Tunisia coup: What’s happening and how did we get here?

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Supporters of Tunisia’s President Kais Saied chant slogans denouncing the country’s main Islamist Ennahda party in front of the parliament in the capital Tunis, on 26 July 2021 (AFP)
Middle East Eye takes a look at how the North African country reached this dangerous point

For more than a decade after the uprisings that came to be known as the Arab Spring, Tunisia held a reputation as the region’s only success story.

But on Sunday – following days of anti-government protests – President Kais Saeid announced the suspension of parliament, sacked the prime minister and assumed executive authority in the country.

While his supporters have seen the move as a decisive step to restoring stability in the crisis-ridden country, opposition politicians from across the political spectrum have denounced it, with Ennahda, the largest party in parliament, calling it a “constitutional coup”.

With Tunisia’s liberal democratic experiment seemingly teetering over the abyss, Middle East Eye takes a look at how the country came to its current predicament.

How did we get here?

Since the ousting of longtime ruler Zinedine Ben Ali in 2011, successive governments have struggled to fulfil the demands of Arab Spring protesters, who were driven as much by poverty and unemployment as they were by a desire for civil liberties and fair elections.

Unemployment has remained rife across the country, particularly for young people who make up the majority of the population. A number of attacks by the Islamic State group have cost dozens of lives and driven away tourism, while living standards and public services have declined.

When he was elected president in October 2019, Kais Saeid sought to portray himself as an anti-politician. Running as an independent and nicknamed “RoboCop” for his stern, monotonous character, he promised to crack down on corruption among the political class.

A few months into his tenure, Tunisia was struck by the Covid-19 pandemic. The disease has killed more than 17,000 people in a country of barely 12 million, pushing health care services to the breaking point and further exacerbating the economic crisis.

In May, the country started talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a financial assistance package, which if accepted would be the fourth loan in ten years from the fund.

The austerity measures asked for by the IMF in exchange for previous loans – including increasing prices on basic goods, hiking taxes and reducing public sector employment – further enraged a public already squeezed by the neoliberal reforms implemented by Ben Ali.

With the country’s economy currently expected to shrink by 6.5 percent this year, thousands have taken to the streets berating a political class they see as irredeemably incompetent and corrupt.

What has happened?

In May, MEE reported on a leaked document that came from the office of Saied’s chief of staff, Nadia Akacha, proposing the establishment of a “constitutional dictatorship” as a means of dealing with the country’s mounting problems.

In order to combat what it called a “national emergency”, the document said that in “such a situation it is the role of the President of the Republic to combine all powers in his grip so as for him to become the centre of authority that enables him to exclusively hold… all authorities that empower him.”

Though it is unclear how the document directly relates to what happened over the weekend, it would appear to indicate that Saeid’s allies had been looking into the possibility of a power grab for some time.

On Sunday, as anti-government demonstrators swarmed the streets of the capital Tunis, Saeid announced that parliament had been “suspended”, later clarifying that it would remain so for 30 days.

“The constitution does not allow for the dissolution of parliament, but it does allow for its work to be suspended,” the president said in a statement, citing Article 80 of the constitution that permits such a measure in case of “imminent danger”.

He added that he had sacked the Prime Minister and would be assuming executive authority and lifting the immunity of parliamentarians. He also said he would be replacing the defence and justice ministers. 

On Monday, the military deployed to the government palace in Tunis and reportedly prevented workers from entering the building.

The offices of Al Jazeera were also raided by police in Tunis, who expelled all the staff from the building.

What has been the reaction domestically?

Anti-government protesters initially cheered Saeid’s announcement, praising his decision to assume the authority of the country.

Fireworks were let off and people danced in the streets and chanted slogans against the parliament and the Islamist Ennahda party.

Supporters of Ennahda were, unsurprisingly, less happy, with leader and speaker of the parliament Rachid Ghannouchi denouncing the move as a “coup”.

Other opposition politicians have also been quick to denounce the move.

“If the coup succeeds, the [country’s] economic and health conditions will deteriorate,” former President Moncef Marzouki said in a video on Facebook.

“Saied breached the constitution he swore on and gave himself all powers. Saied considered himself the head of the executive power and the first judge.”

Secular parties have also been largely critical – Heart of Tunisia, the second biggest party in the parliament, said the president’s actions breached the constitution, while the Marxist-Leninist Workers Party denounced the move as a coup that could lead to “a cycle of violence and civil strife, or lead [Tunisia] to fall again under tyranny”.

The Nasserist Harakat al-Chaab, on the other hand, welcomed Saeid’s actions, describing them as a “correction of the revolution’s path”.

The powerful General Labour Union (UGTT), with more than one million members representing an estimated five percent of the Tunisian population, also did not explicitly reject Saied’s decisions, but rather emphasised “the need to adhere to constitutional legitimacy in any action taken at this stage”.

Clashes have broken out across the country between supporters of Saeid and supporters of the political parties, primarily Ennahda. Hundreds from each side gathered outside the parliament building and pelted one another with stones, bottles and eggs on Monday.

What has been the reaction internationally?

Many countries around the world denounced Saeid’s actions and expressed their concerns about the future of democracy in the country – though most stopped short of labelling what happened a “coup.”

Turkey’s foreign ministry said it was “deeply concerned” by what had happened and called for the restoration of “democratic legitimacy”, while a spokesperson for Germany’s foreign ministry called for a return to “constitutional order as quickly as possible”.

“We don’t want to speak of a coup d’etat”, added Maria Adebahr, however.

The Qatari foreign ministry said they hoped “Tunisian parties will adopt the path of dialogue to overcome the crisis”.

The reaction in the UAE and Saudi Arabia was rather different in tone, however.

The Emirati news outlet 20FourMedia reacted with the headline, “A brave decision to save Tunisia“, while on Twitter the hashtag “Tunisia revolts against the brotherhood” circulated around Saudi and Emirati accounts, a reference to Ennahda’s links to the Muslim Brotherhood,

Speaking to Al Jazeera on Monday, Marzouki said that he had “no doubt that the UAE is behind this coup”.

Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar also welcomed Saeid’s actions and said he ordered his forces to be “ready to prevent the infiltration of any terrorist fighters who may flee Tunisia in light of the recent political turmoil.”

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