‘Coup’ in Tunisia: Why Arab Spring’s last light is dimming

Slim Abid/AP
Tunisian President Kais Saied (center) leads a security meeting with members of the army and police forces in Tunis, Tunisia, July 25, 2021. Troops surrounded Tunisia's parliament after the president suspended the legislature and fired the prime minister.

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When Tunisia’s populist president, Kais Saied, a former constitutional law professor, seized emergency powers Sunday, it prompted fears among Tunisian democrats and Arab activists for the last, best hope for political freedoms in the region.

But among many Tunisians, patience with democracy had been wearing thin, amid a severe economic downturn, government paralysis, and lingering suspicions of corruption. A dramatic new surge in the pandemic represented a breaking point, pushing many to look for solutions at any cost.

Why We Wrote This

In Tunisia, a presidential power grab that seized on political deadlock and pandemic pressures is winning support from large segments of a public increasingly disillusioned on democracy.

For still others, Mr. Saied’s power grab was cause for relief and even celebration. “What Kais Saied has done is a good thing. We have had enough of shouting matches between MPs – let them be suspended, they never did anything good for the country,” says Aymen Kacem, a driver in Tunis.

Others voice the concern that young Tunisians rooting for the president have little memory of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in the Arab Spring, and are all too eager to support a one-man rule. Which is why several parties issued statements condemning the move and expressing their concern.

“Tunisia is in a tug of war between dictatorship and democracy,” says Achref Abdalla, an artist. “We are moving step by step in the wrong direction.”

With a single announcement, the last embers of the once-blazing Arab Spring were dimmed by what some are calling a constitutional coup in the Arab world’s lone democracy.

On Sunday, Tunisia’s populist president, Kais Saied, seized emergency powers for what he pledged would be a 30-day interim period. He dismissed the prime minister and defense minister, “froze” parliament, and mobilized army units to bar elected representatives from the parliament building.

By using the emergency measure, Mr. Saied, a former constitutional law professor, upended a carefully devised system that had divided powers to avoid a backslide into a strongman dictatorship such as that of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in the Arab Spring.

Why We Wrote This

In Tunisia, a presidential power grab that seized on political deadlock and pandemic pressures is winning support from large segments of a public increasingly disillusioned on democracy.

With his suspension of parliament and no higher court to challenge him, the president’s rule is near-supreme, prompting fears among Tunisian democrats and Arab activists that the country that served as the last, best hope for Arab political freedoms might follow Egypt back to autocratic rule.

Fueled by a severe economic downturn, government paralysis, and lingering suspicions of corruption, Tunisians’ patience with the democratic process was wearing thin. But a dramatic new surge in the pandemic represented a breaking point, pushing many to look for solutions at any cost.

For still others, Mr. Saied’s power grab late Sunday was cause for relief and even celebration, including fireworks and boisterous motorcades.

Which in turn fueled concerns among Tunisia’s dwindling champions of democracy.

“We have made people hate democracy and hate political parties, and that is on us,” an independent member of parliament, Safi Said, said in a local radio interview Monday. “But that doesn’t mean we give up on democracy. It means we hold early elections and let the people decide.”

But there is a concern among Tunisia’s revolutionaries that young Tunisians rooting for Mr. Saied have little memory of the Ben Ali dictatorship and are all too eager to support a one-man rule.

“Many young Tunisians didn’t live under a dictatorship like we did. ... If you give a dictator an inch, they will take meters before you know it,” Mr. Said said.

Which is why several political parties issued statements condemning the move and expressing their concern.

“Tunisia is in a tug of war between dictatorship and democracy,” says Achref Abdalla, a 31-year-old artist. “We are moving step by step in the wrong direction.”

“Imminent danger”

Under Tunisia’s semi-presidential system, the directly elected president oversees the army and foreign affairs, while the parliament-appointed prime minister is the head of government, an arrangement that President Saied had long bristled at.

With Mr. Saied’s constitutionally dubious power grab, he now is the executive authority, has control of both army and the police, and is acting as a “public prosecutor,” vaguely promising to hold “corrupt” persons “to account” for “looting the state’s resources.” 

Seizing on a delta variant-fueled surge in the pandemic that has devastated Tunisia’s health system, Mr. Saied triggered a constitutional article allowing the president “exceptional measures in the event of imminent danger.”

Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters
Security personnel stand guard outside the parliament building in Tunis, Tunisia, July 27, 2021.

Tunisia is suffering one of the highest infection rates in the world, at 8,000 daily new cases among its 12 million population. On July 8, its then-health minister declared that the health system “collapsed.”

Hospitals have experienced shortages of oxygen and beds, COVID-19 patients have spent days in the streets waiting to be admitted to hospitals, and the bodies of deceased COVID-19 patients have gone unburied. Officials say some 18,000 Tunisians have died from the pandemic.

Military solution

In recent weeks, Mr. Saied had mobilized the army to take over the pandemic response, capitalizing on what he described as the government’s “criminal” mishandling of the crisis.

He recruited nurses into the army and dispatched them to virus-stricken communities. He worked diplomatic lines to receive donations of oxygen, medical supplies, and vaccines.

That helped cement the support of many Tunisians for more centralized rule.

“Although grievances predate COVID, I think that the pandemic definitely increased discontent over the way the political elites handled the situation,” says Mohamed-Dhia Hammami, a Tunisian political analyst.  

“This helps to explain why people are more supportive of the concentration of power within the hands of Saied than sharing it with other political elites.”

Tunisia has seen 11 governments in 10 years, swerving from Islamist to technocrat to neoliberal, none of which had the ability to enact far-reaching reforms.

Youth unemployment has hovered between 35% and 40% for the past decade, with many choosing to risk their lives and migrate to Europe by boat. More than 12,800 illegal arrivals in Italy from Tunisia were registered in 2020 alone.

The laws parliament did pass included austerity measures to secure IMF funding, leading to government hiring freezes, the devaluation of the Tunisian dinar, and a dramatic increase in the cost of goods and food – further fueling discontent.

With the loss of tourism, Tunisia’s economy shrank by 8.6% last year, and a further 3% in the first quarter of 2021. The pandemic pushed unemployment to 17.8%.

No guardrails

All the while, many Tunisians believed politicians and members of parliament across the political spectrum have enriched themselves and their allies at the public’s expense, bemoaning a “dictatorship of parties” ruling Tunisia.

“What Kais Saied has done is a good thing. We have had enough of shouting matches between MPs – let them be suspended, they never did anything good for the country, they deserve this,” says Aymen Kacem, a 30-year-old driver in Tunis.

“Saied says he will fight corruption and that’s good, if it happens.”

The current crisis has exposed a missing element in Tunisia’s democratic transition: a constitutional court, whose establishment has languished in parliament since 2015.

“We have been playing the political game without a referee, and now it is catching up with us,” says Amine Ghali, director of the Tunis-based Al Kawkabi Democracy Transition Center.

“The institutions that are supposed to keep the president in check during this emergency period are the constitutional court and parliament. Parliament is suspended and the constitutional court does not yet exist,” says Mr. Ghali.  “As of today, there is no effective institution that can rein Saied in.”      

Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters
Police detain a demonstrator during an anti-government protest in Tunis, Tunisia, July 25, 2021.

Instead, the role of watchdog falls, as it often has, to Tunisia’s civic powers and civil society: unions, business owners, nongovernmental organizations, and activists who have come out in force again and again when post-revolutionary politicians have steered off the track or overreached.

A group of unions and civil society leaders met with Mr. Saied on Monday as he defended his move. They released statements urging the president to limit the emergency period to 30 days.

Yet later that same day, Mr. Saied imposed a monthlong evening curfew and a ban on public gatherings of more than three people, further hindering Tunisians’ ability to organize and mobilize.

Enigmatic president

Tunisians across the spectrum are waiting anxiously for the next move by the mercurial Mr. Saied, who remains an enigmatic and aloof figure.

When he emerged as a dark-horse candidate without a political party in the 2019 elections, Mr. Saied ran as a populist outsider railing against the political class, with an anti-elitist, anti-corruption platform that resonated with Tunisians. It is a rhetoric he continued as president while accomplishing little else.  

Mr. Saied has butted heads with successive prime ministers over authority, attempting to intervene in government appointments and control over the police.

The former professor has been a vocal critic of the post-revolution constitution, decrying political parties’ monopoly of Tunisia’s transition and the president’s limited powers.

Some fear he is intent on throwing out the current constitution, reintroducing the pre-revolution version, and serving as a strongman – a scenario detailed in an alleged leaked memo circulating in May that mirrored this week’s events.

Although his popularity rating has plummeted from a high of 87% to 40%, he remains the most popular figure or entity in Tunisian politics.

Despite complaining about restraints on his power, Mr. Saied never exercised his presidential authority to introduce laws to parliament. Nor has he articulated proposals to tackle the economy, unemployment, or corruption.

But a consistent crowd-pleaser has been Mr. Saied’s rivalry with Ennahdah, the largest political party left standing in Tunisia, whose founder, Rached Ghannouchi, serves as speaker of parliament.

The Islamist party has played a leading role – from forming the new constitution to serving in government coalitions – and many Tunisians blame the party, and by extension, parliament, for their current woes.

Sporadic protests targeted Ennahdah only hours before Mr. Saied’s power play Sunday. On Monday, people cheered on the military as it shuttered parliament’s gates.

“Citizens associate the failure of the economy to the failure of democracy, and the failure of democracy to failure of Ennahdah as the main political party,” says Mr. Ghali at the democracy center. “Today Kais Saied can be seen as the man who kicked Ennahdah out, and they will love him for that.”

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