Tunisia is facing the worst crisis in its decade of democracy after President Kais Saied ousted the government and suspended parliament with help from the army, a move denounced as a coup by the country’s main parties, including Islamists. The President extended some existing measures aimed at countering the pandemic, including a curfew and internal travel bans, but which would also have the effect of dampening street opposition.
Mr 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 crisis risks morphing into street confrontations as Mr Saied’s critics, including Islamists, repressed for decades under a previous autocracy, warned he was endangering the democratic system introduced after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
The White House voiced concern on Monday but said it had not yet determined whether Saied’s actions constituted a coup. Mr Saied, who invoked emergency powers under the constitution late last week Sunday to dismiss Mr Mechichi and suspend parliament for 30 days, last 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.
His intervention followed protests in major cities on Sunday over the government’s handling of the pandemic, with a spike in cases, and economy. He has rejected accusations of a coup. The economy shrank 8% last year. Tunisia has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the region. Last Monday, Tunisia’s hard-currency bonds tumbled. 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. Mr Saied, who has not said when he will appoint a new premier or relinquish emergency powers, has also ordered that state administrations and foreign institutions stop work for two days.
The number and geographic spread of protests and change in governments, coups and counter-coups Africa has witnessed in the last few weeks come as no surprise. In our forecast for the year, we noted that some of the political instabilities we saw in 2020 were likely to spill over into 2021. The immediate culprit has been the adverse effect the coronavirus pandemic has had on the global economy – shrinking living standards, deepened poverty, expanded unemployment and escalated food inflation.
This has forced many dissenting groups to protest, which has compelled political leaders to act aggressively to maintain their hold on power. This year alone, we have seen coups and attacks on political leaders in Chad, Mali, Haiti (a country that is not in Africa but shares many of the structural deficiencies found in most African states) and now Tunisia.
The present crisis in the North African country is galling considering that a mere 10 years ago, what we now know as the Arab Spring started there with Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in protest against police corruption and economic hardship. Triggered by other factors such as economic and socio-political stresses as well as human rights abuses, the Arab Spring saw the introduction of a new and democratically aligned political climate in the country – the only outlier in the Arab world in this regard.
It is clear that President Kais Saied’s actions this week permit him to exercise unchecked power. Even though President Saied has denied that his invocation of emergency powers is tantamount to a coup, his actions suggest otherwise. For one, he has taken actions that are straight out of an autocrat’s playbook. He does appear to be using the machinery of the state to go after powerful opposition figures. For example, it was recently revealed that the judiciary is investigating Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia – the two parties with the largest representatives in parliament – on suspicion of receiving foreign funds during the 2019 election campaign.
By citing constitutional provisions that allow for emergency powers and enforcing a curfew that would prevent any form of protests under the pretext of keeping the country safe from a new wave of COVID-19, we are left with no assumption that Mr Saied is strategic in his deconstruction of Tunisian democracy. He has also made calculated attempts to win over the citizens by stating that his actions were done to save the country, citing perennial problems the country faces, problems which he has blamed on the now defunct government.
Before Mr Saied’s dissolution of the cabinet, Tunisia’s debt to GDP reached 88% by year-end 2020 and pandemic-laden unemployment numbers stood at 36%. Following a raft of ill-advised economic policies, government corruption (which President Saied has promised to stamp out) and the country’s failure to secure an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to cover its budget deficit, Tunisia was downgraded by Fitch to a ‘B-’ with a negative outlook. In the final assessment, the only way to forestall a slip into familiar autocratic ways will be through the application of regional and international pressure on President Saied to return back to constitutional rule.
Already, France has insisted that he names a prime minister and a cabinet. The oil-rich Arab League – an organisation not known as a bastion of democracy and indeed the African Union can exercise some leverage given Tunisia’s precarious fiscal position. All hands are required on this deck.