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International community warns Tunisian president of authoritarian drift

In Tunisia, several MPs have been arrested after their parliamentary immunity was lifted
REUTERS/ZOUBIER SOUSSI  -   El presidente electo de Túnez, Kais Saied, jura su cargo en la Asamblea de Representantes del Pueblo en Túnez, Túnez 23 de octubre de 2019

REUTERS/ZOUBIER SOUSSI  -   Tunisian President-elect Kais Saied is sworn in at the Assembly of People's Representatives in Tunis

Four decades after Ben Ali deposed Habibi Bourgiba, the father of the Tunisian nation, in a skilful move dubbed a "constitutional coup", history seems to be repeating itself. History seems to be repeating itself, with the country's current president, Kais Saied, surprisingly ordering the dismissal of the prime minister, suspending parliament, lifting the immunity of its members and arrogating to himself all powers in the early hours of 25 July. In the midst of this chaos, Saied's announcement plays on that fine line between coup d'état and a broad interpretation of Article 80 of the Constitution, which states that "in case of imminent danger threatening the nation, security or independence of the country, the president of the republic may take the measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances after consultation with the head of government and the speaker of parliament". The problem is that the article also requires the process to be reviewed by the Constitutional Court, which does not even exist yet.

As the night of the president's drastic decision progressed, the lack of institutional cooperation meant that the president was forced to rely on his supporters in the streets to carry it out. The interior ministry - which was under the authority of the prime minister and not yet following presidential orders - prevented them from ransacking Ennahda's headquarters. This prompted Saied to try to appoint the head of his presidential guard as the ministry's new leader. Attempts by the military to stop an emergency session of parliament also failed, according to European Council on Foreign Relations researcher Tarek Megerisi. 

AFP PHOTO/PRESIDENCIA DE TÚNEZ - El primer ministro designado de Túnez, Hichem Mechichi (izquierda), presentando la lista de su gabinete al presidente tunecino Kais Saied (derecha) en el palacio de Cartago, al este de la capital, Túnez
AFP PHOTO/PRESIDENCY OF TUNISIA - Tunisia's Prime Minister-designate Hichem Mechichi (left) presenting his cabinet list to Tunisian President Kais Saied (right) at the Carthage Palace, east of the capital.

A day after announcing the exceptional measures, the head of state decreed the dismissal of the ministers of defence and justice, Ibrahim Bartaji and Hasna Ben Slimane respectively. Both portfolios will be headed by the secretaries-general or those in charge of administrative and financial affairs in the corresponding departments until a new prime minister is appointed and a government team is formed. Two days later, he also decided to dismiss some 20 senior state and prime ministerial officials, including the state prosecutor general, the secretary general of the government, the director of the prime minister's office and the advisers to the former prime minister.

He also dismissed the Minister of Economy and Finance, Ali Kooli, and the acting Minister of Technology and Agriculture, Fadhel Kraim. Kooli "did not answer the phone, which was always switched off, and refused to allow us to meet because he had to prepare for a visit by the head of government", the president criticised his successor, Boughdiri Nmissa, until now director general of studies and fiscal legislation, shortly before she was sworn in as interim head. Kooli, a former banker with three decades of experience in management positions in different companies, was Mechichi's big bet with the creation of the so-called "super-ministry", which included the portfolios of Economy and Finance as well as Investment Support and International Cooperation, with the aim of halting the bleeding of public companies and attracting foreign investment again. Since April, he has been at the forefront of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a new loan - the fourth in the last decade - worth 3.3 billion euros.

PHOTO/REUTERS - Rached Ghannouchi, lider del partido islamista Ennahda
PHOTO/REUTERS - Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist party Ennahda

Nizar Ben Néji, a university professor and IT security specialist, will replace the minister of technology as interim head and will also be the new head of projects at the National Agency for Electronic Certification (ANCE).  "His mission may seem technical, but it is of great importance because it guarantees the neutrality of the state," Saied declared, after denouncing the exploitation of personal data to create an electoral map and spying devices by former officials, although he did not offer any further details. 

Since then, the judiciary has opened numerous investigations against officials and members of political parties and national institutions, resulting in the first arrest of a member of parliament, who was sentenced in 2018 to three months in prison for insulting the army and the president, but who had not served his sentence thanks to his immunity, which has now been lifted. Since the beginning of the year, Tunisia has been experiencing an institutional deadlock after the president himself rejected the formation of a government due to the links of some of the ministers to corruption cases.  

AFP/MONEEM SAKHRI - Kais Saied habla con una multitud en la ciudad de Gafsa, en el centro de Túnez, el 7 de septiembre de 2019, antes de las elecciones
AFP/MONEEM SAKHRI - Kais Saied speaks to a crowd in the central Tunisian city of Gafsa on September 7, 2019, ahead of elections

After the declarations of independent organisations, the European Union, the United States, and other international bodies such as the African Union, the same fear continues to linger that the shadow of dictatorship that began to dissipate in 2011 will return and that Tunisia's "beacon of freedom" in the Arab world will be extinguished. Concerned that the cradle of the "Arab Spring" is sliding back towards authoritarianism, President Saïed assured that "there is no need to fear" for freedoms and rights in Tunisia. Quoting former French president Charles de Gaulle, he said he was no longer old enough to become a dictator. According to him, the arrests only concern people already on trial. However, the Tunisian president has the support of the majority of Tunisians who are fed up with the government, which has opened a window of opportunity for the president to establish his primacy. 

The truth is that Saied's 'coup de force' has been months in the making, fuelled by three crisis fronts: political gridlock, the almost chronic economic crisis deepened by the poor management of COVID-19 and regional geopolitical tensions, according to Haizam Amirah-Fernández, senior researcher for the Mediterranean and Arab World at the Elcano Royal Institute, in an interview with El Confidencial. Two months ago, a document from his office was leaked detailing exactly the same plan that he ended up carrying out. Since ascending to power in October 2019, the president has attempted to run Tunisia as a presidential system.  For Eric Goldstein, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for the Middle East and North Africa region, what happened "confirms that when President Saied arrogated extraordinary powers to himself, he will use them against his allies". The ICJ's director for the Mediterranean and North Africa region, Said Benarbia, stresses that, "The president must reverse his power grab, which goes beyond the scope of his constitutional authority and violates basic principles of the rule of law". Tarek Megerisi, a researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, agrees with other experts in warning that what has happened in Tunisia in recent days has parallels with the 2012 coup that brought down the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and brought the current president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, to power.

PHOTO/REUTERS  -   Los partidarios del presidente de Túnez, Kais Saied, se reúnen en las calles mientras celebran después de que destituyera al Gobierno y congelara el Parlamento, en Túnez, Túnez 25 de julio de 2021
PHOTO/REUTERS - Supporters of Tunisia's President Kais Saied gather in the streets as they celebrate after he dismissed the government and froze parliament, in Tunis, Tunisia July 25, 2021

The health crisis is the latest in a series of crises that have condensed popular unrest. On the verge of bankruptcy after ten years of endemic growth, and with poverty and unemployment rates on the rise, Tunisia is also dragged down by a serious political crisis that is at the root of the institutional conflict. Tunisian President Kais Saied's decision to suspend parliament and dismiss Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi places Tunisia in a very serious constitutional crisis. This is the most delicate moment of the democratic transition that began after the country's triumph of the Arab Spring in 2011, which gave way to a democratic transition that has disappointed many citizens who have not had access to decent living conditions. Ten years on, many Tunisians are increasingly fed up with the government's management of poor public services and a political class that has repeatedly demonstrated its inability to govern coherently.