Tunisia: Sack of Parliament, PM Brews Crisis

Government buildings in Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia.
1 August 2021

Tunisia, a young democracy in a small North African country of 11million people has been plunged into a deep political crisis.

President Kais Saied dismissed the country's prime minister, sacked parliament and the acting minister of justice with the help of the army.

This action has been adjudged by many as the latest step along the bumpy road since the beginning of Tunisian rough decade of democracy in 2010

However, many seem divided on whether to condemn his actions or embrace them.

Analysts say the president's action has all the ingredients of a coup, even when he disagreed and called on them to revise their constitutional lessons.

"Some have talked about a coup. I don't know in which law or political science school they studied. How can a coup be based on the constitution? This is an implementation of constitutional script.

"Article 80 of the constitution gave the president of the republic the right to take the procedure. It is necessary in the face of imminent danger," President Saied, who is a constitutional lawyer, said.

It is believed that the president was combat-ready before he announced these major decisions. While announcing the sacks, troops were strategically stationed in the major streets of Tunis.

The parliament was also surrounded by soldiers after the announcement was over. Rivals have continually condemned President Saied for what they called "an attack on democracy."

Street clashes erupted outside army-barricaded parliament, a day after the president removed the prime minister and suspended parliament.

Parliamentary Speaker and Ennahdha party leader, Rached Ghannouchi, were also prevented access into the parliament building by troops.

The legality of the abrupt decisions split the county's political party, while activists and human rights organisations, determined to preserve Tunisia's sovereignty and keep the goals of the 2011 revolution alive, called for the outside world to keep watching and monitoring.

For many times, President Saied argued for the scrapping of the country's parliamentary system, mostly in favour of the decentralised democratic model. So, it looks like he may have finally acted on it.

While constitutional experts say his moves to suspend the parliament were legitimate, his critics believed that he overrated his constitutional power.

Tunisian, which is being celebrated as the success model of the Arab Spring, is again caught in the middle of political and economic turmoil, which led to the dramatic sack of the prime minister after a prolonged deadlock between the three - president, prime minister and Ennahdha chief.

Meanwhile, in his first statement since being sacked, Tunisian Prime Hichem Mechichi noted that he could not be a disruptive element and would hand over responsibility to whoever the president chose.

"In order to preserve the safety of all Tunisians, I declare that I align myself, as I have always, by the side of our people, and declare that I will not take up any position or responsibility in the state," Mechichi noted in a statement on Facebook.

He added that he was ready to serve Tunisia from any location

Supporters of the president also poured in the streets, thousands of people flooded to the capital city to celebrate the government dismissal of the prime minister.

This, in turn, triggered clashes outside the parliament, which ought to remain shut for one month.

Soldiers barricaded places in Tunis as the president's supporters pelted stones and insults. Leaders of Ennahda Party staged a sit-in to protest being barred from the complex.

Even though the constitution enshrines a parliamentary democracy, it largely limits presidential powers to security and even diplomacy.

The largest political party in the country has described the move as a coup. Foreign governments around the world have also voiced concern over the shocking development.

In a telephone conversation with the Tunisian president, the US secretary of state, Anthony Blincken, urged Tunisian officials to respect democracy and human rights.

"We have been clear in urging all parties to avoid taking any action that could stifle democratic discourse or lead to violence.

"We are particularly troubled by reports that media offices have been closed and urge scrupulous respect for freedom of expression and other civil rights. Tunisia must not squander its democratic gains. The United States will continue to stand on the side of Tunisia's democracy," he said.

Top United Nations (UN) diplomats had also called on the president to embrace open dialogue with all political actors and Tunisian people.

The UN is also following the crisis as it is worrying to the international body. The deputy spokesperson of the secretary-general referred to the region as very volatile, saying it cannot bear to have another unrest.

"We are hoping the situation would remain calm, and we are trying to see that all the parties do what they can to ensure the situation remains calm.

"Obviously, as you noticed yourself, the region is a very volatile one and certainly cannot bear to have more unrest than it presently has," he said.

Germany has, through the spokeswoman of its foreign ministry, Maria Adebahr, also shown concern over the escalation of the security situation in Tunisia, calling on the president to return to constitutional order.

Since the 1970s, Tunisia has become caught in a commonly seen development trap between the global north and south. Poorer countries export cheap agricultural products or raw materials while importing more expensive energy and industrial goods from richer ones.

The result was a hole Tunisia could never climb out of.

Despite calls after the Tunisian revolution for the new government to write off its "odious debt," a term used for financial obligations incurred by despotic regimes that many argue should not be binding, lawmakers there chose not to confront the country's mainly European creditors, hoping not to ruffle relations.

They also made little effort to change the structure of the Tunisian economy, which imports more than it exports, often driven by vested interests that have monopolies on importing certain goods.

So, instead of growing wheat to feed its population, Tunisia uses its most fertile land and water to grow strawberries for export. And it imports fuel and food to support its tourist industry, even after that was rendered unviable by terrorism and the pandemic, Mr Kaboub said.

Mohamed Dhia-Hammami, a political scientist who has studied the Tunisian transition closely, said the economic programmes introduced were the same as those used in Eastern Europe after the transition from communism, and had many of the same flaws.

"They did not prevent the rise of the oligarchy. It is not surprising to see similar problems when the policies are the same," he said.

Monica Marks, a professor of Middle East Politics at the New York University, Abu Dhabi, who has had long experience with Tunisia, said there was a dearth of knowledge about the country among Western officials, which hampered meaningful assistance.

"I noticed right of the bat in 2011. The United States and other Western democracies knew almost nothing about Tunisian politics," she said.

Ms Marks said structural issues such as security sector reform, judicial reform, media reform and youth unemployment should have been the main focus of the transition after the popular uprising overthrew the country's authoritarian president of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

But Western officials were obsessively focused on the Islamists, namely, the Ennahda or Renaissance, party that swept early elections, and where they were going and what they represented.

"In conversations, those sorts of questions ate up almost all the oxygen in the room. It was almost impossible to get anybody to ask another question," Ms. Marks said

Later, Western officials became focused on building consensus among Tunisia's political leaders - for which four organisations were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 - to the point that it became "fetish," she added.

After the 2011 revolution, Al-Qaeda and other extremists were quick to mobilise networks of recruits.

Terrorism burst into the open in 2012 when the US Embassy in Tunis came under attack from a mob. Over the years that followed, extremist cells carried out a string of political assassinations and suicide attacks that shattered Tunisians' optimism and nearly derailed the democratic transition.

Mass casualties in shootings of foreign tourists at a coastal resort and in the National Bardo Museum in Tunis dealt a body blow to the faltering economy by hitting the lucrative tourism industry and foreign investment when it was needed most.

The United States stepped in with critical security and counterterrorism support in one of its most successful interventions since 2001, training and assisting Tunisian security forces and supplying them with military equipment, but so discreetly that the American forces themselves were virtually invisible.

By 2019, some 150 Americans were training and advising their Tunisian counterparts in one of the largest missions of its kind on the African continent, according to American officials. The value of American military supplies delivered to the country increased to $119 million in 2017 from $12 million in 2012, government data show.

The assistance helped Tunisia defeat the broader threat of terrorism, but government ministers noted that the cost of combating terrorism, while unavoidable, burned a larger hole in the national budget.

But it is the structure of the economy that remains the root of the problem, Mr Kaboub said. All of Tunisia's political parties have identical economic plans, based on World Bank and International Monetary Fund guidelines. It was the same development platform used by the ousted president, Ben Ali, Kaboub said.

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