Tunisia’s democracy is about to break down as President takes management

CAIRO – Tunisia’s fledgling democracy, the only one left from the popular revolutions that gripped the Arab world a decade ago, was on the verge of disintegration on Monday after its president tried to wrest power from the rest of the government, Steps that his political opponents denounced as a coup.

President Kais Saied, who announced the seizure of power late on Sunday, did not seem to have quite succeeded in taking control on Monday evening as the North African country fell into chaos. But many Tunisians expressed support and even cheers for his actions, frustrated with an economy that never seemed to improve and a pandemic that has ravaged hospitals in recent weeks.

After Syria, Yemen and Libya were destroyed by a civil war, Egypt’s attempt at democracy was crushed by a counterrevolution and the protests in the Gulf states quickly died down, Tunisia was the only country that emerged from the revolutions of the Arab Spring emerged.

But the nation where the uprising began is now seeing even the remnants of its revolutionary ideals in doubt, a major test of the Biden government’s commitment to democratic principles abroad.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki avoided calling the events in Tunisia a coup at a press conference Monday, saying the classification was a matter for the State Department. “We are concerned about developments” in Tunisia, she said, adding that US officials have been in “high-level” contact with the Tunisian government.

Despite the Tunisian President’s steps, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi said he would hold a cabinet meeting even after Mr Saied announced his dismissal and several ministers, while parts of parliament said they would practically meet even if soldiers cordoned off the parliament building.

But there was still the risk that Mr. Saied would support his seizure of power with greater force, be it through the continued use of the military or the arrest of top officials.

“This is a very worrying development that puts democracy at great risk of crumbling,” said Safwan M. Masri, executive vice president of Columbia University’s Global Centers network, who studies Tunisia. Regarding Saied, he said: “An optimistic scenario would be that parliament and the constitution and democratic institutions prevail and he would be forced out of office. But I wouldn’t bet any money on it. “

The President had already announced that he would take over the powers of the public prosecutor and withdraw immunity from the legislature.

Qatar-funded news broadcaster Al Jazeera, which is politically affiliated with Tunisia’s leading political party Ennahda – one of Mr Saied’s main opponents – said on Monday that 20 plainclothes security officers forced its employees to leave the Tunis office in the capital, which Confiscation of keys and the ban on re-entry without a court order.

It was the sharp escalation of a month-long political crisis that, in some ways, has been brewing since the Tunisians overthrew their dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 in hopes for more freedom and a better life.

Although Tunisia has achieved many of the trappings of democracy, it is struggling with high unemployment, a sluggish economy and corruption, which many people question whether the revolution was worth it.

Protests and strikes often plagued the country, and popular discontent widened the gap between elites who praised Tunisia’s democratic achievements and Tunisians who simply wanted to improve their lot.

The coronavirus pandemic made matters worse by devastating Tunisia’s tourism industry, a major economic engine. The virus has shaken government and healthcare systems even further in recent weeks as Tunisians have died from Covid-19 at the highest rate in the Middle East and Africa.

On Sunday, protesters across Tunisia called for the dissolution of parliament and gave Mr Saied a popular disguise to announce that night that he would fire Mr Mechichi, freeze parliament for 30 days and take executive power.

Ennahda, who has repeatedly received support in parliamentary elections but whose strength has proven controversial due to his Islamist background and the lack of improvement in the economy, described his actions as a “coup against Tunisian democracy and its constitution” and “treason every Tunisian ”. “In a statement calling on Mr. Saied to reverse his decisions immediately.

“Tunisia is the last glow of the Arab Spring, which has now been extinguished,” Said Ferjani, an Ennahda MP, said in an interview, calling on Biden to demonstrate his commitment to democracy. “Does it really matter to him?” he asked.

On Monday afternoon, parliament was closed with a heavy police presence outside and soldiers inside. Crowds gathered in front of the building, around 200 Ennahda supporters on one side and around 150 Saied supporters on the other, some occasionally throwing water bottles and stones at each other.

“We are up to the rule of law and legitimacy,” said Houda, 24, an archivist from Tunis. (She declined to give her full name because she works for the government.) “If someone wants to depose those in power, they can do so through elections rather than a coup.”

Mr Saied’s supporters included Amel Barhoumi, 30, who said she, like many other Tunisians, was exhausted from endless political unrest.

“We are so tired. We are not against democracy; We want change, ”she said. “Nobody trusts the political elite at the moment. I think dealing with the pandemic was the last straw. “

When Saied was elected in the second free presidential election in the country’s history in 2019, many Tunisians hoped he could change things, seeing him as an incorruptible political outsider. However, after riding popular dissatisfaction to seize power, it is unclear how he will meet public demands to solve Tunisia’s many problems.

“Kais himself is not so popular, but people who really hate the incumbent political elite,” said Tarek Megerisi, Senior Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “They blame them for all of the country’s problems and think they need to be removed.”

The showdown, while shocking, was a long time coming as Mr Saied had been locked in political power struggles with Mr Mechichi and Parliament speaker Rachid Ghannouchi since his election.

Saied has for months been hinting at expanding his authority by refusing to swear in ministers and blocking the formation of a constitutional court, sounding the alarm to opponents and political analysts.

In response to the chaos of Tunisia’s introduction of Covid-19 vaccination last week and a surge in cases that overwhelmed hospitals, Mr Saied removed control of the Tunisian coronavirus response from the Ministry of Health and turned it over to the military.

On Sunday night, Mr Saied quoted Article 80 of the Constitution, which gives the President exceptional powers. He said he had consulted both Mr. Mechichi and Mr. Ghannouchi and had an emergency meeting with other officials before acting.

Saied said he was doing this to “maintain the security and independence of the country and to protect the normal operation of state institutions”.

However, Article 80 only gives the President such powers when the country is under immediate threat. And Mr. Ghannouchi denied that he had been consulted.

In a statement, Mr Ghannouchi also condemned what he called a “coup” and described the parliamentary suspension as “unconstitutional, illegal and invalid”. The assembly “stands in place and will do its job,” he added.

“This is not a suspension of the Constitution,” Saied said in the televised statement, adding an ominous warning to opponents: “If you fire a single bullet, our armed forces and security forces will hit back with a hail of bullets.”

Videos posted on social media showed crowds cheering, honking, waving and waving Tunisian flags after the president’s actions on Sunday night, the dark night lit by red torches.

Other videos showed Mr. Saied going through Cheering supporters along Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Tunis, where revolutionaries gathered during the 2011 protests.

The next step for Tunisia is unclear. The country has so far failed to form the constitutional court called for in the 2014 constitution to rule on such disputes.

In his statement, Mr Saied cryptically said that a decree would shortly be issued “to regulate these exceptional measures dictated by circumstances,” adding that the measures will be “lifted if those circumstances change”. He also dismissed the defense minister and the incumbent justice minister on Monday afternoon.

The political divide in Tunisia reflects a broader divide in the Middle East between regional powers that supported the Arab revolutions and the then-come-to-power Islamist political groups (Turkey and Qatar) and those who worked to roll back the uprisings (Saudi Arabia , the United Arab Emirates and Egypt). Fears that the crisis could make Tunisia more vulnerable to interference from more powerful countries on both sides have grown, though all but Turkey and Qatar, which issued concerned statements, remained silent on Monday.

The European Union said in a statement that it is following developments closely and called on Tunisians to respect the rule of law, avoid violence and “preserve the country’s stability”.

Nada Rashwan contributed the reporting from Cairo, Lilia Blaise and Massinissa Benlakehal from Tunis.

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