The Only Democratic Success Story of the Arab Spring Is Facing a Coup

Tunisian President Kais Saied has invoked emergency powers to dismiss parliament and sack his prime minister. Many fear the decision marks a return to authoritarian rule.
Tunisian security officers hold back protesters outside the parliament building in the capital Tunis on July 26, 2021.
Tunisian security officers hold back protesters outside the parliament building in the capital Tunis on July 26, 2021. 

Tunisia – where the beacon of the Arab Spring revolutions was lit 10 years ago and the only nation involved that has managed to successfully transition to democracy – is facing an unprecedented crisis after President Kais Saied announced he has suspended parliament for 30 days and sacked the prime minister, a move rivals quickly denounced as a “coup”.

Saied, a former professor in constitutional law and an independent populist candidate who won the presidency in a surprise landslide in 2019, said in an address on Sunday night that he had invoked an emergency article of Tunisia’s constitution to protect the country.  

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The announcement was followed on Monday by the sacking of the defence minister and acting justice minister, as well as a security forces raid on the offices of Al-Jazeera. 

The president’s decision followed a day of violent protests in several cities against the ruling party’s mishandling of both the coronavirus pandemic and Tunisia’s chronic economic woes, in which several of the party’s offices were targeted.

Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, has been a kingmaker of nine successive governments since the country’s longtime autocratic ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted in 2011. Despite being the most popular party overall, it has failed to address the security and economic problems that have plagued the fledgling democracy.  

Citing fears of public violence for his decision, Saied said in his address: “We have taken these decisions until social peace returns to Tunisia and until we save the state.”

He also warned opponents against any attempt to use armed resistance, adding: “Whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets.”

Rached Gannouchi, the leader of Ennahda and the speaker of the national assembly, tried to enter the parliament building during the early hours of Monday morning but was blocked by soldiers.

Describing the president’s move as a coup and a challenge to the democratic system, Gannouchi vowed that parliament would keep working, holding an emergency online session with other MPs on Monday.

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Fed up with successive political impasses, thousands of people took to the streets of Tunis to celebrate and cheer for Saied’s declaration overnight. By Monday morning, however, the police had to use metal barriers to separate supporters of rival groups gathered near the country’s parliament, while the crowds threw stones, bottles, and eggs at each other.

Tunisia has been hit hard by the pandemic, recording 18,000 deaths so far. The patience of the 12-million-strong nation has been growing short as videos widely circulated on social media showed bodies piling up in hospital wards as the country’s morgues became overwhelmed. Currently, 90 percent of Tunisia’s ICU beds are full, and just 7 percent of the population has been vaccinated.  

While Tunisian politics is often turbulent, a political standoff between Saied and senior members of Ennahda has dominated the political scene for the past two years. Saied has threatened in the past to invoke the emergency article of the constitution to dismiss parliament and fire prime minister Hichem Mechichi. This time, the president was able to seize on Ennahda’s perceived failures – including soaring unemployment numbers, exacerbated by the pandemic – to make his move on the fragile government.

The president has said that parliament will only be frozen for 30 days, but critics have pointed out that the constitution allows him to assume total executive power indefinitely.

What comes next will be a critical test for the strength of Tunisia’s democratic system and future.