The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tunisia’s fledgling democracy, sole survivor of the Arab Spring, in crisis as president takes emergency powers

Tunisian security officers hold back protesters outside the parliament building in Tunis on July 26. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

TUNIS — A political crisis in Tunisia moved into its second day Monday after President Kais Saied fired the prime minister and suspended parliament, in the most serious test of the country's institutions since its transition to democracy a decade ago.

Saied’s opponents have decried the move, which the president claimed was constitutional, as an attempted coup.

Saied took several emergency steps, including prohibiting the movement of people and vehicles from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. beginning Monday evening for the next month. “Urgent health cases” and night workers are exempted. Tunisians will also be barred from moving between cities during the day, except for fulfilling essential needs. Gatherings of more than three people in public spaces are banned.

By Monday morning, troops had surrounded Tunisia’s parliament and governmental palace. Outside parliament, its speaker, Rachid Ghannouchi, was stopped from entering the building. Ghannouchi, who belongs to the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, is among those describing the president’s move as a power grab.

Demonstrators — some in favor of Saied and others who opposed his measures — went from shouting verbal insults and threats to throwing stones and hurling bottles of water at one another. Security forces also stormed news network Al Jazeera’s offices in the capital, raising fears of a crackdown on the press.

Saied also announced Monday that the justice and defense ministers would be replaced.

Ghannouchi tweeted Tuesday that Ennahda is now calling for further consultations and urging Saied to walk back his suspension of parliament. Ennahda also issued a statement calling on supporters to avoid gathering outside parliament in protest, despite earlier calls to demonstrate against Saied’s decision.

Tunisia’s president fires prime minister, dismisses government, freezes parliament

Analysts expressed concern that the president’s decision and the events that followed reveal the underlying fragility of Tunisia’s democratic system.

It was in Tunisia that the Arab Spring began in December 2010, when a street vendor set himself on fire in an act of protest. The next month, massive street protests forced Tunisia’s authoritarian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, to step down. He fled to Saudi Arabia, where he later died.

Protests targeting other autocratic leaders soon spread across much of the Middle East, but Tunisia emerged as the only democracy from that period. Still, major problems persist, including pervasive unemployment. More recently, a major economic downturn and a surge in coronavirus cases fueled widespread frustration in the nation of 11 million.

“It shows that as long as your democracy is not fully installed, then there’s always a risk,” said Amine Ghali, director of the Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center in Tunisia.

Tensions have been exacerbated by the fact that Tunisia does not have a constitutional court in place, an institution that would typically decide whether Saied’s move was legal under Article 80 of the constitution, as he claimed.

Under that article, the president has the right to take certain measures if the country “is in a state of imminent danger threatening the integrity of the country and the country’s security and independence,” as long as he has consulted with the prime minister and the speaker of the parliament.

Ghali said Saied’s interpretation of “imminent threat” is now being perceived as “a little bit over-interpreted.”

“In the absence of this institution [the court], the president finds himself the only interpreter of the constitution, and as we see, it is now backfiring on all these parties who refused [to establish it] for five or six years,” he said.

The Biden administration is “concerned about the developments in Tunisia,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. She added that senior White House and State Department officials have been in touch with Tunisian leaders to “learn more about the situation, urge calm and support Tunisian efforts to move forward in line with democratic principles.”

She said the State Department must conduct a legal analysis before the administration can determine whether the developments constitute a coup. If it does deem them a coup, U.S. aid to Tunisia could be put into question. The United States has committed over $1.4 billion in aid to Tunisia since the 2011 revolution, including hundreds of millions in military and security assistance.

Saied’s move Sunday came amid a months-long political crisis in the country. Some Tunisians doubt that the president’s actions will achieve meaningful change.

Abdelkader Massoudi, 41, said he had put his faith in the 2011 revolution and hadn’t reaped any rewards since. Despite his master’s degree in accounting, he has found only work selling vegetables. “If what is happening now won’t bring me a job, I will consider it as a failure,” he said.

Ali Garci, a retired teacher, said he considered Saied’s latest move a coup. For him, it ignited fears that authoritarianism and police brutality — a major topic in Tunisia in recent months — would return in full force. Even if life hasn’t been perfect in the last decade, he said, he’s “enjoyed liberty.”

“I spent 54 years under the shoes of politicians like Ben Ali and [Habib] Bourguiba,” he said, referring to two former presidents. “I prefer to die rather than continue the rest of my life under the shoes of new brutal politicians.”

Others were inspired by Saied’s moves. Crowds spilled into the streets Sunday, backing his decision amid hopes it could lead to greater political stability.

Meanwhile, the Ennahda party urged Tunisians to take to the streets in protest. Some other major parties have aligned with Ennahda to oppose Saied’s move.

In a Facebook video Sunday, former president Moncef Marzouki said the country had made “a huge leap backward tonight. We are back to dictatorship.”

The UGTT, Tunisia’s powerful labor union, held an emergency meeting of its executive committee and released a statement Monday that appeared to support Saied’s moves while calling for “constitutional guarantees” to safeguard Tunisia’s democracy.

The “exceptional measures” Saied has taken should remain limited in time and narrow in scope, the union said, so that government institutions can begin to function normally again soon. The union also emphasized the need to respect human rights and to pursue political change “within the framework of a clear participatory road map that outlines goals, means and a timeline, and reassures the people and dispels fears.”

Eya Jrad, an academic who teaches security studies at the Mediterranean Business School in Tunisia, echoed concerns over the timeline. “We are trying to keep calm and stay confident,” she said, adding that the president needs “to give us an exact calendar and say how these measures are going to be implemented.”

O’Grady reported from Cairo. Claire Parker in Washington contributed to this report.

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