Tunisia Facing Its Biggest Threat Against Democracy As President Suspends Parliament 

Tunisia currently faces its most critical political crisis since the 2011 revolution that introduced democracy. On Sunday 25 July, President Kais Saied announced that he was removing Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, as well as the defense and justice ministers. He also said he would suspend Parliament, insisting his actions were in line with the constitution. This intervention was a result of protests around the country over the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a spike in cases. There has also been a drop in the economy and employment. Tunisia is the last living successor of the Arab Spring, but with its president putting a freeze on the entire government, the future of Tunisian democracy seems unstable. 

According to The Guardian, President Saied’s invoking an emergency article of Tunisia’s constitution came as a result of the intensified demonstrations against the country’s largest party- the moderate Islamist Ennahda (IE) faction. In his speech, Saied explained that Parliament would be suspended for 30 days, though he said it can be extended if needed “until the situation settles down.” After the announcement, tens of thousands of people flooded the streets of major cities to celebrate the suspension of political parties. However, as he stated he would assume executive authority with the assistance of a new PM, he received major backlash from authorities.

Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Ennahda, said to Turkish television: “[K]ais Saied is dragging the country into a catastrophe.” Additionally, the political elite emphasizes how the president has failed to deliver the democracy he was elected for. United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken encouraged Saied to “adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights.” He also urged Tunisia’s leader to keep “an open dialogue with all political actors” and its people. According to Reuters, the dramatic move has been labeled a “coup” by some experts, but Saied has rejected all accusations.

With the Tunisian government’s failure to handle the pandemic, there has been an outbreak of popular discontent of parliamentary politics. Thousands of people defied COVD-19 restrictions in demonstrations, which sparked clashes with security forces in several cities on Sunday, right before the President’s announcement. Over 18,000 people among Tunisia’s population of 12 million have died of coronavirus since the pandemic began. Restrictions have had severe effects on health services and the vital tourism industry. However, President Saied’s actions to sack the government and freeze all parliamentary positions are extremely drastic. Many politicians already warn that invoking article 80 of the constitution, which allows the president to take “exceptional measures in the event of imminent danger,” effectively translates to total executive power for an unspecified period. Putting a hold on the democracy Tunisia has built up over 10 years will impose serious consequences on its citizens. 

Tunisia has been recognized as the sole success of the 2011 Arab Spring, but the current crisis has roots in a dispute over the constitution during economic pressures. Throughout his presidency, Kais Saied, an independent without a party affiliation, has made no secret of his desire for a new constitution that puts the president at center stage. Reuters reported that when he was elected president in October 2019, he described his victory as “a new revolution.” Additionally, he has previously threatened to dissolve parliament as a way to overhaul a complex political system plagued by corruption. However, the biggest dispute has been with the IE and its veteran leader Rached Ghannouchi.

Over the past year, Saied and Ghannouchi have clashed various times over cabinet reshuffles and control of security forces, which has complicated efforts to handle the pandemic and address an expanding financial crisis. Saied was one of the legal advisers who helped draft Tunisia’s 2014 democratic constitution, although he soon spoke out against elements of the document. Now, the political elite of Tunisia’s revolution is emphasizing his role as its executioner, claiming the government suspension and freezing of parliament are an attack on democracy. 

As protests exploded in January, it was the government and Parliament’s old parties that faced the public’s anger as COVID-19 cases spiked. President Saied’s decision to fire the PM and suspend the government, with plans to reestablish it, has not shown any signs of improvement. He has yet to make any significant moves. The place where the Arab Spring started, is now a test for an administration that pledged to strengthen global democracy. Some experts believe that the Arab Spring is not dead, but Tunisia needs outside encouragement. Particularly, a pushback against the autocrats is needed. The country has received far too little support from other democracies in Europe and the U.S. Their pro-democracy credibility is crucial to support the Tunisian government in re-establishing democracy. 

Olivia Berntsson