//Tunisia: From the July 2021 Coup to the July 2022 Constitutional Referendum
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Tunisia: From the July 2021 Coup to the July 2022 Constitutional Referendum


acrobat Icon After an emergency meeting with security and military leaders on the evening of Sunday, 25 July 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied declared that he would take measures necessary “to save the state and society” after consultations with the prime minister and the speaker of the parliament. He announced his decision to suspend Assembly of the People’s Representatives and lift parliamentary immunity for all members, take charge of the Office of the Public Prosecutor, and assume executive power with the assistance of a government headed by a prime minister appointed by himself. He also announced his decision to “immediately relieve Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi of duty” and invited another person to assume the office, clarifying that the new prime minister would answer directly to the president, who would himself appoint the members of the government and the prime minister. Saied promised that “anyone who encroaches on the state and its symbols and any person who fires one bullet” would be met with “a hail of bullets,” accusing his opponents of “hypocrisy, treachery, and banditry.”[1]

Following Saied’s speech at the meeting, the presidential office published a set of decrees that made the president the acting head of the Public Prosecution and froze the powers of parliament for 30 days. The next day, Saied dismissed the minister of defence and the acting minister of justice, as well as the prime minister, suspended the operation of public authorities for two days (subject to extension), declared a one-month night curfew, and banned gatherings of more than three people.[2]

To justify his decisions, Saied invoked Article 80 of the constitution, which states that “the president of the republic, in the event of an imminent threat to the nation and to the security and independence of the country that renders the normal conduct of state impossible, may take measures necessitated by this exceptional situation, after consulting the prime minister and the speaker of the Assembly of the People’s Representatives and informing the head of the Constitutional Court.”[3] The same article states that the parliament “shall be deemed permanently in session for the duration of this period” and that “in such a case the president of the republic may not dissolve the Assembly of the People’s Representatives, nor may a motion of censure against the government be submitted.” Saied clearly violated the text of Article 80: instead of consulting the prime minister and the speaker of the parliament, he dismissed the former and froze the operation of the latter. Moreover, the article contains no provision for the president to take charge of the Public Prosecution, which effectively brought the judiciary under his control.[4]

In the absence of the Constitutional Court which, under Article 80, is empowered to rule on the continuation of the state of emergency within 30 days, Saied extended the emergency measures for another month on 23 August 2021.[5] Although he promised on 25 July to appoint a new prime minister, he did not do so. Rather than swiftly presenting a roadmap in keeping with the conditions set forth in Article 80 for a return to constitutional normalcy, he extended the state of emergency. In fact, he repeatedly expressed his intention to amend the Tunisian constitution, in effect admitting that he was engaged in a coup against the constitution and that the invocation of Article 80 was a mere cover. On 9 December 2021, for example, Saied said, “The problem in Tunisia today is constitutional, because the 2014 constitution has been proven to be no longer viable. It cannot continue to operate [as a framework] because it has no legitimacy.”[6] The president made no argument to demonstrate the illegitimacy of the constitution, though his own actions lacked any legitimacy whatsoever.

Using the term ‘coup’ to describe the measures of 25 July — whether we call it a presidential coup, a constitutional coup, or a coup against democracy — conforms to a long tradition in the literature on democracy and democratic transition. More precisely, it is what the literature calls an autogolpe, or a self-coup, a type of coup in which the president, having entered office democratically, denies the legal mechanisms that brought him to power. In such cases, the president suspends the constitution, assumes legislative and judicial authorities, and continues to rule by presidential fiat pending a referendum and new legislative elections to approve broader executive powers.[7] The measures taken by Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori on 5 April 1992 are exemplary of an autogolpe. Less than two years after reaching power through democratic elections,[8] Fujimori suspended the 1979 constitution, dissolved the congress, and ruled by presidential decree until November 1992, when the Democratic Constituent Congress was elected. That new body oversaw a referendum for a new constitution in October 1993. The period of Peruvian politics following the 1992 coup saw a dangerous concentration of power in the hands of the president, the armed forces, and the intelligence establishment. Together these three bodies “turned the executive branch into a parallel legislator, a judge of judges, and a force above the law.”[9] In another context, the US witnessed a debate over whether President Donald Trump (2017–2021) attempted a self-coup, especially after the assault on Congress in January 2021.[10]

Saied’s coup against Tunisia’s nascent democracy and its constitution is therefore not a unique case.[11] Less than three years after assuming office in democratic elections, and a year after announcing a spate of emergency measures — including measures prohibited by the constitutional article he cited to institute them — Saied changed the country’s constitution via popular referendum, transforming the system of government into a presidential system and concentrating absolute authority in the hands of the president absent any constitutional controls. This is despite the fact that some political actors, such as the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), proposed early parliamentary elections to elect a new legislature that would discuss the new constitution.[12]

This six-part report discusses Saied’s constitutional coup, from his declaration of a state of exception on 25 July 2021 to the popular referendum on a new constitution on 25 July 2022. Part one takes up the political crises (political polarisation and the predilection for a strong presidency), economic crises (economic contraction, debt, declining foreign support), and health crises (the Covid pandemic) seen in Tunisia before July 2022. Together these fostered a public mood amenable to exploitation by a populist politician. The second and third sections review the positions of local, regional, and international actors on the coup.
acrobat Icon Part four discusses the steps taken by Saied to consolidate the coup in advance of the referendum on the new constitution (the issuance of Presidential Edict 117, which concentrated legislative and executive power in the president’s hands; the appointment of a government with limited prerogatives; the dissolution of Parliament, which made the president both legislator and chief executive; the dissolution of the Supreme Judicial Council and the dismissal of opposition judges; and the organisation of the electronic consultations around the new constitution). Part five spotlights the context in the run-up to the referendum (the dismissal of members of the Independent Election Authority and their replacement with new appointees, the call for a conditional national dialogue with participation limited to coup supporters), as well as the protests seen in Tunisian against Saied’s measures and the crackdown on them. The final section looks at the circumstances surrounding the referendum on the new constitution and the results of the poll.

[1] “The President of the Republic Chairs Emergency Meeting of the Military and Security Leaders,” Tunisian President Facebook Page, 25/7/2021, accessed on 27/7/2021, at:

[2] “Context and Projected Outcome of the Presidential Coup in Tunisia,” Situation Assessment, 28/7/2021, accessed on 23/8/2022 at:

[3] See: “Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution,” constituteproject.org, 27/4/2022, accessed 2/8/2022, at:

[4] For more, see: “Did Kais Saied Violate the Tunisian Constitution? … Here Is Article 80 on Which He Based His Decisions”,
Al Jazeera Net, 26/7/2021, accessed on 25/7/2022, at:

[5]The President Issues a Presidential Order Extending the Exceptional Measures Taken Pursuant to Presidential Order No. 80”, Presidency of the Republic of Tunisia, 23/8/2021, accessed on 25/7/2022, at:

[6] “Tunisian President Kais Saied: The 2014 Constitution is no Longer Valid,”
Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 9/12/2021, accessed on 25/7/2022, at:

[7] Maxwell A. Cameron, “Self-Coups: Peru, Guatemala, and Russia,”
Journal of Democracy, vol. 9, no. 1 (January 1998), pp. 125-139.

[8]Like Saied, Fujimori was a politically unknown university professor, and his victory in the July 1990 elections came as a surprise, after his election campaign had exploited the Peruvian public’s disillusionment with the traditional political parties and the difficult economic conditions in the country at the time.

[9] Cameron, p. 125.

[10] See for example: David Pion-Berlin, Thomas Bruneau & Richard B. Goetze Jr., “The Trump Self-Coup Attempt: Comparisons and Civil–Military Relations,”
Cambridge University Press, 7/4/2022, pp. 1-18, accessed on 25/7/2022, at:

[11] Data prepared by the Institute for Politics and Strategy indicates that the world has witnessed 148 attempted self-coups since 1946, of which 110 occurred in authoritarian regimes and 38 in democracies. See: David Nakamura, “With Brazen Assault on Election, Trump Prompts Critics to warn of a Coup,”
The Washington Post, 5/1/2021, accessed on 25/7/2022, at:

[12] “Kais Saied wants a Constitutional Amendment in Contradiction to Parliament, So Why Does He Seek to Do So through a Referendum and Not New Elections?”,
Arabic Post, 12/9/2021, accessed on 25/7/2022, at:

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