Middle East North Africa Politics & Diplomacy
MENASource July 28, 2021

Tunisia was the only democracy to blossom from the Arab Spring. Now it’s a mess.

By Karim Mezran and Alissa Pavia

On July 25, Tunisians experienced a peculiar day. In the morning, they were on social media, celebrating swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui, who unexpectedly won gold in the 400-meter freestyle final at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Later that day, protests rocked the capital Tunis and several other cities across the country—Monastir, Sfax, El Kef, Sousse, and Touzeur—as protestors called on the government to step down due to the poor handling of the latest COVID-19 breakout and economic collapse of the country. In the evening, Tunisian President Kais Saied invoked Article 80 of the 2014 constitution to prevent imminent “danger threatening the integrity of the country.” He then announced the freezing of the activities of parliament for thirty days, the suspension of parliamentary immunity for all members of parliament, and the dismissal of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi. President Saied will assume all executive powers and subsequently choose a prime minister of his choice.  

According to Article 80, “in the event of imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions or the security or independence of the country, and hampering the normal functioning of the state,” the president “may take any measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances, after consultation” with the prime minister and speaker of parliament and “informing the president of the constitutional court.” Unfortunately, Tunisia does not yet have a functioning constitutional court, so legal experts’ opinions on the legality of Saied’s decision vary. Political parties were also divided. The Islamist party Ennahda and its leader, Rached Ghannouchi, who is also the speaker of parliament, called the decision a “coup” against the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, while other parties supported Saied’s decision.

How did things get here?

This crisis is long in the making. After almost perfectly handling the first wave of COVID-19 in mid-2020, the country fell into a deep political, economic, and later health crisis. On July 15, 2020, former Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh resigned after days of mounting political tension between him and some coalition parties, primarily Ennahda.

Ten days later, on July 25, 2020, Saied nominated Mechichi as the head of the new government. Mechici, the interior minister in 2020 under Fakhfakh, had a technocratic profile as the former chief investigator in the national anti-corruption authority. He is from Jendouba, a town of the disadvantaged area of northwest Tunisia.

His government won the vote of confidence in September 2020 by 134 votes to sixty-seven. The heterogeneity of the groups supporting his executive—the Islamist Ennahda and Karama and the modernist Qalb Tounes and Tahya Tounes—showed that the modernist-Islamist cleavage is not particularly helpful in making sense of the current phase of Tunisian politics.

The current phase can be defined as an institutional conflict, pitting the presidency against the parliament, Saied against Ghannouchi—a conflict that has been brewing for a while now. Initially, Mechichi was perceived to be close to Saied, but soon after the former’s appointment, the situation changed. As relations between him and the president soured, Mechichi got closer and closer to the parties supporting his executive. However, his executive struggled to address the problems adequately. Tunisia is facing a particularly deep socio-economic crisis which has been ongoing for several years.

Against this backdrop, the COVID-19 pandemic was also becoming unmanageable in Tunisia over the past few weeks. The country witnessed a rapid rise in infections due to the spread of the Delta variant. On July 13, Tunisia recorded 157 coronavirus deaths and almost 8500 new cases, the highest daily infection rate and death toll since the start of the pandemic. Hospitals were overwhelmed and the country faced shortages of oxygen supplies, vaccines, and medicines. After chaos erupted at the vaccination centers on the first day of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday on July 21, Mechichi sacked Health Minister Faouzi Mehdi. However, as the crisis deepened, many in Tunisia criticized the attitude of Mechichi not only for the lack of efficiency in dealing with the crisis, but also for some of his actions. A week earlier, on July 14, Mechichi had played tennis in front of cameras with Ons Jabeur, the rising star of Tunisian tennis, at the peak of the crisis. It was also later revealed that Mechichi and other members of the cabinet held a retreat in a luxury hotel and pool in Hammamet during the crisis, further exacerbating social tensions.

International reactions to Tunisia

The international community reacted slowly to the events of July 25, with most political leaders publishing weak, largely insignificant statements. In the immediate aftermath of President Saied’s decision to freeze parliament and sack the prime minister, neither the United States nor the European Union (EU) responded. Only by the end of the day, when the situation deteriorated and the protests seemed to become more violent, did the US issue an official statement “siding with Tunisia’s democracy”. The State Department published the statement after Secretary Antony Blinken called President Saied urging him “to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights.” Meanwhile, the EU waited two full days before issuing an official declaration. Joseph Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, called for “the restoration of institutional stability as soon as possible and, in particular, for the resumption of parliamentary activity.”

Individual EU member states also showed discontent at the events in Tunisia, but none took a decisive stance against President Saied’s actions. Germany said it was following the latest developments ”with concern” while France called for a return to the normal functioning of the state’s institutions.

Turkey’s foreign ministry expressed deep “concern” and called for the restoration of “democratic legitimacy.” As expected, Turkey is siding with its ally Ennahda. Turkey’s position can be instrumentally used by some countries, such as the Emirates and Egypt, to emphasize the Islamist secularist divide as the main cleavage in Tunisia and potentially depict the Tunisian crisis as a repetition of the Egyptian coup of General al-Sisi of 2013, when democratically-elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was deposed. Saied’s actions can be presented as the actions of a secular modernist leader that is intent on preserving the country from the backwardness of the Islamic movement.

Qatar took a more neutral position, despite the offices of its state-owned news channel Al Jazeera being stormed by Tunisian police and its journalists expelled. Only the foreign ministry issued an official statement, saying that Qatar “hopes that Tunisian parties will adopt the path of dialogue to overcome the crisis.” Qatar did not make any official announcement condemning the attack.

Both Russia’s and Saudi Arabia’s comments focus on maintaining the security and stability of the country and its people.

So far, it appears that most international actors are taking a bystander position and waiting to see how the situation in Tunisia evolves. They are particularly interested in knowing the official position of the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT). Thus far, the UGTT seems somewhat supportive of President Saied’s decisions, saying that his actions were in line with the constitution. Otherwise, the UGTT has not yet issued a strong statement. In any case, the main issue is not whether the actions of the president are legitimate or not according to the constitution, but the fact that these actions were taken at the worst possible moment for the country, one in which the fragile economy and political system may not survive the blow inflicted by this decision, thus, underscoring how President Saied does not have Tunisia’s best interests at heart.

Karim Mezran is director of the North Africa Initiative and resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council

Alissa Pavia is assistant director for the North Africa Initiative within the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council

Image: After a night of celebrations and tension following the announcement of the ‘constitutional coup’ of the President of the Republic Kais Saied. The Ennahdha militants led by their leader Rached Ghannouchi are still in front of the gates of the Assembly and clashed with pro Tunisian President Kais Saied activists under the control of the police outside and the army inside the parliament. At the end of the morning the slogan of the party will be to leave the sit-in, the parliament still held by the military regains its calm. Tunis, Tunisia, on July 26, 2021. Photo by Nicolas Fauque/Images de Tunisie/ABACAPRESS.COM