By Manal Ahmed | Political Editor
Nearly two weeks ago on Sunday, July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saied sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspended Parliament for 30 days over the government’s alleged incompetence, exacerbated by the mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Saied, formerly a lawyer before being elected to the Presidency back in 2019, cited Article 80 of the constitution as the basis of his decision – a law which grants the president the right to take extraordinary measures if there is “an imminent danger” threatening the “normal functioning” of the Republic.
The president assured the country later that evening that he had acted in line with the constitution, contacting the heads of key institutions including the Prime Minister and the head of parliament, Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, before making this decision. Ghannouchi did not wait long before challenging Saied’s statement, stating that he had not been contacted and arguing that the country was not in a state of emergency.
These events came after violent protests broke out across the country earlier that day. Protesters have expressed their anger at the Tunisian Government for what they see as a mishandling of the current health, social and economic situation. The ruling party, Ennahda, have been at the forefront of the directed anger.
Over the next few days, government and media offices were surrounded by troops when Ghannouchi, who is also the leader of the Ennahda party, tried to enter the legislature in the capital, but was stopped by supporters of the President.
Saied then went on to implement a curfew and a ban on gatherings of more than three people.
What is the current social, economic and health situation in Tunisia?
Tunisia was widely hailed as the ‘poster child’ for the Arab Spring in 2011 – the result of the country emerging as a fledgling, hesitant democracy was seen as a success story; where nationwide protests and civil unrest could culminate in a positive outcome after the former dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in January 2011.
However, many Tunisians feel that circumstances have not improved for them since 2011, Johannes Kadura told DW News. Vivian Yee, one of the few journalists for The New York Times that had been briefly detained, reported that despite restrictions on mass gatherings and increased military presence, few Tunisians felt any desire to protest Saied’s takeover. After all, as Yee highlighted, “what had democracy done [for them]?”
Since the events of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has had more than a dozen different governments.
Currently the country is experiencing an economic downturn with national debt and unemployment rising, mounting government corruption and the collapse of an overwhelmed healthcare system.
The coronavirus pandemic has only worsened the situation, with Tunisia now being the worst-hit country in Africa and only 7% of the population fully vaccinated. During the past year and a half, Mechichi oversaw the appointment of three different health ministers, which many supporters of the President saw as an attempt by Mechichi to redirect blame away from himself.
Suppression of free speech, coup accusations and a political stalemate
Since imposing emergency law, Saied has expelled a number of senior officials and seized judicial powers. Over the past weekend, he ordered the house arrest of a judge and the arrest of two MPs, after dismissing the immunity of Parliamentarians the previous week. Ghannouchi, Mechichi and other critics of Saied have described the recent events as a coup staged by the President, expressing their concern that the country may return to life under a dictatorship.
According to local media reports, Mechichi denied that he had been assaulted before his resignation; The Maghreb Street reported the former Prime Minister as saying, “I categorically deny that I was subjected to violence.” He went on to deny reports that he had been prevented from issuing statements and had been placed on house arrest.
Opponents of the President further assert that he is attempting to consolidate power by dismissing the CEO of the national television channel Wataniya and preventing employees of the Qatari-based broadcast network, Al Jazeera, from entering the Tunis office.
Qatar has long been seen as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian party, along with Ayatollah Khomeini, influenced the policy of ‘Islamic’ governance that form the basis of the Ennahda party.
In recent years, the party have abandoned their core conservative supporters, especially in urban areas, in favour of a more progressive ideology. This has left them disregarding their core supporters’ concerns, allowing President Saied to assume the role that would be respondent to conservative worries and gain their sympathies.
In an interview with Al Jazeera last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed a conversation he had with the president a few days earlier, where Blinken urged Saied to restore Parliament and take the “democratic path”. The President reportedly assured the Secretary of State that he intended to remain “consistent with the constitution”, however the United Nations and the Arab League remain concerned about the ongoing crisis.
Many in Tunisia contest whether Saied has overstepped jurisdiction and inappropriately incited Article 80. However, since the constitutional court was never established, the President remains unchecked in his powers.
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