The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tunisian president dissolves parliament, escalating political crisis

The Tunisian parliament building in Tunis on March 31. (Mohamed Messara/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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Tunisian President Kais Saied has dissolved parliament by decree, further consolidating his control and escalating a political crisis in the North African country once viewed as the Arab Spring’s democratic success story.

Saied suspended the elected chamber in July, when he launched a power grab that posed the most serious test of Tunisia’s institutions since it transitioned to democracy after the 2011 revolution. The president’s announcement Wednesday night that he was dissolving parliament came after more than half of its members held an online session — their first since the summer — and voted to repeal measures that Saied used to seize power.

In a video address late Wednesday, Saied accused members of parliament of attempting a failed coup and conspiring against national security. He ordered investigations of deputies who had participated in the online session. Saied said his actions are “protecting the people and the nation.”

The move answers a long-standing demand of Tunisians who turned out to protest across the country last year, largely against the unpopular parliament, which demonstrators blamed for failing to address high unemployment and falling living standards. Eleven years after Tunisia’s uprising toppled dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and set off popular revolts across the Middle East, segments of the Tunisian public have soured on democracy and directed anger at the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, the largest in parliament.

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But Saied’s steps to abrogate the country’s institutions or place them under his control have raised alarms among democracy and human rights advocates in Tunisia and abroad — including the United States. Saied has also replaced a body meant to ensure judicial independence, and journalists and critics continue to be arrested as press organizations warn that freedom of speech is under attack.

The dissolution of parliament virtually cements Saied’s one-man rule, Tunisian political analyst Selim Kharrat said.

“We are no longer able to talk about Tunisian democracy. All the bases of democracy are under the control of Saied, of only one person,” he said, calling the situation “very dangerous.”

Members of parliament who attended the online session that precipitated Saied’s announcement accused the government of trying to censor it by disabling teleconferencing applications. Malfunctions of Zoom and Teams delayed Wednesday’s meeting. The minister in charge of communications technology denied government interference, Reuters reported.

Saied, a former constitutional law professor, said Tunisia’s 2014 constitution — which he has launched a process to amend — gives him the authority to take such actions as dissolving parliament. But critics and political analysts pointed to a provision that explicitly says the president cannot dissolve the assembly.

“With this action, he confirmed a constitutional coup and the return to an anti-democratic regime of omnipotence,” said Oussama Khlifi, head of the parliamentary bloc for the Heart of Tunisia party.

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Some deputies have already been summoned by an anti-terrorism branch of the security forces to appear Friday in connection with their participation in Wednesday’s assembly, including Rachid Ghannouchi, the speaker of parliament and longtime head of Ennahda.

Ghannouchi said the online meeting was intended to prove that the legislature is “still alive and able to play its role after seven to eight months of obstruction” and that “Tunisian democracy has not failed.” He said the majority of deputies have rejected Saied’s power grab and remain committed to the separation of powers, which Ghannouchi called a “fundamental principle of democracy.”

“Instead of the president respecting the will of the representatives of the people, he issued an angry response by dissolving parliament, which is an unjust and arbitrary decision that has no basis in Tunisia’s constitution,” Ghannouchi told The Post.

Yamina Zoghlami, an Ennahda deputy who attended Wednesday’s session along with representatives across the political spectrum, said members of the dissolved parliament planned to protest the decision.

“We will continue peaceful resistance and civil activism for the return of legitimate institutions and the preservation of democracy,” she said in a text message to The Washington Post.

Ghannouchi warned that the president’s dismantling of democratic institutions would further spook foreign donors and investors at a time when some Tunisians are threatened with “starvation.”

The Tunisian economy faces a host of problems, including downgrades to the country’s credit ratings and soaring food prices. Tunisia is seeking assistance from the International Monetary Fund to avoid defaulting on its debt, but political instability has hampered economic reform efforts.

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Saied won in a landslide in 2019 and continues to garner widespread support. His decision to dissolve parliament will likely be “quite popular” among Tunisians, Kharrat said. The powerful Tunisian General Labor Union came out in favor of the decision, calling the dissolved assembly corrupt — even as it warned the president not to weaponize the judiciary against his political opponents.

But with virtually all powers in his hands, Saied will face added pressure to ameliorate the deepening economic crisis. “The only factor that might threaten the popular support for Saied is the social and economic condition of Tunisians,” Kharrat said.

Western powers have criticized Saied’s moves and raised worries about democratic backsliding in Tunisia. A group of House Democrats sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on March 25 urging the Biden administration to “consider Tunisia’s significant democratic regression” as it assesses aid for Tunisia and to review any funding for the country’s internal security forces.”

“The president’s public statements rejecting the principle of a directly elected national legislature and characterizing critics as traitors are deeply concerning and raises serious doubts about his commitment to democratic checks and balances in any new Tunisian political system to emerge” from his constitutional reforms, the lawmakers wrote.

Uzra Zeya, U.S. undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, visited Tunisia last week, before Saied dissolved parliament, and noted concerns about Tunisia’s “democratic trajectory,” according to a statement this week describing her visit. But she was “heartened by government assurances of inclusivity during implementation of the political roadmap.”

Parliamentary leaders are urging Western allies to continue providing economic assistance to Tunisia, no matter the political circumstances.

Saied has said that he will form a committee to rewrite the constitution and hold a referendum on it in July, ahead of parliamentary elections in December. That means Tunisia could face another nine months without a functioning parliament, Kharrat said, adding that even if elections do take place late this year, they may not be fair.

Saied is “not willing to work with others” and incapable of facing criticism, Kharrat said. He called a national consultation initiative the president is running to gather public input on changes to the constitution unrepresentative and a “total fail.”

Kharrat said the constitution says elections must be held within 90 days if parliament is dissolved.

Ghannouchi said his party is calling for the restoration of the existing parliament. Other parties, however, are calling for fresh elections.

But new elections would not necessarily lead to an outcome more conducive to democracy in the long run. Abir Moussi, head of the Free Constitutional Party, has urged Saied to call elections within three months. Polls predict that her party, which includes supporters of the former dictator, Ben Ali, would win the largest number of seats in parliament if elections were held soon.