instability. In addition, what is further exacerbating tensions in the South is al-Qaeda’s attempt to take advantage of the unprecedented weakness of the central authority. The ambiguity of the US, and the general fear over the future of the country, has also pushed many in the Gulf to sustain some radical Sunni Islamist militias, in the hope of pushing back the Shi’a Iran-sponsored Houthis.

The elephant in the room here remains the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh. In another blog post, we highlighted the pernicious role that Saleh has been playing in fostering and aggravating the current political blockage. Forced to resign from power in 2011, under the pressure of a notorious ‘informal’ US-Saudi joint effort to placate the popular uprisings, Saleh tried to take his revenge, through further destabilizing the country. In so doing, the ex-President has mainly relied on the many military and political figures – his “deep state” – that survived his departure.

Saleh’s political gambling aims at preparing the rise of his son to the presidency. Many officers and key tribal leaders, still loyal to him, still support his project. The paradox is that, in spite of the sectarian narratives, Saleh and his loyal basis have allied with the bitterest enemies (the Houthis) of their new enemies (President Hadi and his Saudi-backed political entourage). This is happening in spite of the fact the Saleh harshly repressed the Houthis during the period of his presidency.

Sectarian narratives are informing the fabric of the current Yemeni domestic conflict, and have undoubtedly played a role in galvanising militants. However, by delving deeper into the layers of a complex reality, what is once again fracturing Yemen seems to be mainly a cynical Machiavelian game, leaving little room for religiously motivated stances, while magnifying pragmatic personal interests.

Chiara Loschi – The second round of the Tunisian presidential election

This is a guest post by Chiara Loschi from University of Turin and the Institut de Recherche sur le Maghreb Contemporain in Tunis

photo loschi

On 21 December Tunisia elected its first president since the 2011 uprisings. Béji Caid Essebsi, founder of Nidaa Tounes party, won the second round of the presidential election, winning 55.68% of the vote in the run-off poll (1,731,529 votes). His competitor, the interim president, Moncef Marzouki, ex-leader of the Congrès pour la République party, gained 44.32% (1,378,513 votes). The difference between them in the first round was just 6%. Turnout was 60.11%, a bit less than the first round. Northern and coastal areas mostly supported Essebsi, while the rest of the country supported Marzouki, who was unofficially backed by the Islamist movements and Nahdha.

Nidaa now controls both the government and the presidency. However, even though the legislative election was held at the end of October no government has yet been formed, although the Constitution states that after the official proclamation of results a new government has to be appointed. The leaders of Nidaa decided to wait for the results of the presidential election before consolidating alliances in the Assemblée des Représentants du Peuple (chamber of deputies). There were preliminary discussions and debates, but they ended as soon as the presidential electoral campaign started.

The second round presidential candidates campaigned on similar issues: unifying the country, security, and the need to improve the country’s socioeconomic problems. The election did not see the emergence of new people, but it did see a change in political communication, the relationships between politicians and media, and a general “acceptance of the rules of the game” by all actors.

Both candidates tried to overcome regional differences and win the support of economic and political elites at the national level. Essebsi dwelt upon international relations and the importance of economic restructuring. He relied on unhappiness with the Nahdha transitional government. The appeal to stability and efficiency found a ready ear among the bourgeoisie and the middle class of the northern regions: they are worried about what they see as the chaos and anarchy of the country’s institutions and everyday life. For these electors, the priorities are now the stability of institutions, security, and bureaucratic apparatus. With several members of the former Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique in senior positions within the party, Essebsi is the natural successor to Habib Bourguiba, who is largely considered as the father of the nation.

Marzouki could rely upon the support of Nahdha party. He portrayed himself as someone who could provide real change for the presidency and the country as a whole and campaigned against what was portrayed as the resurgence of the old regime represented by Nidaa Tounes. Marzouki’s supporters shared the belief that Nidaa wants to return to an authoritarian regime. Marzouki could also count on the support of middle class and economic elites in the central and southern regions.

Both candidates also emphasized the importance of younger voters. Essebsi decided to start his campaign at l’Etoile du Nord, an internet café close to Avenue Bourguiba, which was largely attended by young activists and bloggers. A debate arose around the drugs issue, as Tunisian law on drugs consumption specify a one-year minimum jail sentence and a $600 fine. Opponents claimed the law is an excuse to round-up activists and that it disproportionately affects poor and working class people and leads to overcrowding in prison. Although he did not support the legalization of drugs, Essebsi tried to ride on the wave of this liberal debate by emphasizing the need to defeat drug dealers. Marzouki was more cautious, calling for a deep analysis of the “problem” and a rationalization of the law.

The candidates also exploited the 17 December anniversary of the jasmine revolution. Marzouki attended a campaign meeting in Sidi Bou Zid, the place where the Revolution began. Essebsi went to pay homage to the family of a Lieutenant of the Army, Socrate Cherni, who died in October 2013 during a conflict against Ansar al Sharia militants. These choices are linked to the issue of the Revolution’s martyrs: everyone has his own martyrs and his own revolution.

The Nahdha party, as mentioned above, unofficially supported Marzouki. After a long delay, the communist Front Populaire declared that it was necessary “to bar the way to Moncef Marzouki”, and to religious extremist movements as a whole, implicitly calling for people to vote either for Essebsi or to issue a blank vote.

Nidaa still needs to forge a coalition in order to form a government, and the party has just two options: it can try to form a grand coalition with Nahdha, or form a coalition with small secular parties such as UPL and Afek Tounes, probably excluding the Front Populaire. Now that the presidential election campaign is over, everything is possible, including the grand coalition with Nahdha. The second round results showed that the electoral map is split in two. The World Bank and the IMF are still pressing Tunisia to implement urgent economic restructuring, while ordinary citizens are feeling the effect of price increases. A grand coalition is feasible in the context of national unity and economic reform. However, the religious cleavage is still strong and captures problems that date back to 2011 and before.

Chiara Loschi is a PhD Student in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Turin (Italy) and a PhD Fellow and small grant holder 2014 at Institut de Recherche sur le Maghreb Contemporain (IRMC Tunis).

Chiara Loschi – The 2014 presidential election in Tunisia

This is a guest post by Chiara Loschi from University of Turin and the Institut de Recherche sur le Maghreb Contemporain in Tunis

photo loschi


Tunisia held its first presidential elections after the 2011 uprising on the 23 November 2014. They followed the adoption of the new Constitution in January 2014 and the first legislative elections on 26 October 2014. As set out by the Constitution, presidential elections are held on the basis of a two-round majority runoff system.

ISIE (The Independent High Authority for Elections, Instance supérieure indépendante pour les élections) released the following official results: former Interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi (Nidaa Tounes, Call for Tunisia) 39.46% (1,289,384 votes); interim President of the Republic Moncef Marzouki (Congrès pour la République) 33.43% (1,092,418 votes); Hamma Hammami (Front Populaire) 7.82% (255,529 votes); Hechmi Hamdi (Current of Love) 5.75% (187,923 votes); Slim Riahi (Union Patriotique Libre) 5.55% (181,407 votes). The ISIE approved 27 candidates, however 5 of them decided to retire from the contest in the weeks before the election.

Turnout was 64.6%, which is higher than the 2011 elections. The second round of the presidential election will take place on the 14 December 2014, unless the candidates decide to appeal the results, in which case the election will take place on 21 or 28 December.

International observers such as the European Observation Mission and the Carter Center state that Tunisian legal framework was aligned with international standards, and they agree that voters were able to make an informed choice. After three years of transition, the parliamentary and presidential elections indicate that political and civil society actors have successfully internalized democratic procedures and mechanisms.

Many problems have arisen during the transition, such as the emergence of radical jihadi Salafism and a new wave of political murders. In 2013 the assassination of the opposition activist and communist, Chokri Belaid (in February) and Mohamed Brahmi (in July), marked the beginning of the end of the Troika government and demonstrated the weakness of Ennahdha in the face of secularist opposition. Within the party, figures such as Ali Laarayedh and Hamadi Jebali on the one hand, and Rachid Ghannouchi on the other, held very differing positions. Ideological divergences about the Islamist political project and different political strategies led to a lack of clarity following the 2013 crisis and ambiguity in relation to national domestic security policy, until Laarayedh resigned as PM in January 2014[1].

After Brahmi’s death in July 2013, opposition members withdrew from the National Constituent Assembly and forced preeminent political forces to organize a “National Dialogue” under the leadership of Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT)[2]. The 2014 Jomaa technocratic government signalled stability and reassured international actors and moneylenders, especially the IMF. At the same time, there was a reconstitution of secular political forces in the context of worsening socio-economic issues, for which Ennahdha was widely held responsible.

Nidaa Tounes, which was founded by Beji Caid Essebsi in 2012. It brings together leftist and secularist political actors such as Taïeb Baccouche, former secretary-general of the Tunisian General Labour Union, and now the party’s secretary-general. It includes Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts (UTICA) members, who mainly come from the northern and coastal areas of the country. Economic stabilization and PPP are unsurprisingly the main themes of its political and presidential programs. It is worth noting that many ex-RCD members joined the party as well, a fact that is widely known among its militants. As a consequence, the party has important links to the national and local bureaucracy and public employees as well as a strong electoral constituency.

In his campaign Essebsi linked himself with Habib Bourguiba. This is unsurprising as Essebsi had worked with the first Tunisian president for 35 years (as Interior Minister and Foreign Minister) and he began his campaign in Monastir were Bourguiba was born. His public speeches were built around the need for “prestige de l’Etat” (State standing) and were filled with nostalgic declarations about the past and, of course, the need for domestic security and economic consolidation.

The 2014 elections also showed that Ennahdha was still able to win considerable support. Moreover, voting is no longer a matter of religious versus secular supporters. For many new Ennahdha voters, the party «represents the south», and also «represents something new, not only in terms of religious affiliation but also as a modern and challenging political force in the national landscape»[3].

Officially Ennahdha chose not to support any particular presidential candidate, arguing that the country might be faced with an important social and political split if it were to do so. All the same, the party left militants and party members in no doubt that interim president Moncef Marzouki (ex-CPR) was the only viable choice among the set of presidential candidates. He was able to campaign on the idea that voting for Nidaa Tounes was vote to put the “RCD back at power”.

More generally, the political situation is still ongoing. After the October legislative elections, Nidaa Tounes chose to wait for the result of the presidential elections before building a government. Coalition building will not be easy. At the election Nidaa Tounes won 86 seats, in the 217-seat Assemblée des représentants du Peuple (the Chamber of Deputies), while Ennahda won 69 seats. Nidaa has to choose between Ennahdha and the remaining secular forces. They are: the modernist Free Patriotic Union (UPL) with 16 seats, the leftist Popular Front with 15, the liberal Afek Tounes with 8, The Congress for the Republic with 4 seats. However, Nidaa Tounes is unlikely to be able to count on the support of the Popular Front (an alliance of Communist and environmental parties) due to deep ideological cleavages and different political histories.

The second round of the presidential election will see Essebsi and Marzouki confront each other. They are separated by just 6% of the vote and the unsuccessful candidates will start announcing who they support in the next few days. In the meantime, Marzouki has written to Essebsi in his capacity as interim president to push him into forming a new government in seven days, invoking Art. 89 of the constitution. This led to criticism of Marzouki, ensuring that the period before the runoff will be politically charged.

[1] F. Merone, F. Cavatorta, 2013, Ennahda: A Party in Transition, Jadaliyya,


[2] National Dialogue is led by four actors: the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts (UTICA), the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LTDH) and the National lawyers Forum (INA).

[3]Interviews with the author in Djerba, October 2014.

Chiara Loschi is a PhD Student in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Turin (Italy) and a PhD Fellow and small grant holder 2014 at Institut de Recherche sur le Maghreb Contemporain (IRMC Tunis).

Lebanon – The presidential crisis lingers on

The vacuum left by the failure of the Lebanese parliament to elect a new president after the end of the six-year term of former President Michel Suleiman on 24 May 2014 is lingering on and is unlikely to be filled anytime soon. However, in spite of the intractable lack of political agreement among the MPs on the presidency, on 5 November 2014 the parliament decided to extend its own mandate until June 2017, referring to the many “security issues in the regions”, especially concerning the Syrian war.

Only Christian MPs of the Kataeb party and the Free Patriotic Movement boycotted the vote. The presidency remains the major stronghold of Maronite Christians in the post-war power-sharing arrangement, sanctioned by the Taef agreement of 1989; not surprisingly this extension was seen by most Christians as a cheap shot at the country’s gentleman’s agreement (according to which the Head of the State must be a Christian Maronite), and – more generally – to the role of Christians in Lebanon. After the parliament’s decision, the Maronite Patriarch, Bishara Rai, hit the roof and blasted this extension as “illegal and against the constitution”.

Beyond the Maronite opposition to a bill which objectively undermines the power of Christians in Lebanon, the renewal of parliament’s term fuelled a cross-confessional rage in the country. According to recent opinion polls, only 11% of Lebanon approves parliament’s extension, while the majority calls for elections. Protesters also gathered in Nejme Square, where the Parliament is located, contesting what they termed as a “democratic disgrace”.

To ignite the political debate, in a recent interview to the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, Michel Aoun – a potential presidential candidate to the Ba’abda Palace and the main ally of the Shi’a party Hezbollah – accused the al-Mustaqbal Movement (led by the Sunni businessman Sa’ad Hariri) of blocking the current majority in the parliament, fearing a likely reduction of its share in future elections. “Where did they get the idea that parliamentary elections should not be held prior to the presidential elections? – Aoun asked. “When there is a political or national crisis in normal countries, they resort to early parliamentary elections as an option to get out of the crisis, let alone if the elections are already a year and five months late because of the previous extension[1].”

Aoun went on to say that the current presidential crisis deteriorated after his talks with Hariri broke down. According to Aoun, the rupture came after the Saudi Foreign Minster, Prince al-Faiçal, put his veto on his candidacy.

Aoun’s thesis may correspond to a real political game between the Saudi king and his Lebanese pupil Sa’ad Hariri. In his analysis, however, he conveniently forgets that even his strong ally, Hezbollah – which is in turn backed and financed by Iran – voted in favour of the parliament’s term extension.

The elephant in the room here is the failed entente between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have been engaging in a cold war in the Arab Levant, using and manipulating their respective proxies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and have been unable to agree on the name of the future Lebanese president. Not for the first time, in the absence of a compromise between the two major powers in the region, any change in the political status quo is liable to lead to a further deterioration in the security situation.

Beyond this political crisis, there is no direct intention by domestic and regional actors to undermine the power of Christians in the country. However, the outcome of the dangerous geopolitical game between Saudi Arabia and Iran is anyway likely to coincide with a downgrading of the role of Maronites in Lebanon.

Looking at the evolution of the institution of the presidency in Lebanon over the country’s history, the current impasse is likely to further transform the Lebanese political system.

Born under the umbrella of a strong presidentialism, sanctioned by the mithaq al-watani (‘National Pact’) of 1943, the system was reshaped by the Taef agreements of 1989, which put an end to the longstanding Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). Taef downgraded the importance of the (Maronite) president’s role to the advantage of the Council of Ministers, led by a Sunni PM, and redefined the weight of Christians and Muslims (Sunni and Shi’a) in parliament from 6:5 to 1:1[2]. Despite the reduction in its power, the president still plays a balancing role between the prime minister and the speaker of parliament.

Nonetheless, if the presidential vacuum becomes stagnant, with a fragmented parliament exerting the functions of the presidency, the role of the Head of the State will be substantially, if not formally, reduced. By showing that Lebanon can go ahead without its highest authority, however, the Lebanese political system is also proving  more than ever to be a hostage of the various feudal-like parties, and increasingly dependent on regional patrons and their respective geopolitical games.

[1] The Parliament had already extended its mandate on May 2014.

[2] Paul Salem, “Framing post‐war Lebanon: Perspectives on the constitution and the structure of power”, Mediterranean Politics 3 (1), 2007: 13-26.