Tunisia Constitutional Coup Explained And What It Means To Democracy
What's going on?
The president of Tunisia, Kais Saied, launched what can be best described as a coup d'etat on Parliament. President Saied invoked emergency powers under the constitution and suspended Parliament for 30 days, dismiss prime minister Mechichi, and fired the justice and defense ministers. President Saied also declared that any violent opposition would be met with military force. Saied’s actions were denounced as a coup d'etat by all of the country’s main parties. The military surrounded the parliament building and the government palace, preventing members of parliament and state workers from entering.
However, President Saied, formerly a constitutional professor, has rejected labeling his actions a coup and argues that he is within the law and constitution. The President invoked article 80 of the constitution, which allows the president to take “exceptional measures in the event of imminent danger”, which effectively grants the president total executive power for an unspecified period. The vagueness and uncertainty of the article have left many observers and Tunisians uneasy about the power grab, which they argue could be the beginning of a dictatorship.
Why did Saied invoke article 80?
The country's mishandling of the pandemic has ignited longstanding discontent with parliamentary politics: thousands took to the streets in protests that defied Covid-19 restrictions. At least 18000 people have died from Coronavirus in the country of 12 million, the rising infections have overwhelmed the decaying public health services and crushed the vital tourism industry. The economy shrank by at least 8% in 2020 and the countries hard-currency bonds are beginning to crash.
Tunisia has one of the highest Covid death rates in the region. Just 7% of the population has been fully vaccinated, while more than 90% of the country’s ICU beds are occupied. On social media, videos have been circulated showing dead bodies left in the middle of wards as morgues struggle to deal with the rising death toll.
Who is Saied?
Kais Saied is an authoritative but dull figure, which was often ridiculed for being so boring by people across Tunisia. He was formerly a law professor with little political experience and no prior criminal allegations. To voters, he seemed untainted and was ultimately elected due to his unthreatening demeanor.
He was elected into a position that seemingly had little influence in comparison with the parliament. However, hidden by his monotonous personality is his ambition for power. For a long time, he has openly called for a new constitution that would give the president more power. As a result, Saied has clashed with several prime ministers as well as Tunisia's speaker of parliament, Rachid Ghannouchi, the veteran leader of Ennahda who returned to Tunisia from exile in France in 2011 after Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown by popular protests.
Terrorist attacks diminishing tourism, infighting over who controls the country's military, and over appointments to cabinet roles have hampered the response to the Covid-19 pandemic and thrown the post-revolution economic situation into a spiral.
President Saied announced a curfew that will last for a month in an apparent attempt to tighten control of the country. The restrictions include a nationwide curfew from 7 pm to 6 am and a ban on gatherings of more than three people in public places. The movement of people between cities outside times of curfew, except for basic needs or urgent health reasons is also prohibited.
Press freedom crushed
The Saied regime seized the national television station and ordered police to raid Al-Jazeera's Tunis bureau and expelled staff. This move was made to prevent coverage of the coup and to cut off the flow of information out of the country.
Some parts of the population showed support for the president’s decision as they called for the dissolution of parliament during protests. Coup supporters and anti-coup protestors clashed in the streets, hurling rocks and insults at each other, where some deemed the move a step towards dictatorship others called it necessary to establish order. It is unlikely the significant violence will break out in opposition to the coup and Saied remains the most popular political figure in Tunisia and the parliament has become widely disliked. The outcome of the coup is likely to be decided through mass protests in favor or against the move, all major political parties are expected to mobilize their bases to protest which has become risky due to the pandemic.
Turkey is currently the only country to lash out strongly against Saied’s “suspension of the democratic process." Most western democracies like the US, UK, EU, and other have meekly sat on the sideline, with shaky condemnations and a “wait-and-see” approach. They have expressed their inane "concern" in public statements which has become the blank template towards collapsing democracies and human rights abuses. The lack of a strong and cohesive condemnation towards the coup will leave Tunisia open for anti-democratic powers such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, China, or Russia to establish themselves as partners to the new budding dictatorship. The shakiness in response from the world's democracies endangers Tunisia from losing its prospects for democracy as it was done in Egypt, Myanmar, Belarus, and others.