Lat week, Tunisia’s president sacked the PM and suspended parliament, after violent mass protests nationwide.
President Kais Saied, who was elected in 2019, announced he was taking over.
His supporters erupted in celebration, but opponents in parliament immediately accused him of staging a coup. Protests erupted outside of parliament today, many calling Saied a dictator. Clashes among rival groups continued on Monday.
They threw stones at each other outside the legislature, which has been barricaded by troops, who have also prevented workers from entering some government buildings.
Mr Saied, an independent, has had a long-standing feud with the man he has removed, PM Hichem Mechichi. Mr Mechichi has the backing of the largest party in parliament, Ennahda.
Tunisia’s revolution in 2011 is often held up as the sole success of the Arab Spring revolts across the region, but it has not led to stability economically or politically.
Saied’s action followed months of deadlock and disputes pitting him against Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and a fragmented parliament as Tunisia descended into an economic crisis exacerbated by one of Africa’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks.
The military surrounded the parliament and government palace, stopping MPs and state workers from entering the buildings, as well as the national television station.
Saied, who invoked emergency powers under the constitution late on Sunday to dismiss Mechichi and suspend parliament for 30 days, on Monday stopped travel between cities for a month and tightened pandemic curfew restrictions.
He also reiterated a long existing rule that has not been commonly observed banning public gatherings of three or more people in streets or squares.
Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, which has played a role in successive coalition governments, condemned it as an assault on democracy and urged Tunisians to take to the streets in opposition.
“Kais Saied is dragging the country into catastrophe,” he told Turkish television.
Furthermore, the fate of ousted Tunisian Prime Minister Hicham Mechichi has become a matter of growing concern since no one knows his whereabouts, member of the International Federation of Jurists Anwar Al-Gharbi has told MEMO. “We are especially worried about his health and psychological well-being,” he said.
Saied has said any violent opposition will be met with force.
Tunisia’s largest workers union has refrained from denouncing the measures taken by President Kais Saied in its first official response to the sacking of the prime minister and freezing of parliament.
The UGTT’s position comes as the largest political parties have declared their rejection of the president’s move.
The Heart of Tunisia party and the Dignity Coalition condemned Said’s decision, while the Democratic Current party, which previously supported Saied on many occasions, has rejected his decision to assume all powers.
In a statement on Monday, the Democratic Current held the Ennahda party and the Mechichi government responsible for “the legitimate popular tensions, the social, economic and health crisis, and the blockage of the political horizon.”
The Tunisian Workers’ Party issued a statement saying that “what President Kais Saied did is a clear violation of the constitution, an anti-democratic measure, and the beginning of a coup d’etat.”
Likewise, the Republican Party dismissed Saied’s decisions as “an outright coup against the constitution.”
Meanwhile, the Independent High Electoral Commission, which has overseen elections since the 2011 revolution, declared its opposition to Saied’s decisions.
President Kais Saied’s delay in announcing a way forward 10 days after he seized executive power is jangling nerves among Tunisians, with friend and foe alike increasingly impatient to see steps towards ending political and economic paralysis.
Though allies of Saied still expect him to announce a new premier soon, there is no sign of a roadmap to handle either the long term or the immediate emergency period, which he initially set at one month but has since said could be renewed.
“The situation is delicate and there is a real fear there will be no participatory discussion in decisions,” said Sami Tahri, a senior official at the powerful UGTT labour union.
Whether his sudden intervention will ultimately be seen as a coup – as the parliament speaker has called it – or as a moment of renewal for a democratic process that went awry, will depend on what he does next.
Sources close to the presidential palace in Carthage, an upscale Tunis suburb built on the coast around the ruins of an ancient city, say Saied has been seeking a premier among economic policy makers.
Political insiders in Tunisia now expect Saied to push a new electoral law and constitution focusing power in the presidency, ditching an arrangement that shared it with parliament and that is widely seen as having fostered paralysis and corruption.
However, it is not clear what a new constitution would look like, how democratic it would be, what role it might have for a parliament, whether it would have support from other major players and what means he would use to pass it.
Saied says his moves were constitutional, though many Tunisian legal experts and the biggest party in parliament, the moderate Islamist Ennahda, have rejected that argument.
Meanwhile, Tunisian human rights advocates have expressed concerns about the disappearance of the deposed prime minister Hichem Mechichi, whose whereabouts remain unknown.
Mechichi has not appeared in public since Saied’s announcement of the power grab on Sunday 25 July. His last Facebook post was on 26 July when he published his resignation statement.
MEE reported that Mechichi was summoned to the presidential palace on 25 July where Saied sacked him, announced the suspension of parliament, and assumed executive authority after anti-government protests.
Once at the palace, Mechichi repeatedly refused to quit, according to MEE sources. He was then beaten.
“I am absolutely concerned about his security. All efforts to get in touch with him have failed,” Osama al-Saghir, a Tunisian MP with the Ennahda Party told MEE.
“All we have is a message on Facebook saying he [Mechichi] is stepping down. It is one more confirmation that what is going on in this country is very dangerous,” he added.
While the nature of Mechichi’s injuries could not be verified, as he has not been seen in public, they were “significant”, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.
Mechichi then agreed to resign, the sources said, before returning home, where he denied reports to local media that he was under house arrest.
Mechichi’s disappearance has added to the skepticism and fear among Tunisians as to the future of the country, and the country’s already struggling economy and covid situation makes the uncertainty in this period very costly and dangerous.
Tunisia’s coup will also hold major regional implications if the status quo remains. It has already sent shockwaves around the Middle East.
The UAE’s involvement in the coup has been suspected from the very beginning, while there have also been hints of Egypt being involved. This week, Egypt’s foreign minister has said that his country is expressing “full support” to Tunisian President Kais Saied, whose power grab ten days ago has been denounced as a “constitutional coup” by his opponents.
“We affirm the full support of the Arab Republic of Egypt for the stability and the fulfilment of the will of the Tunisian people,” Sameh Shoukry said after meeting Saied in Tunis on Tuesday.
Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement said that Shoukry conveyed a message from President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to Saied, which noted that Egypt is expressing “solidarity and support.”
The statement added that Egypt backs Saied’s efforts which are “aimed at responding to the legitimate aspirations” of Tunisians for stability and development “in a manner that preserves the national state institutions and protects the capabilities and free will of its people.”
Middle East Eye (MEE) has revealed that Mehchichi was physically assaulted the night before he agreed to resign.
He was then beaten in the presence of non-Tunisians, which MEE stated were Egyptian security officials who have been advising Saied before the coup and directing operations as it was taking place. It is unclear what role they played in Mechichi’s interrogation.
“Sisi offered to give Saied all the support he needed for the coup and Saied took it,” one of the sources said.
The Abu Dhabi administration, supported by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and to a lesser extent, France and the US, in its counter-revolutionary policies, appears to be willing to implement a strategy in Tunisia similar to the one in Egypt; many signs point to the UAE intervening in Tunisia to balance the government close to Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood. With this intervention, the UAE also may be aiming to lure Tunisia to its side.
Tunisia is of great geopolitical and economic importance, particularly for European Union countries on the Mediterranean. This became especially apparent after the power vacuum in Libya after 2011 had turned it into a hub for immigrants from sub-Saharan African countries aiming to cross illegally to Europe.
Countries like Italy, Malta, Greece and France have undertaken a great cost in Tunisia in order to ensure coastal security and prevent uncontrolled migration flows. Potential internal turmoil may make Tunisia a new hub for reaching the shore of neighbouring EU countries, thus broadening the crisis from the Mediterranean to all EU members.
It is also very unlikely that the Tunisian economy will be able to withstand the combination of the economic bottleneck created by the Covid-19 pandemic and the suspension of the political process and the relegation of democratic values. The loss of a dynamic and active market goes against the interests of French and Italian companies with serious investments in the country. This scenario may cause these countries to deactivate their possible investments and puts their ongoing projects at risk.
Although Turkey does not consider Tunisia a stage in the struggle for regional influence, the UAE and France are uneasy with the regional balance of power developing in favour of Turkey. The intervention is thus understandable from this perspective. Turkey, which is trying to establish an alliance with Tunisia in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, approved the export of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to the country last year, showing the weight Ankara gives to Tunisia in its broader foreign policy objectives in the region.
Internal turmoil in Tunisia would give leverage to local and international actors like France and the UAE, which prioritise military engagements within Libya. This will drag both Libya and the region into instability.