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Tunisia - Crisis of 2021

The parliamentary election in October 2019 led to a divided parliament where no party garnered more than a quarter of the seats, which complicated efforts to form a stable government. As the largest parliamentary force, the self-styled Muslim Democrats had chosen Habib Jemli, an independent, for the post of prime minister. Jemli's proposed lineup, however, failed to secure Parliament's backing, leaving President Kais Saied in charge of naming the country's next head of government.

In January 2020 Elyes Fakhfakh, a former finance minister and the leader of a small social democratic party, became the new prime minister. The prospect of new elections was said to have deterred Ennahdha and other parties from rejecting Fakhfakh's government. Ennahdha had increasingly voiced its frustration with Fakhfakh, mainly over an alleged conflict of interest. Other factors, including the prime minister's disregard for Ennahdha ministers in the decision-making process, are believed to also have played a role.

By calling on Fakhfakh to step down on 15 July 2020, Saied - a former constitutional law professor who won by a landslide in last year's presidential runoff vote - effectively pre-empted Ennahdha from potentially having the upper hand in the next government's formation. Had Ennahdha succeeded in removing Fakhfakh via a no-confidence vote, it would have been tasked to form the country's next government.

The move triggered a political crisis for the country as it contends with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Tunisian President Kais Saied must now choose a new candidate for prime minister who will be in charge of forming a new government. Political divisions in parliament meant the task won't be an easy one — and a failure to form a government could lead to an early election. Tunisia's tourism-reliant economy shrank by nine percent in 2020, consumer prices have spiralled and one third of young people are unemployed.

Hichem Mechichi was named prime minister in August 2020 but was soon enmeshed in political disputes with Saied for more than a year. His fragile government lurched from crisis to crisis as it struggled to deal with the pandemic and the need for urgent reforms.

Tunisian protesters clashed with police 20 January 2021 for the fifth night in several cities, including the capital Tunis and Sidi Bouzid, cradle of the Arab Spring uprisings, as anger and frustration mount over economic hardship deepened by the pandemic. Protesters rallied in Tunis, reviving the chant that rang out a decade ago in a revolution that ushered in democracy: “The people want the fall of the regime.” Daytime protests demanding jobs, dignity and the release of detainees have been followed by nighttime violence, with COVID-19 restrictions compounding a wider economic malaise. Protests in Tunis and the coastal city of Sfax, organised via social media, came after nights of rioting with young people lobbing rocks at police in exchange for teargas, and more than 600 people arrested. The powerful labor union and other rights groups voiced support for peaceful protests against “policies of marginalisation, impoverishment and starvation”, accusing the state of squandering the revolution’s hopes.

The public health system was unable to cope with the combination of rapidly spreading COVID infections, a disorganized response by the authorities and a mostly unvaccinated population. Even some of those who are very ill prefer to stay home because at least then they can be with their loved ones when they die. Tunisia had initially coped relatively well with the pandemic in the earlier part of 2020, bringing case numbers to almost zero last summer. Local health authorities estimated that as much as a third of the 12 million-strong population has already caught the virus. At the same time, less than 8% of the population is fully vaccinated and the vaccination rollout is moving slowly and, in some cases, chaotically.

Rallies numbering several hundred gathered on 24 July 2021 in the cities of Gafsa, Sidi Bouzid, Monastir and Nabeul. Demonstrators in Sousse tried to storm the local headquarters of the biggest party in parliament, Ennahda. In Touzeur, protesters set fire to the Ennahda headquarters. In Tunis, police used pepper spray against protesters who threw stones and shouted slogans demanding that Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi quit and parliament be dissolved over their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Noureddine El-Beheiry, a leading figure within the Islamist Ennahda party, threatened supporters of Tunisian President Kais Saied. “Your premeditated, heinous crimes that have reached the point of burning and dragging, and attempts to kill, loot and steal, indicate your national and moral downfall, and your failure to implement your treacherous criminal scheme aimed at plunging the country into the quagmire of strife and coup at a time when our people are fighting a fierce war against the pandemic. You will pay the price for your crimes before the courts and by virtue of the law,” El-Beheiry was quoted as saying.

Tunisia's president said on 25 July 2021 he was dismissing the prime minister and freezing parliament in a major escalation of political feuding in the democratic country following protests in several cities. President Kais Saied said he would assume executive authority with the assistance of a new prime minister, plunging the young democracy into a constitutional crisis, following a day of angry street protests against the government's handling of the Covid pandemic. The move, which the biggest political party Ennahdha decried as a "coup", posed the biggest challenge yet to a 2014 constitution that split powers between president, prime minister and parliament. Saied's dramatic move – a decade on from Tunisia's 2011 revolution, often held up as the Arab Spring's sole success story – came even though the constitution enshrines a parliamentary democracy and largely limits presidential powers to security and diplomacy.

Tunisia lacks a supreme court that could have resolved such a conflict. Tunisia had no constitutional court to adjudicate competing claims. Tunisia’s new constitution in 2014 mandated the creation of a constitutional court in one year. Seven years after its creation in the 2014 constitution, Tunisia’s Constitutional Court remains vacant. Finally on 05 May 2021 the law establishing the voting mechanisms for the Constitutional Court was passed. But the parliament and the Supreme Judicial Council did not move to appoint the four members of the court allocated to each under the constitution.

Saied sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, whom Saied had appointed as a non-aligned prime minister in September 2020. Politicians had been unable to form lasting governments. Mechichi's government was the third Cabinet to come to power in less than a year. The president also announced the Tunisian parliament would be frozen for 30 days and the immunity of all deputies would be suspended. Saied told reporters the 30-day period can be extended if needed “until the situation settles down”. Saied claimed his move was permitted in case of "imminent danger" under Article 80 of the country's constitution. "The constitution does not allow for the dissolution of parliament, but it does allow for its work to be suspended," Saied said.

"Many people were deceived by hypocrisy, treachery and robbery of the rights of the people," Saied said in a statement carried on state media. "I warn any who think of resorting to weapons... and whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets," he added. Saied has been enmeshed in political disputes with Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi for over a year, as the country grappled with an economic crisis, a looming fiscal crunch and a flailing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The two main political camps had been locked in a standoff — in February 2021, Saied refused to approve new cabinet members. Tunisian Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi accused Saied of launching “a coup against the revolution and constitution”. It "is a coup d'état against the revolution and against the constitution," Ennahdha, which was the biggest party in Tunisia's ruling coalition, charged, warning that its members "will defend the revolution".

Hundreds of Tunisians honked and cheered in celebrations after mass protests led to President Kais Saied announcing the suspension of the country's parliament and the dismissal of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi. Videos showed hundreds of people taking to the streets on foot and in vehicles chanting “Tahya Tounes” or “Viva Tunisia.”

Street clashes erupted on 25 July 2021 outside Tunisia's army-barricaded parliament, a day after President Kais Saied ousted the prime minister and suspended the legislature. Supporters of Ghannouchi's moderate-Islamist Ennahda party and of President Saied hurled stones and bottles at each other outside the parliameny. The president also sacked the country's defence minister and announced earlier that he would also remove the justice minister. Soldiers blockaded the assembly in Tunis while, outside, the president's supporters hurled volleys and stones at backers of Ennahdha, whose leader staged a sit-in to protest being barred entry.

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Page last modified: 26-07-2021 19:16:39 ZULU