The political crisis in Tunisia, explained by an expert

Home / The political crisis in Tunisia, explained by an expert

Tunisia’s president has pushed the country’s fledgling democracy into crisis.

Over the weekend, President Kais Saied fired the country’s prime minister and suspended Parliament in what his political opponents have called a coup. But he says the move was justified after thousands of Tunisians took to the streets in recent days to protest the government’s handling of the pandemic, which has deepened the country’s economic woes.

Supporters of the president cheered his ousting of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and other government ministers, but those celebrations turned to clashes when those who opposed Saied’s moves also took to the streets to protest.

“One of the big question marks is: Is this a coup?” said Sarah Yerkes, a former State Department and Pentagon official and now a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program who focuses on Tunisia. That’s a question a lot of people are asking right now, and it doesn’t actually have a straightforward answer, in part because democracy in Tunisia is still very new.

In 2010, a Tunisian fruit seller set himself on fire to protest corruption after police officers tried to confiscate his goods. That set off a broader revolution in Tunisia against the authoritarian regime of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In 2011, those protests spread across the Arab world to Egypt, Libya, Syria, and beyond.

The uprisings of the Arab Spring, however, largely failed to bring democracy to those countries as powerful, entrenched regimes launched counterrevolutions and cracked down hard on their citizens — in some cases resulting in outright civil war.

Not so in Tunisia, though, where protests toppled the regime, and civil society helped usher in a democratic transition. That still-fresh democracy is now being tested by Saied’s recent moves — though the toll of the pandemic and increasing polarization had been straining the institutions up until the president’s orders this weekend.

Which is why the verdict is still out on whether Tunisia’s political crisis will turn into a full-blown coup. I spoke to Yerkes to understand why, and what this might mean for Tunisia’s Arab Spring legacy. “I don’t think,” she said, “we should write off the democratic transition yet.”

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Jen Kirby

So my understanding is that President Kais Saied fired the prime minister and suspended Parliament over the weekend. So what is happening in Tunisia right now?

Sarah Yerkes

The president has, I would say, extralegally, or outside of normal legal channels, fired the prime minister. He is allowed to do that, although he has to consult with Parliament — but he also suspended Parliament. And so that is certainly not something he’s allowed to do.

He has fired other ministers, too. So he declared himself kind of the chief executive. He normally functions as the head of state, and then the prime minister is the head of government. The president, in normal times, just has control over foreign affairs, defense, and national security. The prime minister oversees everything else. But now the president is overseeing everything.

Some of the other ministries are still functioning, some of the more technocratic ministries. But for the most part, the country is now in this suspended animation, where the president is the only real figure operating with any sort of power.

Jen Kirby

And so what are the fired prime minister and suspended Parliament doing? Is Parliament still trying to operate?

Sarah Yerkes

The prime minister hasn’t really been too active, but the Parliament is certainly not taking this sitting down.

When the president made the declaration, he said he was following Tunisia’s Constitution. There is this article, Article 80, that allows the president to take on emergency powers. But I’ve been following various Tunisian legal experts on social media and through other conversations, and it seems that Article 80 does not really apply to how the president carried things out.

So one of the big question marks is: Is this a coup? Especially sitting in Washington, a coup has really clear legal implications for the ability of the United States to provide assistance to Tunisia, and has implications for other countries, as well.

But back to the Parliament. The main party there that Saied is unhappy with is the Ennahda Party, the Islamist party, which has a plurality of seats in Parliament. They only have about 25 percent of the seats, though. It’s a very fractured parliament.

But Saied’s really been in opposition to them from the get-go. And so a lot of people are also framing this as kind of an anti-Islamist move. That’s where there are a lot of comparisons to Egypt, where the current leader ousted the Muslim Brotherhood in a coup. It’s not an entirely accurate parallel, but there is certainly an element of that.

But Ennahda is not taking this sitting down; they are issuing statements, they are trying to rally international attention to say this has been done illegally, this is a coup, and that people need to step in and remove [the president from] power, or at least put him back in his place as president and let the other institutions function as they’re supposed to be functioning.

There’s also been a ton of protests throughout the country. We’ve seen the supporters of the president take to the streets, cheering and singing the national anthem, excited that he’s ousted the prime minister, who a lot of people were very unhappy with over his handling of the pandemic and his inefficiency. But then you’ve also seen supporters of Ennahda and others who are opposed to the president take to the streets as well. You’re seeing these violent clashes of the two sides who are trying to protest what’s going on.

Jen Kirby

Is the president affiliated with a particular political party?

Sarah Yerkes

He is independent. He does not have a political party that he’s affiliated with, and that was a part of his appeal when he won election in October 2019. He really didn’t campaign a lot.

He was part of this populist wave that took over the whole world. And Tunisia got to populism a little later than some other countries. But Saied came in as an outsider, and that’s a lot of his appeal to people.

Jen Kirby

And so is the president right-wing or left-wing, or do those terms not really apply here?

Sarah Yerkes

It’s hard to separate into right and left. The Islamist/non-Islamist divide is certainly one of the pieces that’s at play. The president, he’s not secular by any means. He’s a religious man. He’s very conservative. But he’s not a fan of the Islamist party.

The other important political player right now is a party that’s hard to classify on a US or Western spectrum, but they are promoting the return to authoritarianism, the return to the [Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali regime. It’s the Free Destourian Party — destour means “constitution” in Arabic — led by Abir Moussi, who’s a really outspoken member of Parliament — other people have tried to beat her up in Parliament. She’s the third wing of the different factions that are operating right now.

Jen Kirby

Interesting. So for that third faction, are they supportive of what the president has done?

Sarah Yerkes

They are definitely not a fan of him. But they’re also being interestingly silent. They’re very anti-Islamist; they’re probably the most anti-Islamist faction that’s out there. So you would expect them to be really happy about the fact that the president kicked the Islamists to the curb. But I think they’re trying to wait to see what happens.

Jen Kirby

Why is there this tension between the Islamist parties and the other factions?

Sarah Yerkes

It goes really to the debate over the role of religion and change in Tunisian society. Tunisia, before the revolution, really prided itself on being one of the more secular states in the region, and valuing religious freedom, and being this kind of safe space for people who didn’t really want to practice Islam.

If you ask any Tunisian, they’ll say they’re Muslim; so it’s not that they’re not Muslim, it’s more like the American conception that people are Christian, but they don’t necessarily go to church every week.

So it goes to this history of Tunisia as a more secular state, where religion and politics were very much separated. The Islamist party had been thrown in jail and banned and Islamists were tortured under Ben Ali. But after the revolution, when they were welcomed back, that led to a lot of tension with people who really wanted Tunisia to continue to be a country that was more secular in nature and not become an Islamist country.

Jen Kirby

Is there a reason the tension seems to be heightening now, or has it constantly been brewing below the surface?

Sarah Yerkes

It’s always been there. The difference is the polarization — before, there was kind of a consensus government and all the parties put aside their differences. And now, people are literally beating each other up in the Parliament. And you also have the more extreme parties, including the one I mentioned before, Abir Moussa’s party, but also you have the Al-Karama coalition, which is a much more conservative Islamist party that is trying to fill in the gap; they don’t think Ennahda is religious enough or promoting religion in the state enough, so you have them entering the fray.

Before, you’ve had more centrist parties. Now, with this more fractured government, you have more of the extremists in power.

Jen Kirby

That’s helpful background. But back to this overarching question that you brought up: Is this a coup? What were the justifications that the Tunisian president used to take these actions?

Sarah Yerkes

The most direct precipitating event was a series of protests over the weekend that were over the government’s response to the pandemic. Tunisia is currently facing its worst wave of the pandemic. They’re having their highest number of cases that they had the entire pandemic right now.

So people are, understandably, incredibly frustrated, and are in the streets protesting. The president, for several months, has been foreshadowing this sort of power grab. There was a leaked memo that may have been real, or might have not been real, a couple of months ago that outlined basically exactly what’s happened, how the president would throw away the Constitution and take power and dissolve Parliament and all that.

So it’s not a surprise that he’s doing this. But he probably saw these protests and thought, “This is a way I can get goodwill — by coming in right now and saying, ‘Okay, we have to stop this.’ People are so angry, I’m going to take over.”

A few days ago, the president decided to have the military take over the operation of dealing with the pandemic. So he’d already been playing into this. And then I think, again, saw this opportunity of, “Well, people are really angry at the government, I’m going to come in and be the savior now and get rid of them and step in and take charge.”

Jen Kirby

And so it sounds like his supporters are happy with this move? But is there a divide between them and people who were understandably frustrated with the government but see this potential power grab as a step too far?

Sarah Yerkes

There was a lot of euphoria, frankly, over him acting and doing something. There’s really been this stalemate, where there’s been no action and no activity. So I think the supporters are a combination of people who like this idea of a strongman leader, or just someone taking charge, but also people who are glad to see Prime Minister Mechichi kicked out of government. And there is really a big opposition camp as well, who’s very unhappy with what the president is doing.

Jen Kirby

And so what about the civil society, particularly some of these groups that helped bring about democracy in Tunisia? Where do they stand on this situation?

Sarah Yerkes

They are also divided. I would say a lot of the democracy activists are really, really worried — and rightfully so. A lot of people have been really concerned about the president for some time. He is someone that they see as anti-democratic and who really just doesn’t abide by democratic norms and procedures.

There’s a lot of nuance, but if I can generally categorize the view of civil society, I would say it’s that they are really concerned with what they see as these really anti-democratic moves.

Jen Kirby

So it seems like there are two threads going on here. One is that many people were really unhappy with the inaction of the government, especially around Covid-19. And the Tunisian president took action. But I guess when it comes to whether this was a coup or not, that really depends on what happens next.

Sarah Yerkes

I think that’s true. If we give the president the benefit the doubt — if he were to come in and put in a new prime minister, someone who’s independent, who’s respected by all sides, and either say Parliament’s reinstated or call for elections in a couple of weeks, that would point to this scenario that maybe he really was just trying to reset things.

I don’t think that’s likely to happen, because he has been pretty vocal about his disdain for Parliament as an institution — not just this particular Parliament — even when he was campaigning. He had weird ideas of wanting to have direct democracy instead of representative democracy, which meant the Parliament wouldn’t exist.

So again, I don’t know. I hate to speculate too much. But we need to see how things unfold over the next few days. It will be really crucial to see which way things move.

Jen Kirby

What are you looking for as something that might give you a clue as to how this might play out?

Sarah Yerkes

A couple of things. One is just what the president does — what he does and what he says. If he slow-rolls this, then I’d be quite concerned.

The other piece of it is the role of the security services. Tunisia, not directly related to this, has seen a rise in police brutality over the past six months or so. And that, I think, is something to really pay attention to — the prime minister’s out, President Saied is the only guy in charge, and it’s up to him to rein in the police and the security forces. Is he going to try to use them to be his personal, self-serving security forces? Or is he going to let them do their job? Is he going to try to get the military into the streets? Is he going to try to use the military as national symbols as we see authoritarians do?

You know, what are we talking about here? Is he trying to really, fully consolidate all the power into his own hands? Or is he taking a couple of emergency measures that he’ll then release?

One of the things that’s been a little frightening is we saw that they shuttered the Al Jazeera offices in the capital, Tunis. Obviously they’re closer to Ennahda, to the Islamists, but shuttering a media organization is right out of the authoritarian playbook.

Jen Kirby

Of course, the background for all this is that Arab Spring began in Tunisia in 2011, and it was the one place that successfully transitioned to democracy after uprisings and protests. How does the relative newness of the government factor into what we’re seeing right now?

Sarah Yerkes

I think that’s a big factor; and part is the newness of the Constitution, which is even younger — it was only officially written in 2014.

A lot of things are being tested, directly related to the Constitution. And the Constitutional Court, which is Tunisia’s Supreme Court equivalent, doesn’t exist yet. They are the ones who right now would be coming out to say “this is a coup” or “it’s not a coup” or “he’s operating extralegally” or “he’s not.”

The president himself is to blame for it not being in existence. Parliament chose the final members — it had been a years-long process — but Saied recently refused to sign off on the members that Parliament had chosen.

I think that’s a lot of foreshadowing, too — okay, he doesn’t want there to be a Constitutional Court because he’s going to do stuff that’s extraconstitutional. I do think a lot of it is related to just how young the democracy is.

Jen Kirby

You mentioned that there is a strain within Tunisia that wants to see the return of authoritarianism. Is this sense of disillusionment with the democratic transition something that’s broadly felt in Tunisia?

Sarah Yerkes

There’s been some nostalgia for the old regime that’s been there the whole time, but that’s really resurfaced. This woman I mentioned before — Abir Moussi, who wants to return to the Ben Ali era — she’s really fed on that and tried to nurture that.

In part, the pandemic really decimated the economy. So a lot of people are much worse off than they were 10 years ago. And so what has democracy brought you? You can criticize the government, yes, but you can’t feed yourself — is that worth it? Do you want that trade-off? And for a lot of people, the answer is, “No, I’d much rather prefer to eat and be silent than vice versa.”

Obviously, it’s a false equivalency. Had the pandemic not occurred, the economy was starting to improve, and there were a lot of positive signs related to the [democratic] transition. But I do think people are willing to put up with more repression because the economy is so bad, and because the situation with the pandemic is so bad that [some political actors are] trying to take advantage of some of that nostalgia.

Jen Kirby

That’s true for a lot of places, of course. And it’s probably a bit too early to say, but I’m curious what you think all of this means for Tunisia’s Arab Spring legacy?

Sarah Yerkes

I still think we should consider it a major success. I don’t think we should write off the democratic transition yet. I do think that these actions in the past few days have been — and will continue to be — a major threat to the democratic transition.

But I still think the fact that you have protesters, you have people questioning what’s going on, you have members of Parliament trying to hold steady, speaks to the strength of Tunisia’s democracy. And I hope that the democracy prevails. I think it’s possible that the Tunisian people are strong, civil society is strong, and I really, really hope that this does not break down or become the end of the democratic transition.

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