| 20 April 2024, Saturday |

Tunisian democracy in turmoil after President sacks government

Tunisia is facing its worst crisis in a decade of democracy after President Kais Saied deposed the government and suspended parliament with the help of the army, a move that has been condemned as a coup by the country’s main parties, including Islamists.

Saied’s action came after months of deadlock and squabbles between him and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, as Tunisia descended into an economic crisis exacerbated by one of Africa’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks.

The crisis escalated into heated street clashes as Saied’s critics, including Islamists, warned that he was jeopardizing the democratic system established following the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.

Saied declared a state of emergency under the constitution late on Sunday, dismissing Mechichi and suspending parliament for 30 days.

Following the parliament speaker’s call for protests against the ousting, Saied extended existing COVID-19 movement restrictions on Monday and vowed that any violent opposition would be met with force. He has denied allegations of a coup.

The president also urged people not to go into the streets. “I call on the Tunisian people to stay calm and not respond to provocations,” he said.

The White House said it had not yet determined whether Saied’s actions constituted a coup. However, the U.S. State Department warned Tunisia not to “squander its democratic gains.”


Rival groups faced off outside the parliament building on Monday, pelting each other with stones and hurling insults, but the size of the protests was limited to hundreds, and there were no major reported incidents of violence.

The military surrounded the parliament and government palace, stopping members of parliament and state workers from entering the buildings, as well as the national television station. Al-Jazeera said police raided its Tunis bureau and expelled staff.

President Saied also reinforced a long existing rule that bans public gatherings of three or more people in streets or squares.

Saied’s intervention followed protests in major cities on Sunday over the government’s handling of the pandemic, with a spike in cases, and economy.

Large crowds quickly poured into the streets to support his moves, reflecting anger at the moderate Islamist Ennahda – the biggest party in parliament – and the government over political paralysis, economic stagnation and the pandemic response.

Last year, the economy shrank by 8%. Tunisia has one of the region’s highest COVID-19 death rates. Tunisia’s hard currency bonds plummeted on Monday.

Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahda party, which has played a role in previous coalition governments, called it an assault on democracy and urged Tunisians to take to the streets in protest.

“Kais Saied is dragging the country into disaster,” he said on Turkish TV.

Mechichi, who is at his home and not under arrest, a source close to him said, said in a statement he would not be a “disruptive element” and was ready to hand over power to whomever Saied appointed.

Saied, who has not said when he will appoint a new premier or relinquish emergency powers, has also ordered that state administrations and foreign institutions stop work for two days.


Though it has failed to deliver prosperity or good governance, Tunisia’s democratic experiment since 2011 has stood in stark contrast to the fate of other countries where Arab Spring revolts ended in bloody crackdowns and civil war.

Outside parliament, supporters of Saied and Ennahda hurled insults and bottles at each other.

A young Saied supporter who gave his name as Ayman said he was opposed to Ennahda – a party once close to the Muslim Brotherhood.

“We are here to protect Tunisia. We have seen all the tragedies under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said, referring to the Islamist movement founded in Egypt in 1928 which inspired Sunni Islamists across the Arab world.

Imed Ayadi, an Ennahda member, likened Saied to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who deposed the Brotherhood’s elected former President Mohamed Mursi and banned the group in 2013. In recent years, Ennahda has sought to distance itself from the Brotherhood.

“Saied is a new Sisi who wants to collect all authority for himself …We will stand up to the coup against the revolution,” Ayadi said.

Saied has framed his actions as a constitutional and popular response to years of economic and political paralysis, and said Article 80 of the constitution gave him power to dismiss the government, appoint a temporary administration, freeze parliament and lift the immunity of its members.

Ennahda and the other major parties disputed his interpretation of the rules and Ghannouchi has denied being consulted.

Two of the other main parties in parliament, Heart of Tunisia and Karama, joined Ennahda in accusing Saied of a coup.

Regional allies of Ennahda, including Turkey, decried Saied’s moves as a coup.

  • Reuters