Suspension of Democracy in Tunisia: Will Saied Become Next Ben Ali?

Written by The Frontier Post

Syed Haris Shah

President Kais Saied sacked Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspended state’s legislative body with the help of Army, the following action by Saied gives an indication of threat to civil rights of Tunisians and young democratic system that was established after the only success story of Arab Spring in 2011.

Tunisia earned the distinction of being only state in Middle East and North Africa to become politically stable with a functioning transitional democracy. The start of Arab Spring in 2011 that caused transnational crises and rise of people against authoritarian governments in different states which caused chaos like start of two civil wars in Middle East and strengthening of more aggressive policies by some of very influential and authoritarian Arab states. Tunisia was the only state where Arab Spring started and became a success for the renaissance of politics due to which its authoritative head of state, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was removed from power after its 23 years long rule. His government was having a record of gross human rights violations and was considered among the list of dictatorial regimes inside Middle East and North Africa.

Democracy was entrenched in Tunisia and Islamist and Secular Parties worked together after constituent assembly elections that were held in 2011. Islamist leadership in which most of the leaders of Ennahda Party were in favor of establishment of a complete parliamentary form of system with more powers entitled to prime minister and state’s legislature while the Secularists favored for a semi-presidential system. The transitional phase led to formation of Constitution in 2014 which paved way for two successful elections in same year of 2014 as well as in 2019. Nevertheless, the state became a semi-presidential unitary republic (due to which the possibility was there for dismantling of democracy in this North African republic).

The recent crisis being faced by young democracy in Tunisia due to several factors. These reasons are the economic turmoil due to the recent rise of Covid-19 epidemic’s cases, the increasing public health issues, downfall of revenue from tourism due to Corona Virus and the current President of Tunisia, Kais Saied’s political differences with majority Ennahda Party and his goal of bringing an elimination to moral and financial corruption by bringing legislative and constitutional reforms (as he stated in past that there are some reasonable flaws in constitution that was designed in 2014).

Removed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi faced backlash for his administration being not able to curb economic crises and public health issues like indiscriminate increase in cases of Covid-19. There were series of protests which led President Saied to use the justification of Article 80 in Tunisian constitution by engaging himself to seize power, dismiss Prime Minister and suspend Parliament and Minister of Defence Ibrahim Bartaji as well as Minister of Justice Hasna Ben Slimane for 30 days. Although, the Article 80 of Tunisian Constitution states that: “The President of the Republic, in the event of an imminent danger threatening the homeland’s integrity or the country’s security and its independence, in a way that results in the impossibility of carrying on with the normal functioning of state institutions, may take the measures necessitated by that exceptional situation, after consulting the Prime Minister and Speaker of the Assembly of the People’s Representatives [Parliament] and informing the President of the Constitutional Court, and then announce the measures in a statement he addresses to the people.”

Haphazardly, the contradiction which floats up here is that President Saied did not confabulate the state’s prime minister nor he took speaker of the assembly into confidence while imposing Article 80 in Tunisia. Tunisian Speaker of the Assembly Rached El-Ghannouchi, who is also one of the main leaders and co-founder of Ennahda Party called these actions as a strike or an attack on Tunisian democracy while his party called for a dialogue for bringing the solution to the surging crisis. The opposition parties had called for the formation of a government of national coalition to stop crisis from further escalation.

The following actions included military support in which all services of Armed Forces were working as per orders of President Saied while ousting the elected Prime Minister. Many critiques and opposition politicians had called these actions as a conducted coup against democratic system in Tunisia while President Saied denies that he has just imposed emergency for state’s interest instead of staging a coup. Saied increased his control over state affairs as he imposed curfew in Tunisia from 7 pm to 6 am for the entire phase of emergency inside Tunisia.

He also ordered the taking of strict measures and crack downs if anyone mobilized against the state authorities or the president which gives an initial sign of President Saied turning towards being an authoritative potentate. Sayyida Ounissi of Ennahda Party, who also played a pivotal position in Arab Spring remarked about the fears that move of President Saied as a clear threat to democracy as well as a diverging point for all the struggle that was brought against dictatorial rule of Ben Ali and the success of Arab Spring in 2011 towards political elimination.

Popular reactions were also divided, as there were street agitations that appreciated the step of President Saied by overthrowing authority of ex-PM Mechichi, on other side there was a protest for demand of stopping this alleged coup d’état conducted under Article 80 of Tunisian Constitution. The people of Tunisia gave different reactions as some of Tunisian citizens acuminated that the corrupt politicians should be ousted when the revolution was intensified in 2011 while some of citizens compared President Saied for his maneuvers with former dictator of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ounissi added that its not a way to resolve political problems in a democracy by suspending the major institutions of state and stated that; “I don’t think closing these institutions is a solution. We have been elected, as has Saied.”

Anyhow, former Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi has mentioned that he will not challenge the action of President Saied. Mechichi stated that: “I will hand over the responsibility to the person who will be entrusted by the President of the Republic to head the government within the year of deliberation that our country has been following since the revolution and in respect of the laws that befit the state, wishing all the success to the new government team.” Purportedly, it has been mentioned by a source of Independent that former PM Mechichi was allegedly tortured on orders of President Saied because the following report subjected that primarily he was not inclined to accept the decision of removal made by Saied.

It is also tallied that Hichem Mechichi had even received injuries due to beatings on orders of President Saied. One focal aspect identifies the point that democracy in Tunisia is considerably in danger because of President Saied’s style of rule after the imposition of emergency had taken the initial steps of befitting as an authoritarian leader. As no doubt, he has considerable support of people in Tunisia but just like many other dictatorial leaders; similarities can be seen in past because most of North African leaders eventually seize power when they get a confidence of having people’s backing. Secondly, as there is also no international pressure on President Saied because influential European states and Middle Eastern players had only acknowledged about sustenance of stability and security in Tunisia as President Saied has also support of Tunisian Armed Forces. Curbing of political rights by imposing a curfew, suspending the parliament from functioning without Speaker of Assembly and Prime Minister’s consultation, giving threats of cracking down on protests against President’s move and alleged forcing of Mechichi to accept the decision of Saied through beating and torture one clear indication and that is leading towards the failure of Arab Spring’s efforts in only success story’s country, Tunisia.

Apparently, it is also noted that President Saied presented himself as a last beacon of hope for Tunisia as he already justified his actions as constitutional and also claims that the dismissal of parliament is also important for combatting corruption and countering public health issues.

There will be no backlash in the country and his authoritative actions will also be justified as critical for state just like he called the alleged coup as an act done under Constitution. Now, it is up to him that whether he will be able to bring affective reforms in Tunisia and bring the country towards the track for which it struggled against Ben Ali in 2011 or either Kais Saied will turn into the next Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who had a record of curbing civil rights, human rights violations and making of illegitimate wealth from massive corruption that was done in his 23 years long dark rule inside Tunisia.

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