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Tunisia’s political turmoil—is it just another twist and turn in the dawning of a Democracy or was it a fatal coup?

posted on: Aug 4, 2021

First Parliamentary session in Tunisia after the 2011 Revolution Photo Voice of America
By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer

Tunisian President Saied recently removed Prime Minister Mechichi and then suspended Parliament in the single country that turned an Arab Spring moment into a nascent democracy. Saied has been accused of unleashing “a coup against the revolution and constitution.” Tunisia is a true test of Biden’s democracy agenda considering the President’s promises to support democracy and human rights around the world. If the democracy experiment in Tunisia ends, it will be the first and last Arab country that tried to reinvent itself under the aegis of the “Arab Spring,”

Tunisia’s political and economic crisis—What we know so far

Tunisian President Kais Saied, on Sunday, July 25, removed Prime Minister Mechichi and suspended Parliament. This, in the sole country whose Arab Spring moment, in fact, a revolution, turned into a nascent democracy. Though it’s had some ups and downs since 2011, including an attack by ISIS on public spaces in Tunis, Tunisia’s political process followed the line of democratic reform. Until recently in any case, when Saied booted Prime Minister and interior minister Hichem Mechichi from office and suspended the Parliament for 30 days. He also stripped members of Parliament of their immunity, insisting that his actions were in accord with the constitution.

Saied’s announcement of his decision, according to an Al-Jazeera report, “was condemned as an attack on democracy by his rivals but was greeted by others with celebrations on the streets across the country.” He called for a new legislature following mass demonstrations across Tunisia’s cities. Al-Jazeera also reported that protesters were demanding the removal of the government following a rise in Covid-19 cases, which in turn had added to the country’s economic problems. Protestors also smashed offices of the Ennahda party, the party of Mechichi, demanding the Prime Minister’s resignation.

Tunisian President Saied dismissed the Prime Minister and Parliament Photo Yahoo

Speaker of the Parliament and head of the largest party, Ennahdha, Rached Ghannouchi, accused Saied of unleashing “a coup against the revolution and constitution.” Complicating matters is the fact that Ennahdha, which had a strong grip on the now-suspended Parliament, happens to be a moderate Islamist party, and is accused of having links with the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, was the demise of Ennahdha celebrated by some members of the press and social media. We may recall that many analysts, following the revolution, initially argued that an Islamist party and a democratic form of government would fail.

It seems that while Democracy itself did not fail, what has not worked is the purpose of the Tunisian government to serve its citizens, including improving their already low standard of living, government’s failure to keep the people safe from Covid, and to eliminate continuing corruption.

ISIS attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis in 2015–one of several attempts to upset Tunisia’s nascent democracy Photo Agence France Presse

Criticisms of President Saied link Tunisian crisis to al-Sissi’s Egypt

Many Tunisians were pleased with Saied’s actions to suspend the Parliament but some in fact wanted a dissolved Parliament. The latter would have comprised either a coup or a new revolution, depending on one’s perspective. According to a Middle East Institute report, “While opponents of President Saied may be concerned that his new concentration of powers looks monarchical, those celebrating in the streets are less worried about a concentration of power than they are about a government that has seemingly abandoned its people.” The abandoned see their country as continuing to deteriorate economically, including declines in education and transportation services, uneven distribution of water, and degradation of the environment.

Egyptian President al-Sissi has hardened into a seasoned autocrat Photo NBC News

Some critics see the Tunisian crisis as a test of Tunisia’s democratic institutions. The Washington Post reported that some critics “fear Saied could be presiding over a coup akin to Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s military takeover in Egypt in 2013.” The Post further stated, “It’s a well-worn cliche that Tunisia is the only democratic success story of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Its fledgling democracy persevered even as a ruthless counterrevolution took hold in Egypt, civil war hollowed out Syria, and Libya and Yemen both collapsed into a morass of warlordism. But the cliche obscures the constant struggle to build and maintain that democratic rule. In the past decade, Tunisia has endured waves of political turmoil, yet its factions overcame them through dialogue, compromise, and fresh elections.”

Tunisia—a test of Biden’s democracy agenda

Tunisia is a test of Biden’s democracy agenda considering the President’s promises to support democracy and human rights around the world. In the Middle East, his agenda has not held up as well as might be expected. Biden has reneged for example on making Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “pariah.” His human rights record with respect to Egypt in the face of al-Sissi’s dictatorship since 2013 has wavered. Biden has also been less than committal on the case of Israel’s continued military occupation of Palestinian territories. Then there is the President’s failure to bring the Iranian and Saudi-backed war in Yemen to a timelier end.

Following initial protests of the perceived coup by President Saied, the moderate Islamist party, Ennahdha, decided to lay low Photo zerohedge

So, what will the Biden administration do to assert the U.S. perspective on democratic governance in Tunisia? The U.S. statement on the Tunisia crisis has been equivocal in trying to determine whether the events there equate to a coup. Again, according to the Post, “Experts fear a repeat of the Obama administration’s failure to arrest Sissi’s dismantling of Egyptian democracy, which was backed by Persian Gulf monarchies eager to snuff out political Islam.” If indeed this was a coup and there is no outcry from other democracies, then it might leave a space for anti-democratic governments such as Saudi and the United Arab Emirates to support Saied much as they did for al-Sissi.

On the other hand, American legislators have advanced the idea that the U.S. should put pressure on Saied to avoid yet another Middle East coup. In pursuit of this agenda, Rep. Omar Ilhan has put forth legislation to tie U.S. security assistance to safeguard human rights, humanitarian law, and democracy in such countries as Tunisia. In that case, because the U.S. has dedicated over $1 billion since the pro-democracy initiative began in Tunisia, such funding could be withheld if this new government does not live up to the intent of the aid. Even some Republicans have advised Biden to strengthen Tunisia’s sputtering democracy.

If what appears to be the current attack on Tunisia’s democracy succeeds, that would be a stab in the heart of what was optimistically labeled the Arab Spring – marking its virtual end. And that would be a profoundly sad moment.


“What we know so far about Tunisia’s political crisis,” Al-Jazeera, 7/27/2021

“Why Many Tunisians are celebrating President Saied’s Decision,” Middle East Institute, 7/26/2021

“Tunisia’s crisis tests Biden’s democracy agenda,” Washington Post, 7/28/2021

Tunisia’s political turmoil—is it just another twist and turn in the dawning of a Democracy or was it a fatal coup?

John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He did fieldwork in an east Libyan Saharan oasis and has taught at the University of Libya-Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo. John served with the United Nations as an advisor in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, the UN, and the World Bank in 65 countries.

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