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Kaïs Saïed and Tunisia’s High Functionaries

Middle East & North Africa

Since executing his coup d’état on July 25th of 2021, Kaïs Saïed’s “revolution from within the state” has posed a number of difficult questions for the Tunisian bureaucracy. In quietly altering the legal and institutional cartography of the state by establishing a new system of local councils and conjuring of a second parliamentary chamber (Conseil national des régions et des districts, or CNRD) in 2023, for instance, the President left the future of key post-colonial arrangements uncertain: Where administrative power, following the French model, has historically been unitary and highly concentrated in Tunis, the possibility of a disbursal to the periphery, and all that entails, now exists. Saïed has also pushed the who and how of the rule of law into flux.

Alongside his pursuit of reconciliation with select members of the business community, the President’s reconquest of the judiciary—advanced via the dissolution of the High Judicial Council and dismissal of dozens of magistrates—renders ambiguous basic matters of juridical authority, procedure, and appeal. Likewise, unilateral pivots from Saïed when it comes to dealings with foreign creditors like the IMF and European Union (and halfway steps with central bank reform) have created confusion around policy delegation and responsibility in the economic domain. The empowering of the Armed Forces, finally, and willingness of Carthage to free-style when it comes to external relations—the latter of which has opened a number of diplomatic ruptures, the breach with Morocco over Saïed’s provocative approach to the Polisario Front included—has even lent confusion to the management of foreign policy.         

However, despite the confusion and upheaval Saïed has sowed for the bureaucracy, his regime has witnessed precious few defections from Tunisia’s high functionaries. To the contrary, the latter have come to represent an indispensable bulwark of the President’s power.

Drivers of High Functionary Obedience

As Tunisia’s 2011 revolution gathered momentum across January of 2011, one of the things that stood out was the extent to which senior personnel from the administrative state held ranks with the old political guard. Excepting a handful of diplomats like Mezri Haddad[1] and Noureddine Hached[2], those with high-ranking positions in the bureaucracy largely stayed quiet and dutiful as tensions ratcheted up across late 2010 and early 2011. Indeed, even after the flight of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia, the actions of the high functionaries signaled a preference for continuity vis-à-vis state form and leadership.

It was therefore somewhat unsurprising when in the months that followed Kaïs Saïed’s self-coup, Tunisia’s top administrators, security personnel, and policymakers again evinced deference to autocratic power. They were not alone in this regard, of course: Popular support for Saïed’s moves were quite high. Nevertheless, as those charged with keeping the country running, the high functionaries’ backing was especially salient. In the very first instance, it should be remembered that Saïed’s self-coup itself required the consent and participation of the non-civilian pillars of the state, the army in particular but also law enforcement: It was not the head of government or President of the Assembly of People’s Representatives (ARP) who stood by Saïed’s side when he announced his recourse to article 80 of the Constitution, but the top brass of the military, police, and national and republican guard. It was the army’s tanks, moreover, that later enforced the freeze on the ARP’s activities. Though some of those involved might explain their choice in the language of apoliticism, without their blessing, Saïed’s consolidation of power is impossible to imagine.

Respect for the Za’im and the Pull of Légitimisme

The behavior of top public servants, both at the critical juncture of summer 2021 and thereafter, is best understood in light of three variables. The first is trained loyalty to the chief executive and, in some instances, an affinity for légitimisme—a political project derived from dynastic monarchist principles.

Each tendency traces its provenance to post-independence authoritarianism and the system established for building up the state. Serving as a central cog for the system in question was the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA). From its inception, the ENA was tasked not only with developing competent planners and administrators, but nurturing an esprit de corpsthat would ensure the énarques (the moniker of ENA graduates) put fidelity to the state and its self-defined interests above all else. As revealed by two ENA graduates interviewed for this paper, for some, the years at ENA also inculcated an ideological devotion to the person who sat atop the state—a politics akin to the aforementioned légitimisme.[3] In the words of one interview subject, “Right from school, we’re taught our duty is to the executive. The role of the senior civil servant is to translate any political choice into public policy. We are taught never to criticize a political decision.”

Under Ben Ali, loyalty to a supreme executive took on extralegal dimensions. In her massive study of the bygone dictator’s regime, Béatrice Hibou noted the prevalence of ta‘limet (تعليمات): “What we call ta‘limet in Tunisia are unwritten instructions or orders that have the force of law, and sometimes even more force than the law; what must be done but cannot be written down, and is most commonly applied in situations of refusal without explanation, precisely so as not to provide any.”[4] Saliently, the role of ta‘limet did not cease upon Ben Ali’s departure. Rather, their enduring influence on the course of history was made apparent at a number of decisive moments during the ascent of Kaïs Saïed. One can of course point to the military’s maneuvers on July 25th, a critical intervention amidst a profoundly ambiguous legal situation. Police actions in February 2022 proffer a second case in point: On that occasion, law enforcement surrounded and blockaded the building housing the Supreme Council of the Judiciary prior to the Council having been officially dissolved by Presidential decree. And the sway of ta‘limet on the ranks of civil administrators has been very much in force as well.

Consider the acts of Farouk Bouasker, President of the Instance supérieure indépendante pour les élections (ISIE, the independent authority for overseeing elections). Despite having been a member of the ISIE since its foundation in 2014 and despite having been a Vice President of the body during the democratic transition—a time when ISIE genuinely fulfilled its mandate—Bouasker quickly fell into lock-and-step with Saïed after the coup. He even adopted the President’s rhetoric on elections past and present: Taking his cue from Carthage, Bouasker explained the historically low turnout of voters during the first round of 2022’s legislative elections by stating “For the first time in Tunisia, the elections are clean and untainted”, thereby implying all the polls held after 2011 were corrupted.[5] While Bouasker’s pivot may have been partially spurred by a concern for his own personal survival, the vigor with which he promoted Saïed’s framing of recent history speaks to a more genuine agreement with the political project of the President. 

As a rule, then, the socialization of bureaucrats creates a strong tendency toward lining up behind the chief executive, regardless of the circumstance. For a significant number of high functionaries, socialization processes within the ENA and workplace have additionally endowed a deep lying, ideological attachment to autocratic, vertically structured governance led by a grand homme.   

Raising a Cadre of Loyalists and Maintaining a climate of fear

The administrative state’s observed obedience to Saïed—and the more activist forms of duty practiced by certain members of the bureaucracy—has also been informed by the President’s manipulation of personnel decisions and maintenance of fear, respectively.

Concerning the former, after dismissing the parliament and rendering himself head of government, Saied was freed to reshuffle the senior ranks of the state in whatever manner he saw fit. Expectedly, he did so in a manner conducive to the advance of loyalists: For a sense of scale, between July 25th 2021 and early 2023, 96% of governors were replaced, 25.37% of general directors, 28.85% of deputy directors, and 45.78% of department heads.[6] In leaving many senior positions vacant, Carthage has also been able to put considerable pressure on interim office holders, turning relevant persons, many of whom might have otherwise been inclined to keep their distance from the Saïedist project, into reluctant loyalists: The effects of the incentive to keep one’s job—providing as it does a wide range of benefits like company housing and a company car as well as petrol vouchers—should not be understated.

As for fear, Saïed has leveraged more than the specter of turnover: He has also used the raids of unsuspecting offices—and the broadcasting of these incursions on the Presidential Facebook page—and the scolding of ideologically wayward ministers to keep functionaries scared of taking a single misstep. Scoldings have created a unique chill for economic policymakers, who cannot help but be mindful of the example of Samir Saied: At this stage, paralysis seems to be the most adaptive behavior for those toiling in the ministry buildings of the Kasbah on a development-related portfolio, at least until they can determine how serious Carthage’s pretensions toward sovereigntism are.

Anti-corruption initiatives, of course, have only added to a bureaucrat’s unease. These initiatives have been intensified since the appointment of Ahmed Hachani as Prime Minister in late 2023, at which point the President embarked on a “clean-up of the Administration” aimed at removing those who “have unduly intruded.” Though nebulously defined, the intruders being targeted are typically those appointed between 2011 and 2021.[7] This witch-hunt, derived from conspiracy and motivated by the need for scapegoats, unnerves those within the administrative state to the degree that many of the civil servants dismissed as part of this campaign opt against even contesting the decision, lest they invite a worse punishment. (It should be noted that since the summer of 2023, means of legal recourse for contesting such decisions have been limited by the authorities.)

Shared Interests

Last but not least in compelling the high functionary’s commitments to the Saïedist project are shared interests.

These shared interests are most easily discerned through reviewing the process of state formation in Tunisia. Though at risk of oversimplifying things, this history shows that the structure and operations of the country’s administrative state endured largely unchanged between the second half of the 19th century and 2011. Upon its inauguration in 1881, the French colonial administration, governing through a protectorate, opted to retain the hierarchical system which had iteratively been put in place by Mohammed Bey (through the Fundamental Pact of 1857), Sadok Bey (through the Constitution of 1861), and Kheireddine Pacha.

Likewise, upon the realization of independence, though Habib Bourguiba added a few novel touches (including some borrowed from the French Jacobin tradition), he otherwise leaned toward preserving the status quo. Nor did Ben Ali choose to institute significant changes after executing his medical coup in 1987: Though the new President did introduce large reforms to the governing party (Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique, or RCD) while boosting the power of Carthage as a policy center, he allowed things to carry on with the bureaucracy as they were.[8] By consequence of this history, an administrative state, always responsible to a single director, came, over time, to see itself as a political player with a distinct preference for verticality in governance.

That the democratic transition which began in 2011 proved a vertiginous experience for those populating the bureaucracy was therefore something of a foregone conclusion. Firstly, the parliamentary system and voting system adopted since 2011 encouraged the emergence of unstable political coalitions.[9] These coalitions, in turn, led to ministerial appointments being made based more on partisan allegiance than on competence. For high functionaries with a technocratic self-regard, the result was a major source of tension. There were frustrations stemming from senior civil servants needing to answer to members of parliament who in some cases had a very poor grasp of their dossiers, too. The public’s growing alienation from the legislature improved things little from the perspective of the functionaries, nor did the constancy of political instability. And predictably, the accession to power of the Ennahda party was something of a coup de grâce. After all, all those who had come through the ENA had received a political education that was expressly hostile to political Islam. Untrusting from the outset, Ennahda’s attempts to appoint party leaders to high posts within the administrative state would be seen as an existential kind of danger.

And so, their interests and prestige having been unsettled by the democratic experiment, Tunisia’s high functionaries and the larger administrative state they help steer would greet Saïed’s self-coup warmly. And if this warmth wasn’t always shown for all to see, it was in some instances: Famously enthusiastic about July 25th was Sadok Chaabane, a one-time minister for Ben Ali and long-time intellectual of the RCD.

Chaabane’s example actually speaks to more than the administrative state’s general keenness for the Saïedist putsch: It also speaks to the quiet restoration of elements from the bygone regime of Ben Ali under Saïed—the emergence of a tendency now recognized as “Kaïsso-RCDists.” For journalist Zyed Krichen, the Kaïsso-RCDists are a resurgent old guard motivated first and foremost by the need to rehabilitate the “prestige of the state”, a project that animated Béji Caïd Essebsi during the post-revolutionary decade as well. For Michael Ayari of the International Crisis Group, the picture is slightly more complex. Yes, RCD networks as a whole greeted Saïed’s coup positively. Since the President commenced administrative reshuffles driven by ideological concerns, however, more centrist RCD types began taking their distance. This leaves a radical faction for whom anti-Islamism is the be all and end all of political life—the heirs of figures like Mahjoub Ben Ali and Mohamed Sayeh—as Saïed’s true RCD base.

Regardless of how one parses it, though, Kaïsso-RCDists aspire to entrench the power and autonomy of state institutions and to push the population (and civil society especially) back into a position of subservience.[10] Insofar as much of their agenda aligns with Saïed’s own objectives, their coming together with the President can hardly be seen as a surprise. They, like many of Tunisia’s high functionaries, have been particularly excited about Carthage’s rollback of transparency and right to information measures, use of Décret-Loi 2022-54 to silence dissenting voices, and dissolving of independent bodies like the Haute Autorité Indépendante de la Communication Audiovisuelle (HAICA) and the Instance Nationale de Lutte Contre la Corruption (INLUCC). They also look upon the prospects of forthcoming reforms to Article 96 of the Penal Code—the contents of which are rumored to offer senior civil servants a form of immunity for illegal actions carried out in service of state directives—with great excitement.


Though slowly hemorrhaging popular support, the regime of Kaïs Saïed continues to be able to count on the support of a large share of Tunisia’s high functionaries. Like so many others, these actors had been moved to welcome Saïed’s coup in its early stages in part due to the disarray which had come to grip the democratic transition. Unlike their peers in civil society and amongst the population at large, they also did so out of ideological conviction and shared interests—their preference being for a vertical, autonomous, and strong state emptied of Islamists and led by a single figure rather than one subject to (often incompetent) parliamentary oversight.

If hitherto content with Saïed’s closing of Tunisia’s liberal parenthesis, it would be naïve to assume the President and administrative state are bound for a long and happy marriage. Saïed, after all, has plans for overhauling the bureaucratic apparatus and even more trusted militants to the senior perches of the state. If and when executed, this would lead to the displacement of many luminaries amongst the énarques. Senior civil servants may therefore be scheduled for a fate like the leadership of the UGTT: to be consumed by a “revolution from within the state” they once cheered.

[1] Haddad was Tunisia’s ambassador to UNESCO between 2009 and 2011. Though a frequent defender of the regime in the French media prior to the uprisings, he defected hours before Ben Ali departed for Saudi Arabia.

[2] Hached is the son of famed union leader Farhat Hached and had been named ambassador to Japan. He defected shortly after Ben Ali’s departure.

[3] Authors’ correspondence, March 2024.

[4] Béatrice Hibou, La force de l’obéissance. Économie politique de la répression en Tunisie. La Découverte (2006): 349.

[5] This assertion was made at an ISIE press conference on December 17th 2022.

[6] Hatem Chakroun, “Accaparer le pouvoir de nommer”, in H. Redissi (ed.), Le pouvoir d’un seul (Diwen : 2023): 121-145).

[7] Hatem Nafti, « administrative purge: a new current in the regime’s authoritarian drift», Nawaat (August 15, 2023):

[8] Anne Wolf, Ben Ali’s Tunisia: Power and Contention in an Authoritarian Regime (Oxford University Press: 2023).

[9] Colin Powers, De quoi Kaïs Saïed est-il le nom? La Tunisie à l’ère de l’hyperpolitique. Report : Noria Research (2024).

[10] At a basic level, Kaïsso-RCDists want to turn back the clock and bring back what Béatrice Hibou observed in the 2000s: “We find here a characteristic that many social scientists have underlined for Tunisia: a systematically condescending and authoritarian look of the elites in power towards the people, even if they are notables, for whom they implement policies. But this elitism is shared by the very people who suffer from it” (Hibou, 2006 : 73-74).