Tunisians Protest Presidential Power Grasp

This week, several thousand demonstrators gathered in Tunisia’s capital in protest of President Kais Saeid’s government usurpation, which began in July. While the majority of protestors reject Saeid’s power grab, chanting “shut down the coup,” a few dozen showed support for the president in a counter-demonstration, chanting “the people want to dissolve parliament.” The protests follow Saeid’s decision to dismiss much of the nation’s 2014 constitution, and give himself authority to rule by decree, two months after he purged the majority of Tunisia’s government officials. 

In July, Saeid overthrew the prime minister, declaring emergency law. Just a few days later, he expelled most senior officials, including prosecutors and judges, giving himself judicial powers. Saeid’s actions followed a different wave of protests, contesting years of economic stagnation—which was worsened by one of Africa’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks—and political paralysis. According to Al Jazeera, the overthrowing of government initially received popular support. However, eight weeks on and Saeid has yet to appoint a new prime minister or elaborate on his long-term plan, leaving many Tunisians fearing for the democratic rights they only recently gained in the 2011 revolution which established the “Arab Spring.”

Now, Tunisia’s largest political party, the Islamist Ennahda, is calling on the public to unite and defend their democracy. Reuters reports that more than 100 prominent officials of Ennahda have resigned from their positions in protest of Saeid. Nadia Ben Salem traveled 310 miles to attend the protest. “We will protect democracy … the constitution is a red line,” she told Reuters, holding up a copy of the constitution. 

Yet, Saeid retains support both in Tunisia and from surrounding Middle Eastern countries. After the intervention, Saudi Arabia, the United Emirates, and Egypt, indicated their support for Tunisia’s president. Rejecting accusations of a coup, Saied claims his actions are needed to address the economic and political setbacks the nation has faced in recent years. As he acquires more and more power, he simultaneously promises to uphold democratic rights and not become a dictator. Among Tunisian’s who are tired of corruption and abysmal public services, there are a good number of supporters for Saeid. “We support Saied because he declared war against a corrupt political class,” a man named Amhed told Reuters. Saeid further claims he will put together a committee to help draft amendments to the constitution, however little has developed on that front. 

Saeid’s actions have not only put Tunisia’s democracy at risk, but have also divided the nation politically. Slaheddine Jourchi, a political analyst, said that these dueling protests are a clear escalation against the president, and threaten to further divide Tunisians if  “the doors of political dialogue remained closed,” Reuters reports. Should Saeid fail to immediately outline his short and long term plans to restore democracy, it is likely that these protests will turn violent, or even erupt into revolution. Saeid must take action to reignite dialogue between himself and the people he represents to ensure that free and fair democracy is restored in Tunisia. Lamia Farhani, a lawyer in Tunis, opposes Saeid’s actions. “The worst democracy in the world remains better than the most just dictator,” she said in an interview with The Guardian.