Tunisia’s Democracy Verges on Collapse as President Moves to Take Control

The effort by President Kais Saied threatened the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring protests a decade ago, and his opponents called it a coup.

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CAIRO — Tunisia’s fledgling democracy, the only one remaining from the popular revolutions that swept the Arab world a decade ago, verged on the brink of dissolution Monday after its president sought to seize power from the rest of the government, moves that his political opponents denounced as a coup.

The president, Kais Saied, who announced the power grab late Sunday, did not appear to have completely succeeded in taking control as of Monday evening, as chaos enveloped the North African country. But many Tunisians expressed support for him and even jubilation over his actions, frustrated with an economy that never seemed to improve and a pandemic that has battered hospitals in recent weeks.

With Syria, Yemen and Libya undone by civil war, Egypt’s attempt at democracy crushed by a counterrevolution and protests in the Gulf States quickly extinguished, Tunisia was the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring revolutions with a democracy, if a fragile one.

But the nation where the uprisings began now finds even the remnants of its revolutionary ideals in doubt, posing a major test for the Biden administration’s commitment to democratic principles abroad.

The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, avoided calling the events in Tunisia a coup at a press briefing on Monday, saying that classification was up to the State Department. “We are concerned about the developments” in Tunisia, she said, adding that U.S. officials were in contact with the Tunisian government “at a senior level.”

In defiance of the Tunisian president’s moves, the prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, said he would hold a cabinet meeting even after Mr. Saied announced the dismissal of him and several ministers, while parts of Parliament said they would meet virtually even as soldiers cordoned off the Parliament building.

But the danger remained that Mr. Saied would back up his power grab with greater force, whether by further deploying the military or arresting top officials.

“This is a very concerning development that puts the democracy at great risk of unraveling,” said Safwan M. Masri, executive vice president of Columbia University’s Global Centers network, who studies Tunisia. Referring to Mr. Saied, he said: “An optimistic scenario would be that the Parliament and the Constitution and democratic institutions would prevail and that he would be forced out of office. But I would not bet any money on it.”

Already, the president had announced he was assuming the public prosecutor’s powers and stripping lawmakers of immunity.

The Qatari-funded news channel Al Jazeera, which is politically aligned with Tunisia’s leading political party, Ennahda — one of Mr. Saied’s chief antagonists — said on Monday that 20 plainclothes security officers had forced its staff members to leave the bureau in Tunis, the capital, confiscating the keys and banning their re-entry without a court order.

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Police officers held back protesters outside the Parliament building in Tunis, on Monday.Credit…Fethi Belaid/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It was a sharp escalation of a monthslong political crisis that in some ways has been brewing since Tunisians toppled their dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in January 2011, hoping for more freedoms and better lives.

While Tunisia may have achieved many of the trappings of a democracy, it has struggled with high unemployment, a sluggish economy and corruption, leaving many questioning whether the revolution was worth it.

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

The coronavirus pandemic made things worse by devastating Tunisia’s tourist industry, an important economic engine. The virus has shaken the government and the health system even further in recent weeks as Tunisians have died of Covid-19 at the highest rate in the Middle East and Africa.

On Sunday, demonstrators across Tunisia called for the dissolution of Parliament, giving Mr. Saied some popular cover to announce that night that he was firing Mr. Mechichi, freezing Parliament for 30 days and assuming executive authority.

Ennahda, which has consistently attracted support in parliamentary elections, but whose strength has proved divisive because of its Islamist background and failures to improve the economy, called his actions “a coup against the Tunisian democracy and its constitution” and “a betrayal of every Tunisian” in a statement, urging Mr. Saied to reverse his decisions immediately.

“Tunisia is the last ember of the Arab Spring, now snuffed out,” said Said Ferjani, an Ennahda member of Parliament, in an interview, calling on Mr. Biden to demonstrate his commitment to democracy. “Does it really matter for him?” he asked.

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

“We are with 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 anyone wants to remove those in power, they can do it through voting, and not with a coup.”

Among Mr. Saied’s supporters was Amel Barhoumi, 30, who said that like many other Tunisians, she was exhausted by endless political turmoil.

“We are so tired. We are not against democracy; we want change,” she said. “Nobody trusts the political elite right now. I think the way the pandemic was handled was the last straw.”

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Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in January.Credit…Mohamed Messara/EPA, via Shutterstock

When Mr. Saied was elected in 2019 in what was the second free presidential vote in the country’s history, many Tunisians hoped he could turn things around, seeing him as an incorruptible political outsider. Having ridden popular discontent to his power grab, however, it is unclear how he will now satisfy popular demands to solve Tunisia’s many problems.

“It’s not that Kais is so popular himself, it’s people who just really, really hate the incumbent political elite,” said Tarek Megerisi, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “They blame them for all the country’s problems and think that they need to be removed.”

The showdown, while shocking, was a long time coming, with Mr. Saied locked since his election in political infighting with Mr. Mechichi and the speaker of Parliament, Rachid Ghannouchi.

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

In response to chaos in Tunisia’s Covid-19 vaccination rollout last week and a surge in cases that has overwhelmed hospitals, Mr. Saied stripped control of Tunisia’s coronavirus response from the Health Ministry and handed it to the military.

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

Mr. Saied said he was doing so to preserve the country’s “security and independence and to protect the normal operation of state institutions.”

Article 80, however, accords the president such powers only if the country faces an imminent threat. And Mr. Ghannouchi denied he had been consulted.

In a statement, Mr. Ghannouchi also decried what he called a “coup” and described the suspension of Parliament as “unconstitutional, illegal and invalid.” The assembly “remains in place and will fulfill its duty,” he added.

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Protesters and the police clashed in Tunisia amid worsening economic and health crises. In response, President Kais Saied said he would suspend Parliament and fire the prime minister.CreditCredit…Fethi Belaid/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“This is not a suspension of the Constitution,” Mr. Saied said in the televised statement, adding an ominous warning to adversaries: “Whoever fires a single bullet, our armed and security forces will retaliate with a barrage of bullets.”

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

Other videos showed Mr. Saied wending 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, that could adjudicate such disputes.

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Supporters of Mr. Saied gathered near the parliament, on Monday.Credit…Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

In his statement, Mr. Saied said cryptically that a decree would soon be issued “regulating these exceptional measures that the circumstances have dictated,” adding that the measures “will be lifted when those circumstances change.” He also fired the defense minister and acting justice minister on Monday afternoon.

The political divisions in Tunisia reflect a wider split in the Middle East between regional powers that supported the Arab revolutions and the political Islamist groups that came to power at the time (Turkey and Qatar), and those who worked to roll back the uprisings (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt). Fears have grown that the crisis could make Tunisia more vulnerable to interference from more powerful countries on both sides, though all but Turkey and Qatar, which released statements of concern, remained quiet on Monday.

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Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist Ennahda party, in February.Credit…Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

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

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

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