By Nathan Hine

Since the 2011 Arab Spring, Tunisia has been seen as a successful, if fragile, democratic state from which neighbouring countries could learn from. But now all that is under threat following President Kais Saied’s coup d’etat by closing down the Tunisian parliament and dismissing his Prime Minister. So what does this mean for Tunisia, the region, and the world?   

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In January 2011, the Tunisian Revolution took place, which was a 28-day campaign of civil resistance, resulting in the ousting of long-time President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.    

Eventually, it led to the democratization of Tunisia and free and fair elections. 

The right wing Ennahda Party leader Rached Ghannouchi became the first elected Prime Minister of Tunisia with 89 of the 217 seats in the National Constituent Assembly. 

Then in December 2011, Moncef Marzouki of the Congress for the Republic Party was elected President by the assembly, making him the first President chosen by democratic means.

Of course, Tunisian democracy has never been completely stable and secure, but there was a feeling that the Tunisian Revolution was one of the success stories of the Arab Spring. 

However, last week’s Coup d’etat by current President Kais Saied clearly illustrates the fragility of Tunisian democracy. 

President Saied announced on Sunday 25 July that he was invoking an emergency article of the Tunisian constitution after a day of violent protests against the governing Ennahda Party. 

The protests were sparked after the death of a man in police custody, and footage of another man who was stripped and beaten by police.

In response, the President also removed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspended parliament. 

Amid chaotic scenes, The Middle East Eye reported that Prime Minister Mechichi was abused by individuals in the palace on Sunday until he resigned amid the row with the President.  

This shows that the President is treading down the path towards dictatorship which will undermine the efforts of the Tunisian Revolution and could potentially cause major conflict in the region. 

Hence, the President has also sought to undermine the media’s reporting of the coup.

On the 26th of July Al Jazeera reported that its bureau in Tunis had been raided by security forces without a warrant; its journalists expelled from the premises and phones, computers and other equipment confiscated including the keys to the bureau. 

In response to the raid, the network said: “Al Jazeera considers this action by the Tunisian authorities as a troubling escalation and fears it will impede fair and objective coverage of unfolding events in the country,” the network said.

Security forces said that they were carrying out instructions from the country’s judiciary. 

The protests were sparked by the country’s worsening economic and public health challenges in the country which Saied had previously suggested were further harmed by the corruption and recklessness of the Ennahda Party as well as the political deadlock inside the assembly. 

He helped to encourage the protests outside the parliament building and blamed the health and economic situation on political chaos. Hence the majority of Tunisians appeared supportive of his decision to sack the Prime Minister and to suspend parliament with celebrations in the square and on social media. 

One woman who joined the protests told The Guardian: “We have been relieved of them. This is the happiest moment since the revolution.”

But if Saied overrides the democratic institutions it could see not only the breakdown of elected governance in Tunisia but could see the same happen in the whole region. 

So where does this leave Tunisia? 

In the last week, the President has consolidated his executive powers by issuing a long list of orders which includes sacking the army’s chief prosecutor and on Wednesday he dismissed the CEO of the national television channel Wataniya. 

Also, he has lifted the parliamentary immunity of lawmakers and assumed judicial powers and ordered an investigation of three political parties suspected of receiving foreign funds before the 2019 elections. 

In a bid to justify his actions, the President has claimed that ‘close to $5 bn have been looted from the country by various means.’ 

But what are his motives? 

What happened last week was a coup d’etat that continues to pose a threat to the continuation of Tunisian democracy and President Saied used the growing anger in Tunisia to take all the decision-making power for himself and to bring down the democratically-elected government. 

This comes amid a climate of political unrest in the region as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi continues to face a backdrop of public anger as a result of the corruption charges posed against the President. 

In 2019 and 2020, the Egyptian military was able to see off unrest in the country, but this instability in Tunisia could help inflame violence on the streets.

At present, there seems to be broad public support in Tunisia for what the President is doing with many seeing that he has acted in the national interest by sacking the democratically-elected Prime Minister amid political corruption and the worsening health and economic crises. 

But given the power-grab assumed by the President, it is unclear what will happen next. 

There have been known terrorist groups in the region and given these recent events, there is no reason why terrorist groups would not capitalise on Saied’s presumptuous dictatorship. 

Western countries are urging President Saied to pursue a democratic path as US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Mr. Saied promised him that he was committed to democracy and urged him to restore parliament. 

France meanwhile have urged Tunisia to appoint a new Prime Minister as the crisis deepens. 

There was another development  as Arab News reported that prominent Judge Bechir Akremi has been placed under house arrest for 40 days by the security forces. 

This came as the President continues to lead a campaign against corruption with Judge Akremi accused of hiding terrorism-related files.   

But this just adds to the tension within the country and could exacerbate an already volatile political situation. 

What happened on the 25th of July in Tunis was a coup d’etat by President Saied which now sees him control all the arms of executive power. 

Unless his power is reined in, the work achieved in the 2011 Tunisian Revolution to achieve a democratic state will be undone which will not only see Tunisia regress into dictatorial rule once more, but it could compromise democracy across the whole region. 

It is a deeply worrying situation which should concern everyone who cares about maintaining peace and democracy around the world…

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Last Update: August 31, 2021