Tunisia president accused of staging coup after suspending parliament
Often touted as the lone success story of the Arab spring revolutions a decade ago, Tunisia is facing a critical challenge to its fledgling democracy after its president suspended parliament and dismissed his prime minister in what critics described as a coup.
Kais Saied, an independent without a party behind him, announced he was invoking an emergency article of Tunisia’s constitution late on Sunday night after a day of violent protests against the country’s biggest party, the moderate Islamist Ennahda movement.
The capital, Tunis, was flooded with jubilant crowds waving flags, letting off fireworks and honking car horns after Saied’s declaration in scenes reminiscent of the 2011 protests which toppled the country’s longtime autocratic ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
On Monday, Saied also removed the defence minister and acting justice minister from their posts, while Al Jazeera reported that its bureau in Tunis had been raided by security forces. Its journalists were expelled from the premises and phones, computers and other equipment confiscated.
What comes next is unclear. The deployment of the army has sparked fears of destabilisation and a return to authoritarian rule. At the same time, Tunisians’ anger at one of Africa’s worst virus outbreaks, and the fractious political class’s inability to tackle the county’s chronic economic problems, has finally boiled over.
“We have been relieved of them,” said Lamia Meftahi, a woman who joined in the celebrations overnight. “This is the happiest moment since the revolution.”
Tunisia’s small army, which is widely seen as being outside politics, was met with an almost rapturous reception by protesters when it deployed overnight, even as soldiers surrounded parliament and blocked the parliamentary speaker, veteran Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, from entering the building.
Outside parliament on Monday, handfuls of Ennahda voters scuffled with the president’s supporters in 39C heat.
“I’m here because I don’t agree with the decision of the president. We’ve assembled for democracy. It’s a unique decision… It’s the sort of decision Ben or Bourguiba [Tunisia’s former repressive rulers] would make. It’s not normal,” said Mongi Chouf, on the Ennahda side.
Tunisia’s mishandling of the pandemic has served as a lightning rod for longstanding popular discontent with parliamentary politics: thousands of people defied Covid-19 restrictions and scorching summer temperatures in demonstrations which sparked clashes with security forces in several cities on Sunday, ahead of Saied’s announcement.
More than 18,000 people in the country of 12 million have died of coronavirus since the pandemic began, overwhelming crumbling public health services and crippling the vital tourism industry.
To date, just 7% of the population has been fully vaccinated, while more than 90% of the country’s ICU beds are occupied, according to health ministry figures. Videos have circulated on social media showing dead bodies left in the middle of wards as morgues struggle to deal with growing deaths.
Dozens of arrests were made on Sunday as protesters called for the dissolution of parliament and early elections in gatherings organised by a new group called the 25 July Movement. Police used teargas to disperse crowds as people threw stones and tried to storm Ennahda’s offices in several towns. In Tozeur, the party’s local headquarters was set on fire.
While support for the president’s decision echoed on social media, the legality of the move remains uncertain. A constitutional professor by training, Saied has claimed that he is acting within the law.
TUNISIA: Crowds take to streets in Tunis tonight to celebrate President decision of dismissing Gov. , firing PM & freezing parliament.Major political upheaval. Islamist Opposition calling it a “coup”, reports on airport & borders closures: pic.twitter.com/HSdsf1tKXU— Joyce Karam (@Joyce_Karam) July 25, 2021
Observers, however, are already warning that the decision to invoke article 80 of the constitution, which allows the president to take “exceptional measures in the event of imminent danger”, effectively translates to total executive power for an unspecified period of time. As well as sacking the ministers and suspending parliament for 30 days, the immunity of MPs has been lifted.
The president’s longstanding vision has been for a democracy free from party affiliations with delegates appointed on the basis of local merit, who would then appoint the layers above them.
“This isn’t just about Ennahda, it’s about the political system and all the parties,” said activist Henda Chennaoui. “[Saied] has built alliances within the army and the ministry of interior. He knows people are tired. He got the support he expected. This is about the whole political system … It’s failed. It’s been 10 years and it’s failed.”
Ghannouchi of Ennahda was among several lawmakers who insisted the parliament would continue to work despite the president’s move, holding an emergency session on Monday which could be conducted online if necessary.
Tunisia’s president declares the end of democracy. Is the Arab spring is finally over and the Tunisian exception is undone? pic.twitter.com/JDPzxbAPeR— Omair Anas (@omairanas) July 26, 2021
In a military-style televised address on Sunday evening, Saied cited concerns about public unrest as the reason for his decision to suspend parliament, and warned opponents not to respond with violence.
“We have taken these decisions … until social peace returns to Tunisia and until we save the state,” he said. “I warn any who think of resorting to weapons … and whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets.”
Ghannouchi said the president didn’t consult him and the prime minister as required by the article, calling it a coup and “assault on democracy”. Prime minister Hichem Mechichi has not spoken in public since Saied dismissed him.
Ghannouci and Mechichi, an independent aligned with the Islamist party, have been locked in an acrimonious political stalemate with Saied since 2019, when the president was elected in a surprise landslide.
The infighting has stalled important ministerial appointments and diverted time and resources away from tackling Tunisia’s pressing socioeconomic problems.
Saied had previously threatened to dissolve parliament and sack the prime minister as a way to overhaul a complex political system plagued by corruption.
In the decade since Ben Ali was deposed, Tunisia has been plagued by security issues and terrorist attacks. It has also had nine governments, most of which have been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Ennahda. The most recent election delivered a fragmented chamber, in which no party held more than a quarter of seats.
Developments in Tunisia are being watched with trepidation abroad. Stopping short of calling Saied’s move a coup, a German foreign ministry spokesperson said it was “important now to return really quickly to the constitutional order”. Turkey’s government said it was “deeply concerned” by the suspension of parliament and said it hoped that “democratic legitimacy” was soon restored. The United Nations called on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence.
News agencies contributed to this report