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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Explained: Why Tunisian president has suspended the PM, dissolved Parliament

The President stated that the move was taken amidst the economic trouble the country has been facing for years and the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Written by Sanskriti Falor , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 6, 2021 7:58:01 am
Tunisian President Kais Saied. (Tunisian President's Office/via Reuters)

After ten years of democracy and multiple leaders struggling to keep up with it, Tunisia faces its biggest turmoil as President Kais Saied suspended Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and Parliament over a week ago.

The President stated that the move was taken amidst the economic trouble the country has been facing for years and the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.

What is the current crisis in Tunisia about?

President Kais Saied invoked an emergency act, Article 80, from Tunisia’s constitution on Sunday (July 25), and removed the Prime Minister and suspended the Parliament the next day. Saied took charge of the executive powers in the country promising the appointment of a new leader chosen by him. Saied has relieved cabinet ministers of the country and appointed acting ministers.

Tunisia, which was supposed to be a hope of democracy in the Arab world, has seen leader after leader come with little to no relief to the citizens of the country.

Saied’s move came after huge demonstrations took place with people breaking the Covid-19 protocols and taking to the streets to protest against the government for its mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to The Guardian, 18,000 people have died in Tunisia out of the population of 12 million since the pandemic began along with deteriorating health services. While only 7 per cent of the population has been vaccinated, 90 per cent of the ICU beds are occupied, the government figures show.

Many protesters also demanded the dissolution of the parliament and re-election in protests organised by a group called the “25 July Movement”.

While the legality of the move has been questioned by many, including the biggest party in the country, the Ennahdha Party, which has claimed that Saied is attempting a coup, the president has over and again stated that he is a firm believer in democracy.

A few days after Saied took over as a leader in the country, he removed senior officials, judges, detained judges, jailed opposition lawmakers, charged opposition members and put judges under house arrest.

The Tunisian President has relieved cabinet ministers of their duties and other post holders including Tunisian Ambassador to Washington, Economy Minister, Communication and Technology Minister, Secretary of State to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Saied also appointed acting ministers of Economy, Finance and Investment Support; and Communication Technologies.

Al Jazeera reported that its offices were raided in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, and its reporters being expelled and equipment confiscated.

Saied also imposed a ban on the gathering of more than three people in public spaces and a nationwide curfew, one day after dissolving the parliament.

What is Article 80?

Article 80 of the constitution, which President Saeid used to remove the Prime Minister and suspend the parliament, gives the President the power to take any measures necessitated in “the event of imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions or the security or independence of the country, and hampering the normal functioning of the state”.

The constitution states that under the article, the President has to consult the Head of Government and the Speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People. He would also require to inform the President of the Constitutional Court.

Although it states that the measures taken should guarantee that a return to normalcy as soon as possible, it also adds, “In this situation, the President of the Republic cannot dissolve the Assembly of the Representatives of the People and a motion of censure against the government cannot be presented.”

Thirty days after the move, the Speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People or 30 people can reach the constitutional court to verify if the circumstances have changed or not. The court can take up to 15 days to reach a decision.

Who is Kais Saied?

Kais Saied, 63, was a constitutional professor by profession with no political background and some political experience. With no party, Saied won the 2019 elections with a landslide.

Since he had no political background, Tunisians saw Saied as a commoner fighting against the widespread corruption in the country like all Tunisians.

Saied presented himself as a leader who outrightly opposed LGBTO+ rights, was against corruption and was a social justice candidate, The Guardian reported. After gaining power he also expressed a need for a new constitution and more Presidential powers.

Parliament’s speaker Rachid Ghannouchi and the ousted Prime Minister Mechichi have shared a bitter relationship with Saied since he was elected president.

What is Tunisia’s democratic history?

In January 2011, Tunisia erupted into protests against the authoritarian government of Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali after a fruit seller, who was harassed by the police, killed himself.

The demonstrations were so widespread that Tunisian authorities were overwhelmed. This led to Ali fleeing to Saudi Arabia.

The unrest spread across the middle east — protests in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Iran and Algeria; civil wars in Libya and Syria and all middle eastern countries facing protests. This unrest was termed as “Arab Spring”. While Egypt returned to military rule, Syria’s civil war extended and other countries also broke into civil wars, Tunisia was a country where democracy came out as a solution to the protests.

In October 2011, Tunisia held its first democratic elections with a coalition of liberal and Islamic parties coming into power. The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a group of civil society organisations responsible for helping with democracy and bringing constitutional settlements, also won a Nobel Prize in 2015.

Beji Caid Essebi held office as interim Prime Minister for 10 months from February 2011 after which, Hamadi Jebali was the Prime Minister for 15 months; then Ali Laarayedh for 10 months;  Mehdi Jomaa for 13 months; Habib Essid for 18 months; Youssef Chahed for nearly four years; Elyes Fakhfakh for six months; and then Hichem Mechichi for 10 months.

Tunisia has had eight Prime Ministers since 2011. The governments have faced serious charges of corruption and economic degradation for years.

In January this year, Tunisia saw strong protests from citizens on bankruptcy and the economic turmoil, which has been facing the country for quite some time now and the pandemic only made it worse.

How has the world responded to Kais Saied’s move?

While many in the country, especially the youth, have appreciated the move, many have expressed their concern about Saied enforcing a coup in the country.

In a statement, Amnesty International said, “Tunisian President Kais Saied should publicly commit to respecting and protecting human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, after he suspended parliament and assumed some judicial powers.”

Amnesty International also expressed its concern over security forces raiding Al Jazeera’s offices and “the president’s threats during his speech of resorting to heavy-handed force against ‘those threatening state security’.”

According to the official website of the United States government, Secretary Antony J. Blinken spoke with Saied on call and “encouraged President Saied to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights that are the basis of governance in Tunisia” and “urged him to maintain open dialogue with all political actors and the Tunisian people”.

Ennahdha released a statement on Facebook, which said that the Assembly of People’s representatives holds “President Saied fully responsible for the legal, ethical and penal consequences of his call, and considers it null and void”.

The party also tweeted, “Assembly bureau calls for complete vigilance until the removal of the heinous coup and its destructive effects on #Tunisia’s security and stability and its great people’s aspirations to freedom and development.”

German Foreign ministry office tweeted, “It is important to quickly return to the constitutional order. Civil liberties must be preserved and Parliament’s ability to work must be restored.”

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What next?

While the President is known to have had public support in dissolving the parliament and suspending the cabinet, many have called upon him to restore democracy and democratically handle the situation in the country.

The national administrative body of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) released a statement on Tuesday that the union highly values the move by the president and considers it “a platform to support a real corrective path, a continuous accumulation of struggle, a response to popular demands, and the desire of the majority to save the country from the crises it has faced due to the choices of the successive ruling coalitions and the system of governance that bears the first and primary responsibility for impoverishing the people and sabotaging the people”.

The statement added that the union calls for “speedy end of the exceptional period” and “accelerating the appointment of the prime minister” who will work towards providing jobs, fighting poverty and marginalization, compensating for the loss of jobs, promoting health, and education.

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