Tunisia’s turn away from democracy risks inflaming tensions in the country
By closing political avenues for voters to express their views, the President Saeid Kais risks extreme polarisation, and with it, the potential for unrest.
Following demonstrations on July 25, which resulted in the offices of the largest parliamentary party, Ennahda, burnt down across several cities, Tunisian President Kais Saied seized the moment to concentrate power in his hands.Saied's dramatic move — a decade on from Tunisia's 2011 revolution, often held up as the Arab Spring's sole success story — comes even though the constitution enshrines a parliamentary democracy and largely limits presidential powers to security and diplomacy.In a photo taken from the television station of President Kais Saied, Presidnet Saied announces, the dissolution of parliament and Prime Minister Mechichi's government on July 25, 2021 at Carthage Palace, Tunis, Tunisia.As they cheered, ululated, honked car horns and let off fireworks, Said's supporters revelled in his decision and in the perceived downfall of the moderate Islamist Ennahda, the biggest party in parliament and his main political opponent.
The work of parliament has been frozen, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi was dismissed, and in a not so veiled threat to parliamentarians, their immunity stripped."Domestically, the president may have seen in this particular juncture as a window of opportunity to deal a decisive blow to his political rivals," says Umberto Profazio, a North Africa researcher.The crisis follows prolonged deadlock between the president, the premier and Ennahda chief Rached Ghannouchi, which has crippled the Covid response as deaths have surged to one of the world's highest per capita rates.President Saied's rivals are part of an ever-growing list of enemies, including Prime Minister Mechichi, the speaker of parliament Rachid Ghannouchi, who is also co-founder of the Ennahda party and their allies.Tunisians rose up in revolution in 2011 against decades of autocracy, installing a democratic system that ensured new freedoms but has not delivered economic prosperity.The fallout from the current political wrangling may ultimately be people's faith in democracy, which was already on life support before the president's power grab, which "threatens to derail the Tunisian democratic experiment," says Profazio speaking to TRT World.The president's announcement sparked jubilant rallies by many thousands of his supporters who flooded the streets of the capital late Sunday to celebrate and wave the national flag, as car horns sounded through the night and fireworks lit up the sky.In the 2014 parliamentary elections, the turnout was 67 percent, a historic high following the 2011 revolution, and the public had high hopes for political and economic change through the ballot box.REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi Read More "The president was very brave.
By 2019, the turnout in the country's parliamentary elections plummeted by 26 percent to 41 percent, reflecting the growing disillusionment in the country.A senior Ennahda official, speaking to AFP news agency on condition of anonymity, alleged that the protests before Saied's announcement, and the subsequent celebrations, had all been choreographed by the president.."Political parties such as Ennahda are discredited and considered responsible for the ongoing political and economic crisis," Profazio says.President Saied's power grab, which opponents have also described as a "coup", risks something even more profound, disenfranchising the country from a means of changing their leader.Since Saied was elected in 2019, he has been locked in a showdown with Mechichi and Ghannouchi, who is also house speaker.Conservative political forces in the country which have become invested in the democratic process may be pushed into "extremist positions" added Profazio.Soon after the statement, cars filled the streets of Tunis in defiance of a Covid-19 curfew, as supporters of Saied honked horns and cheered from the windows.There is a real danger of a narrative emerging that the country's secular establishment won't share power with forces it doesn't like and tilt the playing field against conservative voices."We are navigating the most delicate moments in the history of Tunisia," Saied said on Sunday.Saied's critics fear his move to dismiss the government and freeze parliament is part of a shift away from democracy and a return to the autocratic rule of the past - concerns he rejected in public statements as he denied conducting a coup.
Ultimately, President Saied's move risks "reinforcing the simplistic narrative describing the transition in Arab countries as a choice between terrorist and secular forces," says Profazio.In neighbouring Libya, the renegade general Khalifa Haftar, who has fought a long-running war against the internationally recognised government in Tripoli, welcomed Saied's move.In a later Facebook post, he clarified the suspension would be for 30 days."We consider the institutions still standing, and the supporters of the Ennahda and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution," he added, raising the prospect of confrontations between supporters of Ennahda and Saied.Haftar has framed his war as one against Islamist forces.Similarly, in Syria, the Bashar al Assad regime framed the early protests against his one-man rule as a battle between a secular country and terrorism.He also said that parliamentary immunity would be lifted for deputies.In Egypt, following the 2013 coup led by the military leading to Abdel Fattah el Sisi taking over from the first democratically elected government.However, seven years after the constitution was approved, the court has yet to be installed after disputes over the appointment of judges.Our Standards: More from Reuters Sign up for our newsletter Subscribe for our daily curated newsletter to receive the latest exclusive Reuters coverage delivered to your inbox.
The narrative? A country saved from Islamism, again.Some of them have lasted only a few months, hindering the reforms needed to revamp its struggling economy and poor public services.While Tunisia also has a history of repressing conservative Muslim voices in the country, it is also different in some important ways.Huda Mzioudet, a researcher in Tunisian and Libyan affairs, is hopeful that the country's civil society can jolt politicians and voters to prevent the country from giving up the gains made in 2011.Last week, Mechichi fired his health minister as cases skyrocketed, the latest in a string of health ministers to be sacked.However, unemployment rates remain high and frustration lingers as economic progress has yet to materialise."Civil society remains Tunisia's safety net to oppose sliding into a bad scenario," says Mzioudet speaking to TRT World."I dismiss an Egyptian-like scenario, not realistic in Tunisia given the army's neutrality," she added.Demonstrations were also reported in the towns of Gafsa, Kairouan, Monastir, Sousse and Tozeur.
Like so many Tunisia observers, there is close to a consensus that politicians in the country have squandered the goodwill and trust placed in them.On January 14, 2011, nationwide protests led by collective actions by workers ousted Tunisia’s long-serving autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in what was dubbed the Jasmine revolution."While I put the blame on the main political class in the current political quagmire," says Mzioudet, "they need to negotiate and review their previous positions regarding the Tunisian street's deep resentment and anger at their failure to implement reforms."The people want the dissolution of parliament," the crowd had chanted." If President Saied's attempt to suspend parliament is passed and he further accumulates more power than, "most likely civil society organisations and citizens reclaim the streets," adds Mzioudet.The army's role and the country's security forces will play in the coming days will also be crucial in not avoiding further polarisation.A jubilant Nahla, brandishing a Tunisian flag, told AFP: "These are courageous decisions.Source: TRTWorld and agencies.In 2011 the military stepped aside and refused to defend the country's longtime dictator, Zine el Abedine Ben Ali.
Now the military has a similar choice, says Profazio..Does it "continue to remain a neutral and impartial actor in the Tunisian political landscape,” or, “take sides with Saied, transforming into an instrument of repression and restoration that would take Tunisia back to 2010." The stability of the country may rest on that decision." READ MORE:.Source: TRT World.
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