A Coup in Tunisia?

On Sunday July 25, Tunisian president Kais Saied invoked emergency powers, fired the prime minister, and suspended parliament for 30 days. Saied declared that he would govern alongside a new prime minister. In a televised address, he said the measures would remain in place “until social peace returns to Tunisia and until we save the state.” Tunisia, long hailed as the only success story of the Arab Spring uprisings, now faces its most dangerous political crisis since the revolution a decade ago.

Q1: Was this a coup?

A1: It is too early to say. Saied says that he acted in accordance with Article 80 of the constitution, which grants the president the authority to take “any measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances” if the country is in a “state of imminent danger.” He argues that he acted to remove an ineffectual government that had lost popular support amid escalating crises. Polls show that Saied is the most popular politician in Tunisia, and many Tunisians took to the streets to celebrate his actions.

The speaker of parliament and head of the Islamist Ennahda party, Rached Ghannouchi, accused Saied of launching a coup. Ghannouchi stressed that, according to constitution, the president must consult with the head of the government and the speaker of parliament before initiating the emergency measures. Ghannouchi began a sit-in outside parliament with other members of parliament when the army blocked them from entering, and he called on his supporters to “protect the revolution and the will of the people” by taking to the streets.

The constitutional legitimacy of President Saied’s moves is likely to remain unclear. Tunisia has not yet established a constitutional court to adjudicate such issues, because political parties stalled in proposing candidates and then Saied refused to ratify a bill that parliament passed to establish the court. If President Saied is able to appoint a prime minister soon who is seen as independent, legitimate, and popular, accusations of a coup may dissipate.

U.S. law bars foreign assistance to any country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” For that reason, the U.S. government is unlikely to characterize this as a coup in the coming weeks.

Q2: Why did this happen now?

A2: A decade after its revolution, Tunisia has not yet cemented its transition to democracy. The economy was struggling before the Covid-19 pandemic, and perceptions of government incompetence have grown in the last year. The economic and health crises have motivated large protests in recent weeks, leading to violent clashes between demonstrators and the police. Popular discontent about the government’s failure to deal with the economic and health crises, improve standards of living, and combat endemic corruption have led to dwindling levels of public trust in the government and state institutions.

Tunisia has the highest per capita death rate from Covid-19 in Africa and one of the worst in the world. Vaccine hesitancy is high, and there have been repeated challenges to the stringent lockdown measures the government attempted to impose. The pandemic also decimated Tunisia’s tourism industry, exacerbating its deep economic crisis. Already high levels of unemployment have surged in the last year, particularly among youths.

Against the background of these crises, tensions between President Saied and Prime Minister Mechichi have steadily escalated in recent months. Ever since Mechichi fired several ministers who were close to Saied in a cabinet reshuffle in January 2021, Saied has refused to swear in their replacements. In April, Ennahda accused Saied of “authoritarian tendencies.” Last week, Saied ordered the army to assume responsibility for the Covid-19 response, after Mechichi sacked the health minister who was close to Saied. On Sunday, protestors called for the dissolution of parliament and Saied seized his opportunity.

Q3: Is this a repeat of Egypt?

A3: President Saied’s moves have drawn comparisons with the coup launched by General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi in Egypt to overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. Both leaders seized on popular discontent with Islamist parties’ record of governance and depicted themselves as secular alternatives. In doing so, both appealed to citizens who were dissatisfied with the results of their revolutions and sought a strongman savior. Saied and Sisi also enjoy military support and regional support, especially in Arab Gulf countries, which favor new, more secular governments.

But there are key differences between Tunisia and Egypt. Kais Saied was elected president in a landslide election in 2019, while Sisi was the appointed defense minister in Egypt when he seized power. Sisi was a general in the Egyptian army and enjoyed the strong support of the armed forces, but Saied is a civilian and lacks similar levels of support from the military. Tunisia also has powerful unions (especially the Tunisian General Labor Union or UGTT) and a much more developed civil society than Egypt had when Sisi seized power. Tunisian nongovernmental actors are likely to play an important mediating role and can shape Tunisia’s trajectory.

Q4: How are international actors likely to react?

A4: Most international actors have called for calm and urged political leaders to respect the constitution. But they have different interests at stake and would like to see Tunisia take different paths moving forward.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt are strong supporters of President Saied. They privately welcome moves to limit the influence of Islamists in Tunisia, including the Ennahda-led coalition. They likely favor the emergence of a strong, secular government in Tunisia, and none favor freewheeling politics in Tunisia where Islamist politicians play an active role.

Turkey and Qatar have expressed concern about Saied’s move to suspend parliament. Both have supported Islamist parties since the Arab Spring uprisings and have an interest in ensuring that Ennahda is not swept aside by Saied’s actions. However, both Qatar and Turkey are currently working to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, which may encourage them to limit their interventions in Tunisia to avoid creating new regional tensions that derail that process.

Western states have urged adherence to the Tunisian constitution and said they are closely monitoring developments. They have a keen interest in ensuring that post-revolutionary Tunisia is “a success,” economically and politically. The crises of the past year have undermined their faith in Mechichi’s government, and they want to see Tunisia take a more positive path. The European Union is keen to avoid a crisis that would lead to a major new wave of migration to its southern shores. These factors may explain why the Biden administration merely expressed “concern” about the weekend’s events, hoping that Saied can install a more effective government to address Tunisia’s many crises.

Will Todman is a fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Will Todman
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program