Tunisian President Saied's Power Grab Puts Arab Spring's Success Story At Risk

Tunisian President Saied's Power Grab Puts Arab Spring's Success Story at Risk

Tunisian President Kais Saied's decision to dismiss the country's prime minister and dissolve parliament for 30 days has sparked a political crisis which, experts told Sputnik, could threaten any remaining hopes for democratization in the entire Middle East and North Africa following the 2011 Arab uprisings

MOSCOW (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 30th July, 2021) Tunisian President Kais Saied's decision to dismiss the country's prime minister and dissolve parliament for 30 days has sparked a political crisis which, experts told Sputnik, could threaten any remaining hopes for democratization in the entire middle East and North Africa following the 2011 Arab uprisings.

The president was swift to act on Sunday protests in several Tunisian cities against the ruling Islamist party, Ennahdha.

Protesters threw stones and called for the resignation of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, voicing their disapproval of Tunisia's sluggish economy and the government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic following a recent spike in cases. In the city of Tozeur, protesters even set fire to the local Ennahdha headquarters.

Saied, a former constitutional lawyer with no party affiliation, dismissed Mechichi and suspend Tunisia's often-dysfunctional parliament for a month the same day as protests erupted. He also annulled the legal immunity of lawmakers and officials, threatening to put members of parliament accused of corruption on trial.

The president said in a speech that he would take executive authority and appoint a new prime minister.

Ennahdha has slammed Saied's power grab, calling the move a "coup d'etat" that goes against the constitution and the 2011 revolution, when long-time President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted.

More demonstrations took place on Sunday evening, but this time people were celebrating Saied's decision to dismiss the prime minister and dissolve parliament.

It remains to be seen if Saied's move against Ennahdha, following months of rivalry, could put an end to Tunisia's 10-year democratization project, and in doing so, extinguish the last embers of the 2011 Arab uprisings.

TUNISIANS DISSATISFIED WITH CRIPPLING ECONOMIC, SOCIAL ISSUES

Tunisians' hopes for economic and social prosperity following the overthrow of President Ben Ali have yet to be realized.

The country's economy has struggled over the past decade, and a large number of young Tunisians have grown frustrated with the high rate of unemployment, estimated at 18% before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The summer months have also brought a surge in COVID-19 cases to the North African country, adding to the public grievances. Cases began to spike in late June, and the country's single-day record for new positive tests was set on July 7, when 9,823 cases were registered.

Tunisia's COVID-19 vaccination program has lagged behind other countries in the Middle East and North Africa region. Vaccination has mostly been limited to over-50s and frontline workers, and only around 8% of the country's population has received a full dosing regimen to date.

"Undoubtedly there has been growing dissatisfaction, one could even say 'despair,' among the masses with the seemingly unending series of economic, security and health crises that have plagued Tunisia since long before the Arab Spring experiences of 2011," Imad El-Anis, an associate professor in international relations at Nottingham Trent University, told Sputnik.

Earlier in July, Morocco announced that it would come to Tunisia's aid by sending intensive care beds and ventilators. Lise Storm, a senior lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, told Sputnik that many in Tunisia were embarrassed by having to ask their neighbor for assistance.

"The health care system is failing, they are particularly struggling with COVID-19 and although we are struggling to cope with COVID-19 globally, Tunisia is also comparing itself to other neighboring countries and, for instance, they had to get assistance from Morocco, which is an embarrassment," Storm said.

The expert said that many Tunisians were highly unsatisfied after photographs emerged of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi spending the weekend of July 17-18 at a luxury hotel in the seaside city of Hammamet, along with ministers who were meant to be in high-level meetings about the response to COVID-19.

"People were simply fed up and they thought that there was a two-tier system, one for the elite and one for everyone else, and I think it really aggravated people when it came out that Prime Minister Mechichi had been at a hotel, lounging by the pool with a bunch of other ministers who were supposed to be in meetings about the country's handling of the COVID-19 situation. I think that tipped people over the edge," Storm remarked.

Public dissatisfaction with the Ennahdha politicians has been building for a long time, given the ruling party's failure to rectify Tunisia's long-standing economic and social issues, Ameni Mehrez, a graduate student at the Central European University, told Sputnik.

"Ennahdha did not succeed, the Islamist party failed in making a functional, competent, and prosperous country, whether economically, financially, or politically," Mehrez said.

The Central European University researcher also cited the series of protests staged by Tunisians earlier this year, believed to be a response to accusations of police brutality, as well as the government's handling of the pandemic.

"People protested in January 2021 during the celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the revolution because they saw that the revolution's goals were not achieved. More than 80% of these protesters were asking for employment, for the right to work, for the right to have economic freedom, and all these are indicators that the president had to make moves to listen to the people's demands," Mehrez said.

Many members of the Tunisian public have long expressed their dissatisfaction with Ennahdha, as well as Tunisia's relatively dysfunctional political structure in general, and President Saied has also lambasted the government's inefficiency, Giulia Cimini, a research fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Bologna, told Sputnik.

"President Saied has long expressed displeasure with the current distribution of powers as set out in the 2014 constitution. The complex articulation of powers has often been considered the cause of paralysis and thus political inefficiency," Cimini remarked.

In the past, Tunisia's secular and Islamist political forces have shown an ability to maintain dialogue and reach a compromise, if necessary.

The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, which brought together unionists, human rights advocates, and lawyers, was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2015 for its role in helping to build the North African country's "pluralistic democracy" in the wake of the 2011 revolution.

These efforts helped Tunisia avoid the unrest seen in neighboring Libya following the overthrow of President Muammar Gaddafi, Stavros Kalenteridis, an international relations analyst, told Sputnik.

"The secular parties are on one side, and the Islamist sociopolitical movement is on the other. However, these movements are milder in Tunisia when compared to neighboring Islamic North African countries ...� in comparison with Libya or Egypt, Tunisia is a more secular and democratic state, and a good example of this is when President Ben Ali voluntarily left power in 2011, and as a result, Tunisia avoided the deep crises and clashes seen in neighboring countries," Kalenteridis said.

Following Saied's recent announcements, Ennahdha issued a statement urging all sides to come to the negotiating table to resolve Tunisia's political crisis.

Imad El-Anis of Nottingham Trent University expects the Islamist party to resist the president's political moves, albeit in a peaceful and considered manner.

"I think this is at least partly because they realize more instability will lead to even worse economic and health crises and that they would be blamed, and that would undermine their mass appeal," El-Anis remarked.

Saied has tended to utilize rhetoric from the populist playbook over recent years. This past weekend, he warned political rivals that the Tunisian military would respond if there was an armed challenge to his rule.

Fatima El Issawi, a reader in journalism and media studies at the University of Essex who leads the Arab Media and Transitions to Democracy research project, told Sputnik that this was a significant milestone in Tunisian politics as the country's military has typically remained neutral.

She also said that Tunisian society would likely not accept a "return to dictatorship," but added that large parts of the population may be willing to accept the consolidation of power in Saied's hands if it were to lead to improvements in their economic and social lives.

"I don't think that Tunisian civil society will be that soft in accepting a blunt return to dictatorship. The question is whether he [Saied] will install a kind of soft dictatorship, a gradual grab of power, which would be widely accepted by people living in the worst economic situation under the agreement that 'we know that this is not democracy but we accept it because we need it'," El Issawi said.

Giulia Cimini from the University of Bologna described Saied, who was elected in 2019, as a political "outsider" who may not be as willing as others in Tunisia to maintain dialogue and reach a compromise.

Cimini also said that Tunisia remained a divided country, adding that there are just as many people who are "skeptical and worried" about what they see as a power grab by Saied, as there are people celebrating the president's moves.

Despite this, a compromise may be found and members of the Tunisian parliament may be able to use the 30-day dissolution as an opportunity to reassess how they have governed the country up until this point, University of Exeter researcher Lise Storm said.

"I think, ironically, if parliament does return in 30 days, he [Saied] has given them a reason to mature, grow up, work together, because their power is at stake in some ways, as in, they have squabbled in the past and they have been inefficient, but that is always a part of the democratic process - reaching compromise and growing," Storm said.

Tunisia may have been one of the trailblazers of the 2011 Arab uprisings, which subsequently spread across the entire North Africa and Middle East region, but many experts believe that the recent unrest is unlikely to trigger similar protests in neighboring countries.

"I think that since the Arab uprisings, you have seen a more authoritarian turn across the region, but people haven't paid attention to it because everyone was so busy focusing on Tunisia as the shining star," Storm said.

Cimini said that Saied's decision to dismiss the country's prime minister and dissolve parliament was "the toughest test for democracy that the country has experienced since 2011."

Other experts noted that the situation could be a death knell for the Arab Spring's hopes for democratization in the region.

"It would be very, very serious, because, until now, Tunisia is the only successful case of democratic transition in the region ... if it will be another failed attempt at democratization, then the consequences for the whole region would be very serious," Fatima El Issawi of the University of Essex said.

Ameni Mehrez from the Central European University said that Ennahdha's failure to bring stability to Tunisian politics may reshape how countries in the region view Islamist parties, but added that she did not expect similar protests to break out in neighboring countries.

"Honestly, I don't expect a spread of protests in the broader region," Mehrez said.

If Saied is able to consolidate his position and remain in power, other leaders in the region might look to Tunisia as an example of how to successfully roll back the advancements made during the 2011 Arab uprisings, El-Anis explained.

"Instead of inspiring democratic change as in 2011, authoritarian regimes in the region (and in Israel too) will see how public sentiment for greater transparency, representation and accountability in government has waned as the masses have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic and the overall global economic decline we have seen, and think that they too can get away with further centralizing power and rolling back what little political reform has been seen since 2011," the Nottingham Trent University researcher said.

Saied may have taken inspiration for his latest moves from other countries in the region, Lise Storm said, citing Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi's rise to power in Egypt eight years ago, when President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown.

Further afield, the European Union has urged Saied to reinstate parliament and respect the constitution and rule of law.

Political instability in the Middle East and North Africa has been blamed for the rapid upsurge in migration from the region to Europe over the past decade, but Greek international relations analyst Stavros Kalenteridis said the latest unrest was unlikely to lead to a surge in migration.

"I believe that, on the one hand, Tunisia will not collapse like Libya and other countries did, creating all those massive flows to southern Europe. On the other hand, the border controls in southern EU countries are stricter due to the pandemic and greater policing. Therefore, I don't think there will be any increase in the migrant flows from Tunisia towards southern Europe over the coming days and perhaps months," Kalenteridis said.

After launching his bid to centralize power, Saied has spent much of the week dismissing dozens of high-ranking officials, including the chief army prosecutor and the CEO of the state broadcaster Wataniya.

There is still no word on the appointment of a successor to deposed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi.