Tensions in Tunis: Alleged Coup Plot Propagates Conspiracy Theories by Robert Uniacke and Ryan Craig

London-based digital news outlet the Middle East Eye (MEE) published at the beginning of summer 2021, an article entitled “Top secret Tunisian presidential document outlines plan for ‘constitutional dictatorship.’” The article alleges that Tunisian president Kais Saied and a group of individuals in his inner-circle were conspiring to seize full power in the country by enacting a constitutional national emergency linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, giving Saied near far-reaching powers. The Middle East Eye cites its claim to a document it states was leaked from Tunis.

Further details from the document include a plan to call Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and Parliament speaker and Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi to a meeting of the National Security Council at the palace in Carthage where they would be “ambushed” and placed under house arrest. Other key individuals linked to the Islamist leaning Ennahda party would also simultaneously be placed under house arrest. The alleged plan also calls for a reshuffling of the ministerial positions in the government, further aligning power under President Saied.

Official reactions were muted, with one presidential source telling Mosaique FM that the president was above responding to “trivial allegations.” Ennahda, however, responded by calling for an investigation into the document’s “dangerous proposals.” The story caused a moderate stir in Tunisian media and was even labeled ‘the constitutional coup’ – evoking the coup that brought former president Ben Ali to power in 1987. However, reactions were generally doubtful of the document’s authenticity, asides from Ennahda-aligned media and supporters. Tunisian investigative journalists even accessed the document’s metadata to confirm that its original source was a private company in Berges du Lac, Tunisia.

Tunisia-based Navanti researchers were also skeptical of the story’s credibility, noting that even if the document is real, it does not contain the president’s signature calling into question if Saied has seen the document and approved of it. One also stated that Saied, who ran as an independent, lacks the resources or allies to launch a coup as described in the article. Instead, Navanti researchers saw the release as an attack on the president’s reputation by his opponents. Saied is engaged in a political battle over the powers of office with the Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and the speaker of parliament and Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi. Two researchers explicitly argued that the most likely scenario was Ennahda forged the document to attack Saied. Alleging links between MEE and the Qatari government, one researcher purported that Qatar is supporting Ennahda with information operations.

The MEE’s article appears at first blush to be an effort to further undermine the increasingly unpopular Tunisian President Saied; however, the real loser of this episode is arguably Ennahda. Its reaction to the MEE’s allegations, which could easily be categorized as disinformation, has fed conspiracy theories that shady axis of Ennahda, Qatar, and Turkey is harnessing global media to sink Saied. The inclination of the party and its supporters towards believing the charges against Saied, despite flimsy evidence, speaks to their deep-seated threat perception going back to the counter-revolutionary coup that toppled fellow Islamist President Morsi in Egypt in 2013.

Ultimately, these conspiracies’ pervasiveness exposes acute divisions in Tunisian politics. Whoever leaked or fabricated the “constitutional coup” document likely aimed to exploit Tunisia’s vulnerable media environment to at minimum deepen rifts within the country, if not target a political entity such as Ennahda. At this juncture there is no evidence linking senior Ennahda leadership to the leaking nor to the fabrication of this document, but the prevailing sentiment in the country is that Ennahda is somehow behind this.