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Kais Saied's reconfiguration of Tunisia’s political system: Hegemonic ambitions to no avail? – A critical approach

La reconfiguration du système politique tunisien par Kais Saied : Des ambitions hégémoniques en vain ? Une approche critique
Julius Dihstelhoff et Mounir Mrad


Le présent article examine le système politique contemporain de la Tunisie sous le régime du président Kais Saied, qui vise à "reconfigurer l'État" depuis le 25 juillet 2021. S'appuyant sur les perspectives théoriques de deux penseurs disparates, le marxiste italien Antonio Gramsci et le constitutionnaliste allemand Carl Schmitt, les auteurs cherchent à examiner la genèse des mesures mises en œuvre par Saied. L'article examine comment la restructuration du système politique tunisien par Saied peut être expliquée en s'appuyant sur les propositions conceptuelles de "souveraineté hégémonique" de Kalyvas (2020) et de "dictature sans hégémonie" de Gramsci (Gramsci, 1971), cette dernière représentant une crise hégémonique persistante. Les auteurs contextualisent leur étude en examinant la "crise hégémonique" de longue durée en Tunisie (Schwarzmantel, 2015) et son exacerbation depuis la "révolution tunisienne". Ils soutiennent qu'un point culminant et une expression préliminaire de cette "crise hégémonique" peuvent être perçus comme le momentum schmittien d'une "dictature souveraine" (Schmitt, 1921-23/1928 ), et ce dernier devrait être particulièrement considéré en conjonction avec une perspective historique à long terme sur la crise hégémonique pour évaluer l'accession au pouvoir de Saied. Ils explorent ainsi les processus de formation ou d'échec hégémonique en Tunisie à la suite de la révolution de 2010/2011, tout en soulignant les défis sociaux et économiques associés à l'instauration d'un nouvel ordre politique. Comme base empirique pour cet article, les auteurs utilisent une série de sources, y compris des publications académiques récentes, des décrets gouvernementaux, divers rapports de médias, et des discours et des entretiens avec Saied après son accession au pouvoir, pour étayer leur analyse documentaire.

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«[…] the modern prince will either create a new order democratically through consent and popular participation or it will not be a prince at all. The age of dictatorial founding princes is gone. Modernity does not allow for creative individual violence. The foundation of a new state must be hegemonic, that is, popular and participatory. It must be an act of collective self-legislation (Kalyvas, 2000, p. 361).

1The act of freezing the parliament and dissolving the government by Tunisia's president, Kais Saied, on July 25th, 2021, was initially met with a sense of optimism and praise by a significant portion of Tunisian society. However, since then, Saied has initiated a profound institutional overhaul, fundamentally altering the country's superstructure and effectively abolishing much of what has arisen during the so-called transitional phase following the Tunisian Revolution of 2010/11. In this article, we argue that this transformation can be perceived as a reconfiguration of Tunisia’s political system. The perception of this kind of ‘refoundation of the state’ (Dihstelhoff/ Mrad, 2022/2023) seems very ambiguous both among Tunisia’s political class, in its society in general, as well as in its academia. The purpose of this article is to contribute to the ongoing academic debates in this context by questioning the genesis of actions undertaken by Kais Saied that followed July 25, 2011. As empirical basis for this article, the authors utilize a variety of sources including diverse media reports, governmental decrees, interviews with Saied following his assumption of power, and recent academic publications, to support their discourse and document analysis. Theoretically, this article’s analytical orientation will be based on two very different thinkers: the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) and the German constitutionalist and prominent member of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP), Carl Schmitt (1888-1985).

2On the one hand, Antonio Gramsci's insights offer a valuable perspective for understanding the complexities of socio-political shifts. To begin this exploration, it's crucial to clarify Gramsci's notions of 'organic' and 'hegemonic' crisis, laying the foundation for grasping the multifaceted concept of 'hegemony' within Gramscian thought. Gramsci's definition of hegemony isn't rigid; he developed it through his analysis of historical events (Gramsci, 1971/1978/1988/1994). According to him, hegemony involves a blend of force and consent, with force not overshadowing consent but appearing backed by the majority's agreement (Gramsci, 2007a, p.155f.). This understanding forms the basis for his definition of the State: «State = political society + civil society, that is, hegemony protected by the armor of coercion» (Gramsci, 2007b, p.75). Yet, Gramsci perceives hegemony not merely as power preservation but also as a means to seize power. Alongside moral and intellectual leadership, it aims to create and organize new forces that disrupt and transform the existing equilibrium (Kalyvas, 2000, p.354). In essence, hegemony represents a strategy for radical and comprehensive change, transforming the established reality entirely (Ibid.).

3On the other hand, Carl Schmitt proposed a radical alternative to parliamentary government due to its perceived weakness and inefficiency (Schmitt, 1923 p.13). He advocated for a strong presidential system led by a charismatic leader with unrestricted power. Schmitt saw dictatorship as necessary to counter the political disintegration caused by pluralism and weak democratic institutions. His concept of «sovereign dictatorship» (Schmitt 1921/1922/1923/1928) allowed for action outside normal constitutional rules during crises to ensure state stability and security. «In times of crisis, the purpose of the state is to preserve itself and ensure the continuation of itself. The political task is to save the state and not the law» (Schmitt, 1923, p.36). In this context, Kalyvas (2000) emphasizes the break with the previous regime and the simultaneous formation of a new one. The overall goal of ‘sovereign dictatorship’ can be seen as «[…] the creation of a new political and legal order or the drafting of a new constitution» (Kalyvas, 2000, p.347). Moreover, «(it) represents a new, revolutionary form of legitimacy based on completely new foundations. It signifies the beginning of a new political regime» (Ibid.). Schmitt's criteria for a dictatorship becoming a «sovereign dictatorship» included an exceptional crisis, a time limit on dictatorial rule, and extensive powers. Thus, the dictator would decide if an exceptional initial situation in times of crisis justified exceptional action (cf. Schmitt, 1922), and their powers would be temporary (cf. Schmitt, 1921), with an emphasis on quick decision-making by far-reaching (absolute) powers (cf. 1922; 1928). The dictator's authority would supersede laws and constitution, allowing them to establish a new legal order. Considering these political philosophy thinkers, Antonio Gramsci and Carl Schmitt, it's evident that they occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum and hold contrasting views. Despite their stark differences, their political ideas and perspectives took shape within distinct historical and political environments.

4Yet, both Gramsci and Schmitt focused «on the sources, conditions, content, and scope of the originating power of a collective will» (Kalyvas, 2000, p.343). This article shows that a convergence of concepts and terms of both thinkers are useful to analyze the context, present, and future of Kais Saied's reconfiguration of the Tunisian political system. In order to «mutually reinforce the qualities» (Ibid., p.362) of the Gramscian concept of ‘hegemony’ and the Schmittian concept of ‘sovereignty’, the political scientist Andreas Kalyvas has formulated a conceptual proposition known as «hegemonic sovereignty» (Kalyvas, 2000). This article subscribes to this framework for interpretation. Through this conceptual proposition, Kalyvas seeks to interpret Gramsci's ideas of the «modern prince» and consequently defines it as «an expansive and positing democratic constitutional prince that aims at the general, radical, explicit, and lucid establishment of society through foundational, total decisions» (Ibid., p.362). This definition implies that «hegemonic sovereignty» seeks to examine how the will of the people can be shaped, not solely restricting the sovereign power to constitution-making (cf. Carl Schmitt), but by enhancing it with Gramsci’s concept of hegemony «to include the ideological, moral, intellectual, and economic presuppositions of democratic founding acts and popular new beginnings» (ibid., p.365). Besides that, «hegemonic sovereignty» opens avenues for analysis concerning the authority and capability of political institutions or leaders to make significant decisions and actively shape the political system. This exercise of power allows those in charge to make far-reaching decisions that influence the foundation of society, all while respecting democratic principles and institutions. Building upon these premises, the primary objective of this article is to address the question of how Kalyvas' conceptual proposal of «hegemonic sovereignty» (Kalyvas, 2000) can explain the measures undertaken by Kais Saied for state restructuring and also to what extent those measures can be better understood through a form of «dictatorship without hegemony» (Gramsci, 1971) as per Gramsci's definition. The latter refers to a scenario where the ruling class enforces their authority through force, but without managing to establish cultural and intellectual supremacy over society. When discussing the role of Piemonte, a region in northern Italy, in the Italian Risorgimento (the Italian unification movement), Gramsci criticized their heavy reliance on coercion and their failure to establish moral and intellectual leadership. This resulted in their ability to dominate, but not to lead, hence creating a situation of «dictatorship without hegemony» (Roccu, 2017, p.540). In order to operationalise these theoretical premises, the analyse will develop criteria focusing on the extent to which the regime has established a dominant political ideology, economic control, democratic mechanisms, moral and intellectual leadership, and its reliance on coercive instruments.

5After introducing and delimiting the overarching theme of this article within existing research literature in Chapter 1, this article conceptualizes the ongoing, persistent hegemonic crisis in Tunisia as both a point of origin and an ongoing contextual process, as elucidated in Chapter 2. The interplay between the insights of Antonio Gramsci and Carl Schmitt proves particularly beneficial in comprehending the origins and intensification of the hegemonic crisis. In Chapter 3, building upon Schmitt's concept of a «sovereign dictatorship», the article's core analytical objective is pursued. It investigates to what extent Gramsci's notion of hegemony, either in the sense of Kalyvas or in the form of a hegemony-lacking dictatorship, can better elucidate Saied's restructuring of the political system. To address this question, the investigation, guided by the theoretical premises, first focuses on the developments of Saied's primary promises and projects and their societal impact. Secondly, a closer look is taken at his support base and opposition, and finally, his relationship with the security forces and their role is illuminated.

Scholarly critical Approaches on Tunisia's Socio-Political Power Structures

6With regard to the scholarly preliminary work on the article’s overall topic of Tunisia’s contemporary socio-political power structures, it is striking that the Tunisian context has already been scientifically reappraised since 2010/11 through critical approaches by researchers (cf. Merone/Defacci, 2015; Marzouki/Meddeb, 2016; Gherib, 2017/2020; Marks, 2019; Krichen, 2020; Camau, 2021). They have analyzed both the developments of the ‘Tunisian revolution’ and the subsequent transformations with Gramscian concepts. What all these publications have in common is that they examine the processes of hegemony formation or its failure. This article positions itself within this academic canon by building on some of these analyses and attempting to deepen them through concrete operationalizations of Schmittian and Gramscian concepts, and especially the concept of ‘hegemonic sovereignty’ by the Greek political scientist Andreas Kalyvas (2000). Among these publications, Gherib (2020) and Camau (2021) deal with the crisis of hegemony in Tunisia after the 2011 revolution, which is considered central to this article. They agree that the Tunisian revolution took place «[…] in the context of a crisis of hegemony-perceived as a crisis of authority» (Camau, 2021, p.24). What both publications have in common is that they discuss the corresponding social and economic challenges associated with building a new political order in Tunisia. That is, they argue that political stability in Tunisia is under threat and that further changes, such as political reforms (cf. Camau) or comprehensive transformations of political and economic structures (cf. Gherib), are needed to solve the country's socioeconomic problems. In addition, both authors emphasize the importance of considering the role of civil society and social movements in addressing the crisis. Following directly from these two publications, the first chapter of this article introduces Gramsci's concept of hegemonic crisis. Finally, building on this, the article will seek to define the extent to which the hegemonic crisis in Tunisia can be considered as the context and outcome of the events of July 25, 2021, and their implications.

7Several authors and scholars have drawn comparisons between Carl Schmitt and Kais Saied in their research (Ferjani, 2019/2021; Jaballah, 2020; M’Rad, 2022; Nafti, 2022a/2022b). In particular, political scientist Mohamed Chérif Ferjani raised the question in 2019 of whether Kais Saied was influenced by Schmitt's concept of «conservative revolution» (Ferjani, 2019). In 2021, Ferjani published an article stating that Saied had taken a step towards establishing a «dictatorship of the state of exception» (Ferjani, 2021.) after the promulgation of Decree 117 (see details in chapter 2). However, he claimed that Saied «took another step toward introducing the 'dictatorship' of the 'state of exception'» (Ferjani, 2021). Ferjani's «dictatorship of the state of exception» (ibid.) represents the conflation of two Schmittian terms that do not exist in this composition in Schmitt's own writings to classify Saied's form of government. Sociologist Sofien Jaballah explains that Saied objectively contributed to the creation of the exception before declaring it by advocating for a «[…] presidency without powers in an electoral system that he considers failed and a system of government that he considers anti-people […]» (Jaballah, 2021, pp.54f.), and that this «[…] is nothing more than a tactic with regard to a strategy that became clear after July 25/September 22, the strategy of revolution from within the political system.» (Ibid.). Jaballah further elaborates that Saied has a vested interest in extending the state of emergency until he secures all the necessary conditions to achieve his objectives, and that this state will either come to an end with the conclusion of the current legislative term or by altering the governmental system via a constitutional amendment put to a referendum. Essayist Hatem Nafti (2022a/ 2022b) has drawn a connection between Saied's actions and the Schmittian concept of «decisionism» in his analysis. Nafti (2022b) also raised the possibility of a sovereign dictatorship emerging as a result of Saied's actions on July 25, 2021. Moreover, in his latest work titled «Les dérives contraires en Tunisie. Autour de Carl Schmitt», M'Rad (2022) analyzes Tunisia's transitional approach towards democracy through a Schmittian lens. He argues that Tunisia's political system has been politically derailed and is partly contradictory. On one hand, Tunisia has been ruled indecisively and under-authoritarian for a decade after the 2010/2011 revolution, but since Kais Saied's rise to power, a super-authority has been established through the imposition of a new state of emergency rule. This indicates that Tunisia's political system has evolved into a concentration of power in the form of a «sovereign dictatorship» with Kais Saied assuming power. However, M'Rad suggests that the announced provisional exceptional character of the political system under Saied may continue. All analyses concerning Tunisia that rely on Carl Schmitt share the commonality of pointing to a momentum of ‘sovereign dictatorship’ without providing a clear operationalization of the conditions that led to it, the criteria that constituted it through concrete actions and expressions, its role in the reconfiguration of the political system, and whether or not these new phenomena can become hegemonic in society.

The hegemonic crisis as a possibility for Tunisia’s re-configuration of its political system

  • 1 Razmig Keucheyan refers in many of his writings to Gramsci's concept of crisis as an important aspe (...)

8As previously mentioned, the concept of Gramsci's «hegemonic crisis» will now be applied to Tunisia. Against this background, this article sheds light on the Gramscian perception of «crises». According to the French Sociologist Keucheyan1, Gramscian crises are long-lasting crises (Gramsci, 2011, p.165). Keucheyan explains that for Gramsci a crisis should not be thought of as an event, but rather as a development. (Ibid.) Moreover, crises are always fields of struggle whose outcome is never predetermined (Ibid.). Gramsci differentiates between conjunctural crisis and what he calls organic crises: «the confluence of crises in nearly every sphere» (Levenson 2020). For Gramsci, the organic crises can express itself in the crisis of the ruling class’s hegemony, when «[…] social classes become detached from their traditional parties» and «[…] the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic 'men of destiny' (Schwarzmantel, 2015, p.182). As stated earlier, this article agrees with Gherib (2020) and Camau (2021) that the hegemonic crisis in Tunisia began before the 2010-2011 revolution and persisted and worsened in the subsequent years. In this regard, Camau (2021) highlights historical factors such as weak political institutions, persistent ruling elite dominance, and unequal resource distribution as contributing to the hegemonic crisis in Tunisia, which emerged before the 2010-2011 revolution and continued to intensify in the years that followed. Similarly, Gherib argues that the post-independence State's hegemony after 1956 was built on an alliance between post-independence elites and the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), as well as the enactment of a meritocracy that benefited a large part of the population (Gherib 2020, p.1). However, the Ben Ali regime's attempt to replicate this formula failed due to «the transformation of Tunisian capitalism into a crony capitalism» (ibid, p.1), leading to the breakdown of the meritocratic system «[…] and in mass unemployment among graduates» (ibid, p.7). Gherib explains how this crisis of hegemony resulted in the revolution: «Ben Ali failed on the economic and social components, the very foundation of the Tunisian ruling class hegemony since the formation of the modern state. And this failure helped to get the masses out of their political passivity and to formulate demands that, as a whole, would constitute a real revolution.» (Ibid., p.8). Furthermore, Gherib examines the transition phase as a period of a 'crisis of hegemony', which corresponds to what Hoare and Sperber term as «[…] a situation of dissolution and reconstitution of politics (Hoare and Sperber 2013, 93).» (ibid., p.9). Or, as Gramsci himself phrased it: «[…] the hegemonic apparatus cracks and the exercise of hegemony becomes ever more difficult.» (Gramsci, 2007a, p.156). According to Camau (2021), referring to the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, he also emphasizes the importance of cultural and ideological hegemony in understanding the limits of the Tunisian revolution. He argues that the lack of a cohesive and transformative cultural project among revolutionary forces, as well as the continued influence of authoritarian and conservative elements in society, have hampered the development of a more radical social transformation. Against this background, the ‘crisis of hegemony’ expressed itself continuously and intensified, especially since the elections of 2019, which led to a very fragmented political landscape and the strong rise of populist forces and figures (Redissi et. al., 2020). Following these elections, along with the deteriorating economic situation and the Covid-19 pandemic, the Tunisian parliamentary regime entered a deep crisis and was disavowed, as well as the political parties constituting it (Gobe, 2023), by a large part of the population. In January 2021, a political uprising occurred country wide, with demonstrations in front of places of sovereignty during the day, and heavy clashes with police forces during the night, thereby challenging the curfew, in poor and marginalised neighbourhoods (Brésillon, 2021b; Yousfi, 2021). Gobe (2023) concludes that the events of July 25, 2021 ‘crystalized’ the moment when the Tunisian parliamentary order lost its ability to act as a representative government. As such, Gobe sees the current head of state as a symptom of the Tunisian ‘organic crisis’ (ibid.). Similarly, Kalyvas (2000) suggests that the organic crisis presents an opportunity for a political reorganization of society, or, in our case, the refoundation of the Tunisian State:

It is only in the moment of an organic crisis, to use Gramsci’s term, where the closure of the social explodes to bring about a dislocation among the different structural levels of the social, including the legal system, that Schmitt thinks that there is the possibility of an immanent radical change of the political organization of society. (Ibid., p.351).

9Similarly, delving into the distinctive potency of the momentum, Nafti characterized this moment as a «Schmittian moment» ((Nafti 2022a)), stating: «July 25, 2021 is labeled a Schmittian moment because it suspends the legal barriers imposed on the president, paves the way for a sovereign dictatorship, and designates the executive as the legislator of the norm.» (ibid.). Also other scholarly authors (e.g. Ferjani, 2019/2021; Jaballah, 2020; M’Rad, 2022; Nafti, 2022a/2022b), as previously discussed in Chapter 1.1, also reference such a «Schmittian moment», which the authors of this article interpret, based on the theoretical considerations, as a possible expression and significant outcome as preliminary culmination of the hegemonic crisis in contemporary Tunisia.

Kais Saied’s hegemonic ambitions to no avail?

10As previously discussed in Chapter 2, the Schmittian moment observed in Tunisia on July 25, 2021, is deemed a significant outcome and a preliminary peak of the ongoing hegemony crisis in Tunisia. This surpasses the singular date of Saied's assumption of power and remains subject to ongoing shifts. Similarly, Chapter 1.1 already underscored the lack of substantial empirical justification in the existing literature for the Schmittian moment's application to the specific Tunisian context. Nevertheless, this vividly portrays Saied's rise to power, his exceptional situation amidst crises, the temporal dimensions of his extraordinary measures, and the progressive concentration of his authority through the Schmittian moment. Saied's assumption of power on this date signifies a departure from Tunisia's previous system of power-sharing following the 2010/2011 Tunisian Revolution. It marks a significant rupture brought about by a series of crises – mainly encompassing political (e.g., Grewal, 2021; Siebert/Abouaoun, 2021), economic (Al Jazeera, 2021a; Kadura/Jmour, 2021; Kavaler 2021; Mersch, 2021; Dihstelhoff/Simon, 2023), and health-related (e.g., Khadraoui/Ben Hamadi, 2021; Galtier, 2021; Kapitalis, 2021; Blaise, 2021; Brésillon, 2021a) crises – which he interprets as being exacerbated by the 2014 constitution. To address these interrelated crises, the President controversially invoked Article 80 of the constitution. Additionally, the date of Saied's assumption of power holds significant political and historical importance: it coincides with Republic Day, a national holiday in Tunisia, and concurrently marks the second anniversary of the former President Essebsi's death, as well as the eighth anniversary of the assassination of political opposition figure Mohamed Brahmi. Moreover, this day aligns with Ennahda's ultimatum to President Saied regarding reparations payments. Although these payments were part of political agreements in 2017, they garnered little public attention. The demand for reparations in the amount of several million dinars was tied to widespread dissatisfaction with the responsible politicians, leading to widespread protests on July 25, 2021, despite a curfew in place (Dihstelhoff/Simon, 2023). Furthermore, Saied justified his assumption of power and actions through Article 80 of Tunisia's 2014 constitution. He cited a «serious threat to national security and peace» (Kais Saied, quoted by Reuters 2021). He stressed that his intention was not to seek power but to safeguard the revolution. He pointed to chaotic conditions in the country as the root of the threat (Saied, 2021a). In a subsequent address, he referred to an «imminent danger» (Saied, 2021b) that had placed Tunisia in a critical situation. Accordingly, Saied positioned himself as taking responsibility to provide solutions and protect the people and the state. Guided by this rationale, he declared a state of emergency to ensure security and stability (Kais Saied, quoted by Al Jazeera, 2021b). He suspended the parliament, revoked parliamentary immunity, dismissed the prime minister, and announced new executive leadership (France24, 2021a; Jeune Afrique, 2021; France24, 2021c). Temporally, he extended the initial 30-day state of emergency, raising concerns about adherence to the constitution. His actions pushed the boundaries of constitutional constraints. A subsequent decree outlined a political transition without clear timeframes. Subsequently, the new constitution limited presidential decree power after the inauguration of the new parliament in March 2023. Besides that, Saied's roadmap for constitutional changes extends his progressive monopolization and expansion of power (cf. Al Arabiya, 2021; France24, 2021b; Werenfels, 2022). He dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council, established a provisional council, eroding judicial independence, and also targeted civil society influence by dissolving the parliament and accusing its deputies of an attempted coup (cf. Amnesty International, 2022; Euromed, 2022; Barisch, 2022; Mzalouat, et al., 2022; Euromedmonitor, 2022; Fischer, 2022). Moreover, his appointments to the Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Élections (ISIE) and the dismissal of judges have raised further concerns about judicial autonomy (cf. Human Rights Watch, 2022).

11Against this background, the article will focus now on how the theoretical assumptions can help to understand and analyse the essence of the reconfiguration of Tunisia’s contemporary political system. Kalyvas argues that dictatorship, as «an exceptional– extraordinary moment […] provides the means for the institution of a new social order and the imposition of a new state.» (Kalyvas, 2010, p.355). But for this new state to prevail and persist, it must become hegemonic, with hegemony playing the role of will-formation and voluntary consent, which Kalyvas explains as follows:

[Hegemony] is the origin of the ex-ante legitimation of the arbitrary foundations of a new régime. Hegemony consolidates what dictatorship has created out of an act of coercion and repression. Thus, while dictatorship institutes, hegemony preserves. Dictatorship is the principal political form that embodies the creative power of history. (Ibid., p. 355).

12While dictatorship serves as the tool for reconfiguration, the nascent political endeavour must be solidified and perpetuated through hegemony. In the context of the analysis, the pivotal question is whether Kais Saied could and can effectively underpin his ‘refoundation of the state’ via hegemony. For this purpose, the following analysis firstly concentrates on the hegemonic projects developed and proposed by Saied. As elucidated in our introductory quotation, Kalyvas contends that a 'modern prince' can solely institute a novel order through democratic means, characterized by consent and widespread participation. The ensuing examination will therefore secondly delve into the the general compliance with the President's agenda. Lastly it will be looked at the the role of the security apparatus and its function to analyse to what extent the regime relies on coercion. Considering the various operationalisation criteria, an analysis of Kais Saied's reconfiguration of Tunisia's political system can shed light on its potential for achieving hegemony or its characterization as a «dictatorship without hegemony».

Hegemonic projects

  • 2 Kais Saied’s proposed power structure contains 264 local councils («conseils locaux») at the top le (...)

13Prior to his candidacy for the 2019 elections, Saied's campaign and vision encompassed a strategy aimed at reorganizing power in Tunisia through a «bottom-up» approach and direct democracy. This approach was designed to empower the people by providing them with the necessary tools to improve their lives and facilitate the transformation of the country. This approach was based on Saied’s own concept of an «inverted pyramid» (Mornagui, 2021; Dihstelhoff / Mrad, 2022; Gobe, 2022) as an alternative to the existing parliamentary system, with the election of local councils on the top of the pyramid and a parliament on the lowest level.2 The recently adopted constitution in the summer of 2022 deviated from the original bottom-up model (Dihstelhoff/Mrad, 2022). As Gobe (2023) explains, the shift away from the base-driven approach paradoxically led to the establishment of a pyramidal and presidentialist political regime, with Kais Saied at its apex. The National Council of Regions and Districts, which serves as the second chamber of parliament, applies a slightly modified version of the inverted pyramid model. However, its responsibilities are limited to the development of regional and national plans, as well as annual state financial planning, and it has no executive authority. A second key aspect of Saied's hegemonic vision involves the implementation of Communitarian Companies (as-šarikāt al-‘ahlyya), which he described as a new type of company that works towards collective goals and benefits the entire group (Saied, 2022). The decree outlining the establishment of Communitarian Companies was released on Tunisian Independence Day, March 20, 2022. Elleuch and Nabli (2022) point out that the decree failed to address the issue of state lands, which it was intended to tackle initially. Additionally, they draw a comparison between the Communitarian Companies and the cooperative system of the 1960s in Tunisia, highlighting that both are subject to the authority and funding of «the executive branch» (ibid.) and to «the authority in terms of funding and oversight» (ibid.). It is no surprise that the population had limited acceptance and implementation of the decree, except for a few exceptions such as the town Ouled Jaballah, located in the Governorate of Mahdia, and in the northeast Governorate of Nabeul. Alongside the decree for Communitarian Companies, a decree-law on penal reconciliation was also issued on the same day. Saied defended this move by stating: «So that the people can get back the money that was stolen from them, instead of being satisfied with the legal cases pending before the courts, which have not allowed our people to recover much». (Belhassine, 2022). According to Belhassine (ibid.), this decree completely goes against the transitional justice process initiated since the revolution and is in line with Kais Saied's plan to invert the pyramid of power in Tunisia. The decree involves reimbursing or investing the amounts spent on litigation for regional development, prioritizing regions based on their poverty rates. However, over a year later, the decree has yet to be implemented, and the mechanisms for its implementation remain unclear.

14On this basis, as part of Saied's hegemonic strategy, the use of legalistic means aimed to solve the social and economic question through a bottom-up approach. However, the government continued and still continues implementing neoliberal policies, and the economic crises worsened. The failure of the implementation of these hegemonic projects was also mirrored in low voter turnout rates, which were initially supposed by the President to legitimise his meta-project – the reconfiguration of Tunisia`s political system.

Support and consent

15In regard to the evolution of Kais Saied's support and how this impacted the existing regime's hegemonic constellation, it is worth noting that many political and social forces showed support for Kais Saied's actions on July 25, 2022. According to Nadhif (2022), «Kais Saied took advantage of the climate of despair, and in that moment of despair the middle class found the "savior" from ten years of social struggle» (ibid.).

  • 3 Although the UGTT support was conditional and ambiguous since the beginning. Noureddine Taboubi, th (...)
  • 4 The opposition to Kais Saieds is fragmented into three major opposition blocs: 1) The National Salv (...)

16In this framework, major societal forces were in favour of Saieds taking over power, as were the UGTT3 and the Union Tunisienne de l'industrie, du commerce et de l'artisanat (UTICA), the employer's union, and a broad scope of other national and civil society organisations. Although they do not provide conclusive evidence of approval and support for Saied, the participation in elections and referenda held after July 25, 2021 can be an indication of the level of support for the implementation of Saied’s roadmap, from December 2021. However, a striking similarity of all these elections is that they were either rejected by almost the entire political class that has dominated the political sphere since 2011 (including all political tendencies4) or received with indifference and disinterest by large segments of the population, as reflected in the low voter turnout. The level of participation in recent elections and referenda in Tunisia varied greatly: only 7.5% participated in the online consultation to identify major reforms in the beginning of 2022, while 30.5% participated in the referendum for the new constitution in July 2022. The voter turnout for the first round of the elections for the first chamber of parliament in December 2022 was 11.2%, followed by 11.4% in the second round. Despite the low participation rates, these results were recognized as democratic expressions of the will of the people, and were not critically questioned by those in power. Overall, Saied has refused cooperation or dialogue with opposition forces who consider his assumption of power as a coup d'état and he has also shown an inability to cooperate and coordinate with actors who do not share his interests within the state apparatus, which according to political scientist Hammami is Saied's main weakness. (Masson, 2023). It can be observed that Kais Saied has reasserted his grip on the security and military apparatus (see following section). According to Yousfi (2023), this can be attributed to the fact that Saied lacks a political party and economic power to back him up, making his only interlocutors the security forces and especially the Ministry of the Interior.

Role of the security and military apparatus

17To announce his «exceptional measures» on July 25th, 2021, Saied appeared on TV surrounded by military and security leaders. The following day, the parliament, which had been «frozen», was surrounded by the military to prevent MPs from accessing the building. Several months later, in November 2021, one of the first major social movements occurred in the small city of Agareb, located in the Governorate of Sfax. Demonstrations broke out calling for the closure of a waste dump in Agareb and were harshly repressed by police forces, resulting in the death of a demonstrator (Mimouna, 2021). In October 2022 in the coastal town of Zarzis city, located in south-eastern Tunisia near to the Libyan border, city-wide demonstrations erupted, to demand the intensification of the search for the bodies of the missing migrants from their city who disappeared at sea and denouncing a state crime. Even though Kais Saied ordered an official investigation, this investigation remained without results. As a result, the social movement persisted for months and was met with severe repression by the security forces, indicating a continuation of the pre-July 25th approach to dealing with such movements. Furthermore, the use of coercive measures has notably increased since the end of 2022. As a result of the failure of the alleged bottom-up approach and the simultaneous failure to defuse the social and economic crisis, coercive and repressive mechanisms are increasingly coming to the fore. These mechanisms are being instrumentalised and serve as populist measures against scapegoats: the ‘corrupt and treacherous opposition’ and ‘illegal migrants’. There has been a significant rise in the arrest of opposition figures without clear legal justification, with a particular focus on the main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, including several Ennahda politicians. In a meeting between Kais Saied with the Minister of social Affairs Saied, Malek Zahi, legitimised these arrestations and the people speaking against, as follows: «There are many enemies lurking around the people, and today it is time for accountability, there is no retreat from this accountability, because it is a legitimate demand of the Tunisian people. And today, unfortunately, there are those who are allied with those who wanted to escape accountability» (Saied, 2023a). Even sub-Saharan migrants living in Tunisia have not been spared from these coercive measures, as seen after Kais Saied's speech in February 2023. Saied spoke about a supposed criminal plan to alter the country's demographic composition (Blaise, 2023; Boukhayatia, 2023), thereby echoing according to Geisser (2023) a «Tunisian version» of the pseudo-theory of the «great replacement», popularised in France by the writer Renaud Camus. Subsequently, a campaign entitled «Strengthening the security network and reducing the phenomenon of illegal residence in Tunisia» was launched by the security apparatus (FTDES 2023) leading to a nationwide hunt for undocumented migrants from sub-Sahara Africa by the police forces (Geisser, 2023). According to Yousfi, there is an attempt of the security power apparatus, which is composed of the judiciary, the police and the army, to reorganise itself under the leadership of Saied (Yousfi, 2023). During a speech in occasion of the anniversary of the formation of Tunisia's internal security force, Saied did not refrain from speaking about a «national liberation war» (Saied, 2023b) that is currently being fought, «against those trying to infiltrate the State.» (Ibid.).


18The article departed from the existing literature on the works of Gramsci and Schmitt in the Tunisian context. Its objective was to identify certain inherent limitations within this body of research and, subsequently, to enhance the discourse by integrating key concepts from both scholars. Drawing from the scholarly contributions of Gherib and Camau, the article posited that Tunisia had already been grappling with a hegemonic crisis prior to 2010/11. Notably, this crisis persisted after 2010/11 and continues to exert its influence. Framed as a manifestation of the overarching organic crisis, the hegemonic crisis played an instrumental role in precipitating the Schmittian Moment of July 25, 2021 and therefore paved the way for the establishment of a novel political and legal framework. This paradigm shift led to the profound reconfiguration of Tunisia's political system under the stewardship of Kais Saied.

19The recent political reconfiguration encountered challenges in attaining hegemony across significant segments of society. Saied’s alleged «bottom-up» and ‘construction from below’ and its legitimation by votes and referenda and popular participation, has shown its limits. The initial support for Saied has stagnated and crumbled over time. Even among those who did not actively contest the ruling authority, a pervasive inclination toward non-participation in the majority of Saieds’ initiatives was evident. The theoretical assumption put forth by Kalyvas that hegemony consolidates what dictatorship has created out of an act of coercion and repression, remains unfulfilled. The autocratic framework instated during the Schmittian Moment seems to have solidified beyond the immediate point of its emergence. This phenomenon is most conspicuously manifested through the transformation of the political system into a presidentialist model, alongside the system's strategic orientation towards the security apparatus as a central intermediary. In this juncture, the notion of a «dictatorship without hegemony» proves to be a pertinent analytical toolFormularbeginn, as the régime failed to establish moral and intellectual leadership and is relying heavily on coercion. Despite a partial preservation of freedom of expression, Saied's approach has been characterized by symbolic political actions, notably exemplified by his utilization of punitive measures against prominent opposition figures. This includes the apprehension of individuals on the grounds of contrived or unsubstantiated evidence. Saieds monopolization and expansion of power, suppression of dissent and social mobilization, coupled with the utilization of sub-Saharan migrants as scapegoats, in light of the aforementioned the lacking hegemony, compel us to assert that the categorization as a «dictatorship lacking hegemony» is substantiated.

20Maintaining this emerging political and legal order is unlikely without society willingly embracing the proposed restructuring and without it achieving hegemony, effectively offering a solution to the social and economic crisis. However, resolving the ongoing hegemonic crisis requires the development of a comprehensive, participatory, and socially rooted project being at the core of the reconfiguration of Tunisia’s political system at the heart of Tunisia's political system reconfiguration.

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1 Razmig Keucheyan refers in many of his writings to Gramsci's concept of crisis as an important aspect for analyzing the current political, social and economic challenges. Among them, these works, «Guerre de mouvement et guerre de position. Textes choisi et présentés par Razmig Keucheyan.» (La fabrique éditions, 2011); «The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today» (Verso, 2013); «The Left, Hegel and the Future of History» (Polity Press, 2014); or «Les gauches de gouvernement» (Editions La découverte, 2017).

2 Kais Saied’s proposed power structure contains 264 local councils («conseils locaux») at the top level of the pyramid, which would correspond to the number of delegations in Tunisia and whose representatives would be directly elected. This in turn would give rise to the regional councils («conseils régionaux»), which represent the 24 governorates and in which one member of each delegation is member of each delegation within the governorate. At the lowest level of the power pyramid is a parliament composed of members of the local councils.

3 Although the UGTT support was conditional and ambiguous since the beginning. Noureddine Taboubi, the general secretary of the UGTT claimed in a speech on August 5th 2021: «The Union will not be silent if freedom of expression, freedom of organization or other rights and freedoms are violated» (Taboubi 2021). Taboubi also explained that the union is not supporting the person of Kais Saied, but rather him answering to the demand of the people (ibid.)

4 The opposition to Kais Saieds is fragmented into three major opposition blocs: 1) The National Salvation Front (Front de Salut National), an alliance of progressive and conservative forces – including the former ruling Ennahdha party. 2) The leftist Coordination of Social Democratic Parties (La Coordination des partis sociaux-démocrates). 3) The Ben-Ali nostalgic Free Destour Party (Parti Destourien Libre, PDL).

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Julius Dihstelhoff et Mounir Mrad, « Kais Saied's reconfiguration of Tunisia’s political system: Hegemonic ambitions to no avail? – A critical approach »L’Année du Maghreb [En ligne], 30 | 2023, mis en ligne le 27 novembre 2023, consulté le 13 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Julius Dihstelhoff

MECAM, Université de Tunis / Philipps-Universität Marburg. Julius Dihstelhoff est depuis mai 2020 le coordinateur académique du centre international " Centre Merian des Études Avancées au Maghreb (MECAM)", basé à Tunis. Il est également chercheur post-doctoral au département de politique du Centre d'études du Proche et du Moyen-Orient (CNMS) de la Philipps-Universität Marburg. Ses recherches portent sur l'islam politique et la politique étrangère allemande dans le monde arabe depuis le "printemps arabe" de 2010/2011, avec un accent particulier sur les processus de transformation tunisiens.

Mounir Mrad

MECAM, Université de Tunis : Mounir Mrad est chercheur en sciences politiques et Programme Manager au "Centre Merian des Études Avancées au Maghreb (MECAM)", basé à Tunis/Tunisie. Il contribue aux questions d'inégalité sociale, de mouvements sociaux et d'économie politique en Tunisie et en Allemagne.

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