On Monday, July 26th Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, ousted the sitting government and halted all actions in parliament with the support of the Tunisian army. Saied announced late on Sunday that he was invoking Article 80 of the Tunisian Consitution to dismiss the Prime Minister, Hichem Mechichi. This action also freezes parliamentary activities for thirty days. During the next thirty days, according to the constitution, Saied and a new PM will govern the country. In the Tunisian Constitution, Article 80 states, “in the event of imminent danger threatening the country’s security and its independence… the president may take the measures necessitated by that exceptional situation.” The three main requirements for the president to invoke the article are discussions with the PM and the speaker of parliament, appointing a new PM, and the involvement of the Constitutional Court. The Court must be informed before the president invokes the article and after the first 30 days, the Constitutional Court must be consulted if the president wants to continue invoking the article. However, Tunisia does not have a Constitutional Court and has not had one for the last 7 years. After the new constitution was created in 2014, Tunisia’s political parties have never agreed on which judges should serve on the court. Because of this, when Saied enacted Article 80 he was left with almost full control of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches.
Before Saied’s actions on Monday, thousands of people protested against the government and the parliament’s biggest party, Ennahda. The protests came after another COVID-19 spike and growing tensions over political issues and economic problems, such as high levels of unemployment and the slow recovery of many industries due to the pandemic. Many of Saied’s opponents see his actions as a strategy to blame the PM and parliament for the country’s problems and start a coup. With a coup he could become dictator of Tunisia, basically a return to the country’s state before the Arab Spring revolutions and protests in 2011. Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannounchi, head of the Ennahda party, says the President’s moves are a part of plans to start a coup and an assault on democracy. Protests have erupted both in support and opposition of Saied’s actions with many believing he is doing what is best for the country and helping stop corruption, while others claim his actions will destroy the democracy within Tunisia. Two other parties, Heart of Tunisia and Karama, join Ennahda in accusing Saied of a coup. Former president Moncef Marzouki, who helped oversee the transition to democracy following the Jasmine Revolution in 2011, also warns the public of the danger of Saied’s actions stating that they could signal the start of a slide “into an even worse situation.”
Despite his claims of not trying to form a dictatorship, Saied’s actions signal a potentially dangerous change within Tunisian politics. If he does not appoint a new Prime Minister quickly, then no matter what Saied claims, his actions will appear as a military-backed coup. He has also warned against any armed responses to his actions stating, “the armed forces will respond with bullets” if attacked. Tunisian security forces have also apparently forced the Al Jazeera news networks out of their offices in Tunis on Monday and arrested a judge and two members of parliament. These actions do not support Saied’s denial of a coup and leave Tunisia at risk of returning to the former dictatorship. If Saied is trying to create a more efficient and effective government he needs to move quickly and be transparent about every decision he makes, otherwise, political tensions may continue to rise to a breaking point and lead to another violent conflict.