Tunisia’s democracy in the balance after president’s power grab

Tunisia’s decade-old democracy hangs in the balance after President Kais Saied removed the prime minister and suspended Parliament on Sunday.

Why it matters: Tunisia was the lone democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring. It remains the only democracy in the Arab world. But the country’s politics have been deadlocked amid an economic crisis and its worst COVID-19 wave, leading to weeks of anti-government protests.

Driving the news: Saied invoked a constitutional provision to claim emergency powers for the next 30 days and to dismiss Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, after a months-long power struggle.

  • He has said he’ll name a new prime minister and has rejected claims that he’s carrying out a coup.
  • But Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who leads the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, staged a protest outside Parliament after being denied entry and urged Tunisians to resist this “return to dictatorship.”

Between the lines: The initial reactions on the streets of Tunis seemed to be of jubilation, a sign of just how deep the frustration with the government had grown.

  • But others heard echoes of Egypt, where Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ousted a democratically elected government in a 2013 coup.

Of note: Turkey rejected Saied’s move while its regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Egypt offered tacit support.

  • The EU and U.S. have largely been in wait-and-see mode, declining thus far to call Saied’s actions a “coup.”
  • The State Department stressed the need to protect democracy and expressed concern over reports that police had forcibly closed the local bureau of Al Jazeera. Secretary of State Tony Blinken called Saied on Monday.

The backstory: Saied, a political newcomer and constitutional law professor who won a shock election in 2019, has positioned himself as an outsider — a famously uncharismatic alternative to slicker political operators in Tunis, said Intissar Fakir, director of the Middle East Institute’s North Africa and Sahel program.

  • With no political party and little unilateral power as president, he had been shielded from much of the anti-government anger.

Yes, but: He had also been setting the stage for a power grab, said Sarah Yerkes, a Tunisia expert at the Carnegie Endowment. The protests provided “a good moment to take what could have been a very risky action.”

  • “We don’t really know what his endgame is. We don’t know if he is just trying to reset the political situation and then will hand power back, or if he really is trying to become an authoritarian leader and take the reins of power,” Yerkes said.
  • She points to some of Saied’s past comments, such as wanting to eliminate the role of prime minister, that make her suspect it’s the latter…