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Tunisia's democracy in the balance after president's power grab

Tunisia's decade-old democracy hangs in the balance after President Kais Saied removed the prime minister and suspended Parliament on Sunday.

Why it matters: Tunisia was the lone democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring. It remains the only democracy in the Arab world. But the country's politics have been deadlocked amid an economic crisis and its worst COVID-19 wave, leading to weeks of anti-government protests.

Driving the news: Saied invoked a constitutional provision to claim emergency powers for the next 30 days and to dismiss Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, after a months-long power struggle.

  • He has said he'll name a new prime minister and has rejected claims that he’s carrying out a coup.
  • But Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who leads the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, staged a protest outside Parliament after being denied entry and urged Tunisians to resist this “return to dictatorship.”

Between the lines: The initial reactions on the streets of Tunis seemed to be of jubilation, a sign of just how deep the frustration with the government had grown.

  • But others heard echoes of Egypt, where Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ousted a democratically elected government in a 2013 coup.

Of note: Turkey rejected Saied's move while its regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Egypt offered tacit support.

  • The EU and U.S. have largely been in wait-and-see mode, declining thus far to call Saied's actions a "coup."
  • The State Department stressed the need to protect democracy and expressed concern over reports that police had forcibly closed the local bureau of Al Jazeera. Secretary of State Tony Blinken called Saied on Monday.

The backstory: Saied, a political newcomer and constitutional law professor who won a shock election in 2019, has positioned himself as an outsider — a famously uncharismatic alternative to slicker political operators in Tunis, said Intissar Fakir, director of the Middle East Institute’s North Africa and Sahel program.

  • With no political party and little unilateral power as president, he had been shielded from much of the anti-government anger.

Yes, but: He had also been setting the stage for a power grab, said Sarah Yerkes, a Tunisia expert at the Carnegie Endowment. The protests provided “a good moment to take what could have been a very risky action.”

  • "We don’t really know what his endgame is. We don’t know if he is just trying to reset the political situation and then will hand power back, or if he really is trying to become an authoritarian leader and take the reins of power," Yerkes said.
  • She points to some of Saied's past comments, such as wanting to eliminate the role of prime minister, that make her suspect it’s the latter.
President Kais Saied during an appearance today. Photo: Anadolu Agency via Getty

For the record: Even before the pandemic, two-thirds of Tunisians were dissatisfied with the way democracy was working, per Pew.

By the numbers: Trust in the government had fallen to 15% by March, according to polling from Arab Barometer.

  • 89% of Tunisians said corruption was prevalent in their country — tied with Lebanon for the highest among the seven countries sampled — and just 34% thought the government was working to address that corruption.
  • The poll also underscores the depth of the economic crisis. One-quarter of Tunisians said they'd run out of food the previous month.

The big picture: Those findings challenge the narrative of a democratic success story. Tunisians still express pride at their revolution a decade later, but many think it has gone astray.

  • Still, the fact that the streets have been filled with protesters and independent media outlets are reporting on the latest developments are signs that democracy has taken root, Yerkes notes.

What to watch: If Saied will quickly name a new prime minister and lay out a path forward or "slow walk it until it’s the norm that he’s in charge of everything," Yerkes says.

  • She adds that she'll also be watching the military's response, as Saied has threatened that the military will use lethal force if necessary in the event of violent unrest.

The bottom line: "In the short term, this gives people the big, dramatic change that they want," Fakir says. "But is this really going to make it any easier for him to govern, saying nothing about the democratic process of course?"

  • “Once a country goes down this road — evoking this kind of emergency law, trying to get around the established political processes — it’s very hard to pull the country back," she said.

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