A spring far behind: Tunisian President Kais Saied seizes power, sacks Prime Minister

Print edition : September 10, 2021

President Kais Saied with members of the special unit of the Tunisian National Guard. Photograph provided by the Tunisian presidency’s official Facebook page on August 4. Photo: AFP

The Tunisian army barricades the parliament building in the capital Tunis on July 26. Photo: YASSINE MAHJOUB/AFP

Rached Ghannouchi, Speaker of Tunisia’s suspended parliament and Ennahda Party leader, at his office in Tunis on July 29. He initially struck a defiant tone describing the President’s suspension of parliament as “a coup” and as an “unconstitutional, illegal and invalid” act. Photo: FETHI BELAID/AFP

Arab Spring dreams are snuffed out as Tunisia appears headed for a dictatorship following President Kais Saied’s suspension of parliament and sacking of the elected Prime Minister and his Council of Ministers.

TUNISIA IN NORTH AFRICA WAS THE FIRST country in the region that saw authoritarian rule being substituted by parliamentary democracy after the events ignited by the Arab Spring. Sadly, it may soon join the ranks of the countries that have reverted to authoritarian rule after a brief tryst with multiparty democracy. On July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saied in a surprise move announced that he was suspending parliament and taking over the running of the government from the elected Prime Minister and his Cabinet.

For almost a decade following the overthrow of the despotic President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, the country has been under civilian rule and has held peaceful elections to elect a parliament and a President. The ouster of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in power for more than 23 years, through mainly peaceful protests had enthused Arab masses all over the region. The new government led by the Ennahda Party became the first Arab regime to allow full freedom of expression. In the elections held regularly in the past decade, political parties of all hues were allowed to contest.

The Ennahda Party, which has close links with the Muslim Brotherhood, always got the biggest slice of the vote in successive elections. At the same time, it took care not to monopolise power, knowing well that most of the governments in the region looked at the Muslim Brotherhood with suspicion. The Ennahda described the President’s action in late July as “a coup against Tunisian democracy and its constitution” and “a betrayal of every Tunisian”. A member of the Tunisian parliament, Said Ferjani, said the “last ember of the Arab Spring has been snuffed out”. Tunisia’s largest trade union, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), which is frequently at odds with the Ennahda, also condemned the President’s move.

In neighbouring Egypt, the government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which had come to power soon after the transition to democracy in Tunisia, was overthrown in 2013 before completing barely a year in office. The party was banned in Egypt. Most of its leaders are languishing behind bars along with thousands of political prisoners. The countries that were profoundly affected by the Arab Spring—Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Libya—took different political paths. The monarchies in the Gulf and in Morocco had quickly announced more economic subsidies for their subjects and introduced cosmetic reforms to stave off street protests. Egypt, after a brief tryst with multiparty democracy, reverted to military rule. Yemen is still mired in a never-ending civil war.

Also read: Tunisia: A political crisis fuelled by economic woes

The West and its allies in the region used the Arab Spring protests to overthrow republican and secular governments that pursued independent foreign policies in the region. The West and its conservative Arab allies used the isolated protests that had broken out in Libya to intervene militarily and bring about regime change there. After the assassination of the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, the country plunged into a civil war and chaos. It is yet to recover from the negative impact of the Arab Spring. Tunisia, on the other hand, witnessed a comparatively peaceful transition to civilian rule. But there was no change in the economic model that the country followed. The economy continued to depend substantially on tourism. Already affected by the political turbulence in the region, the tourism sector took a bigger hit after the coronavirus pandemic struck last year. Unemployment has been at a record high and the shortages of vaccine to combat the COVID-19 virus has angered large sections of the population.

Many Tunisians started complaining that there was no improvement in the standard of living following the overthrow of the dictatorship. In fact, the country is facing its worst economic crisis since it gained independence from French rule. The trade deficit that the civilian government had inherited from the military dictatorship has only increased. The democratically elected governments since 2012 have been forced to adopt the same development model recommended by the international financial institutions that had created economic inequality and the debt crisis in the first place. These policies were an important factor in triggering the Arab Spring revolt in Tunisia.

Meanwhile, the value of the Tunisian currency has been depreciating steadily. There was a general complaint among Tunisians that the only benefit the 2011 revolution brought was “freedom of speech”. Popular participation in elections have shown a sharp decline in recent years. In the 2014 general election, more than 68 per cent of the electorate voted. In 2019, the participation fell to 42 per cent. In a deeply polarised polity, those opposed to the Ennahda blame the party for all the current ills.

Fractured polity

Tunisians were also upset with the ongoing power tussle between Prime Minister Hichem Mechchi and the Speaker of parliament, Rachid Ghannouchi, a veteran Ennahda leader. Saied, the man behind the latest power grab, was elected President in 2019. It was the third time the Tunisians had gone to the polls to elect a President. Saied was not identified with any of the country’s mainstream parties and, according to the Arab media, had earned a reputation as an incorruptible academic and constitutional expert. The Ennahda and many other mainstream parties had actually supported him in the presidential contest.

But in the last couple of months there were increasing signs that the President was trying to usurp the powers vested in the elected representatives of the people. He refused to swear in new members of the Cabinet and vetoed the setting up of a new constitutional court. When the protests relating to the pandemic and the distribution of the limited supply of vaccines on offer peaked in mid July, the President ordered that the responsibility of carrying out vaccination should be handed over to the country’s armed forces. Tunisia has suffered the highest mortality rate in the African continent after the pandemic struck early last year.

Also read: Tunisian President dismisses PM Mechichi, freezes Parliament

There were major anti-government protests on the day Saied announced the suspension of parliament. Many Tunisians also came out on the streets to support his move. In order to avoid violent clashes, the leaders of the Ennahda and other parties called on their supporters to avoid taking to the streets in large numbers. In his address to the nation justifying his decision to take control of the government, the Tunisian President cited Article 80 of the country’s Constitution, which he claimed allowed the head of state to assume extraordinary powers in times of emergency. He said that he was forced to take the step to preserve the country’s “security and independence and to protect the normal operations of state institutions”.

The Prime Minister and the Speaker of parliament along with most of the political parties, secular as well as Islamists, pointed out that Article 80 of the Constitution provided such powers to the President only if the country was facing an “imminent threat”. The Constitution also clearly states that the Prime Minister and the Speaker have to be consulted before such a move is made. Both the Prime Minister and the Speaker have said that they were never consulted on the issue, despite claims to the contrary by the President.

The Speaker had initially struck a defiant tone describing the President’s suspension of parliament as “a coup” and as an “unconstitutional, illegal and invalid” act. Ghannouchi said that the parliament would continue to remain in place “and fulfil its duty”. The Prime Minister made a defiant announcement that he would preside over a Cabinet meeting despite being sacked by the President. Parliamentarians said that they would hold virtual meetings. The President, on his part, sent the military to barricade the parliament building.

Right from the outset, the President made it clear by his actions that he would be depending on the security forces to fulfil his agenda. The army was used to cordon off the parliament building to block the lawmakers. As soon as street protests broke out after his decision to suspend parliament, the President warned his adversaries that the security forces would fire a hundred bullets for every bullet aimed at them. Public gatherings of more than three people were banned. However, the Tunisian armed forces have rarely used force against the public. They had disobeyed the orders to shoot during the Arab Spring protests. Historically, unlike in neighbouring Egypt, the army has stayed out of politics.

A Constitutional Court, if it was allowed to be sworn in, would have thrown out the President’s arguments justifying his ouster of the elected government. Now it is becoming clear why President Saied has been vetoing the creation of a Constitutional Court. Its creation was mandated in the country’s 2014 Constitution. Saied, while campaigning for the post of President, had actually expressed contempt for multiparty democracy, saying that the days of pluralism in politics were numbered.

Also read: Tunisia's COVID-19 surge spells disaster in more ways than one

All the same, in the weeks following the coup, a majority of Tunisians seem to be still supporting the President’s move, although their numbers are fast waning. The President had initially promised to appoint a new Cabinet within a month and had also given assurances that the draconian measures he had taken would be temporary. But indications are that he is aiming to be fully in charge of the government for a much longer period.

Saied had also pledged to uphold the democratic freedoms the Arab Spring revolution had achieved in the country. Yet journalists and the President’s political opponents have been arrested in the weeks following the coup. The offices of the Al Jazeera network were sealed and its journalists banned from reporting from the country. Qatar, which owns the television network, and Turkey are supporters of the Ennahda party and have criticised the constitutional coup.

Among those arrested are senior Ennahda office-bearers, some of whom were Ministers. The authorities have also opened probes against the Ennahda and another party, the Heart of Tunisia, on charges of receiving funds from abroad during the 2019 election campaign. Despite the provocations, Ennahda leaders, including Ghannouchi, are now calling upon their followers to show restraint. The party stressed on “its commitment to dialogue with all national actors, foremost of whom is the President, in order to overcome this complex crisis, achieve social peace and implement the necessary reforms”.

Pressure from the West

The West, led by the United States, has advised Saied to recall parliament at the earliest and to quickly appoint a new government. According to reports, the West has sent messages to Ghannouchi, assuring him of continued support. The Biden administration, though only mildly critical of Saied’s power grab, had strongly signalled that he must return power to the elected leaders. Tunisia needs the support of international banking institutions and is therefore in no position to alienate the West. Tunisia’s 2021 budget forecast borrowing needs at $7.2 billion. Debt repayment was put at $5.8 billion. According to reports, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have promised a bailout, but as the example of Sudan has shown, pledges made by the Gulf monarchies rarely materialise.

Also read: Tunisia: Lingering spring

So far, only the Emiratis and the Saudis, along with the Egyptians, are openly supporting the Tunisian President. Ghannouchi said that the UAE was “determined to finish off” the Arab Spring which had started in Tunisia. “It had taken upon itself the idea that the Arb Spring was born in Tunisia and must die in Tunisia,” he said, adding that the Emiratis viewed the brand of conservative Islamic democracy propounded by the Ennahda as a threat. According to Ghannouchi, with elections due to be held in Libya, the UAE feels threatened by the spread of democracy in the Arab world.

Algerian officials allege that Egypt and the UAE are behind the Tunisian President’s constitutional coup. Algeria gives great importance to the security situation prevailing in Tunisia and Libya, which are its immediate neighbours. Senior Algerian officials visiting Tunis after the removal of the elected government have warned President Saied that the government in Algiers will under no circumstances allow the rise of another strongman indebted to Gulf monarchies and Egypt to emerge in the region.