What you need to know about Tunisia

Written by: Raghib Mahtab

A country fueled by the Jasmine Revolution of 2011 to be turned into a democratic state for the betterment of the citizens is now under a supposed “coup” as President Kais Saied fired the country’s prime minister and suspended the Parliament. This was a flagrant violation of the country’s regulations since he must consult with the Parliament before firing the prime minister. 

All of the struggles of this country stem from a sluggish economy, blatant corruption, and growing disillusionment with other political parties. President Kais Saied did not run any major campaign, was not funded by any political party, neither ever ran for office nor had any political experience. Nevertheless, he won 72% of the available votes, primarily being supported by the youth because he vowed to fight corruption and grow social justice. The president was a popular choice because he embodied how political parties have failed the citizens and signified the new dawn. He could have been the change this country needed to ensure a booming economy and escape their crippling debt. Even though President Saied won the election by a landslide, the conditions were that he would share the power with a prime minister who would report his authority to the Parliament. Most of the disputes would be looked over by a constitutional court. The court is not in action because President Saied has refused to ratify the bill, which was passed in the Parliament to set up the constitutional court. These problems echo a broader political dispute over important ministerial issues that have not been settled amidst a pandemic.

To bring some of the incidents to context, we have to go back to 2010, when a young fruit-seller set himself on fire to fight corruption when police officers tried to confiscate his goods. After that incident, police officers went on to kill more than hundreds of people, and then-president Ben Ali did little to nothing to help the situation improve. From January to October 2011, an interim government moved towards bringing reforms and dismantling Ben Ali’s political party. Protests continued with full steam, and on October 23rd of 2011, Ennahda – a political party – won the national elections and formed a coalition government with two secular parties. Tunisia’s very young democracy has had to face repeated challenges from secular and Islamic parties. In 2012, protests were going on to ensure a more conservative Islamic party came into power. The elected assembly worked on a new constitution that gave birth to debates between secular and Islamic parties on the role of Islam in politics. Things went south in 2013 when two prominent secular politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahim, were assassinated. Even though Salafist militants were arrested, Ennahda was blamed by many protestors. Ennahda handed over power to an interim government, who were assigned to arrange new elections. In 2014, secular parties edged out over Islamists at the poll.

Nidaa Tounes won 85 seats compared to Ennahda, who won 69 seats. Former Prime Minister Cais Essebsi was elected president, but the turnout was abysmal amongst the youth. Thousands of Tunisians ended up being terrorist militants for ISIS. Previously, Tunisian militants fought in several international conflicts, but in fewer numbers post the 2011 period. Despite political gains, the economy continues to be a burden for Tunisians, and the security situation has worsened as a branch of ISIS has developed. Islamist militants killed 24 people in 2015 when they attacked the National Bardo Museum, opened fire on a beach resort in Sousse that killed 39 foreigners, and ambushed a bus carrying the Presidential Guard. The government retaliated by declaring a state of emergency and launching a security operation to restore public safety.

Followed by that, 2016 was also marked by political instability. The ruling secular party in Parliament, Nidaa Tounes, has fragmented. Rachid Ghannouchi, the founder of Ennahda, stated that the Islamist party was forsaking political Islam. During a no-confidence vote in July, Parliament removed Prime Minister Habib Essid. Youssef Chahed, a member of the Nidaa Tounes, became Prime Minister a month later. The most significant challenge in 2017 was Tunisia’s shaky economy. The national unity government took some steps to boost the economy, but it struggled to enact critical reforms. Tunisians faced high unemployment, rising prices, and tax rises. Protests about price hikes erupted in more than a dozen places in January 2018. Following the assassination of a prominent al-Qaida leader in the Islamic Maghreb, security officials speculated that the group was regrouping in Tunisia.

Ennahda defeated its opponents but failed to secure an absolute majority in several municipalities, including Tunis. Ennahda won 21 of 60 seats in Tunis municipality when turnout was 26 percent.

Tunisia’s improvement is favorable among the region’s 22 members. It has a somewhat strong civil society. Institutions have experienced significant modifications. Furthermore, the international world has been overwhelmingly supportive of the small North African country. Although Tunisia’s executive and legislative institutions are now democratically elected, their activities are frequently reminiscent of the ancien régime. Public services are either slow or insufficient. Tunisia’s transition still had a long way to go in either entrenching democracy or combating radical beliefs in early 2019.

In this climate, Saied’s power grab represents for some a clean break from a stymied transition, offering hope that a stronger presidency free of what President Saied recently referred to as the ‘locks’ in the 2014 constitution might allow him to restore the economy and root out corruption in the political class. The parliamentary speaker, Ghannouchi, denounced Saied’s actions as a “coup against the revolution and the constitution.” Among those who have decried Saied’s acts as unlawful are the Parliament’s four major parties, including the Islamist parties Ennahda and the Karama Coalition and the secular parties Qalb Tounes and the Democratic Current. President Saied, a former constitutional law professor, maintains he acted in compliance with Article 80 of Tunisia’s constitution, which allows the president to use extraordinary powers for 30 days ‘in the case of imminent danger to the state or its operation. However, it does not take much to notice that  Article 80 also requires the prime minister and parliamentary speaker to be consulted. The Parliament has to be in “continuous session over such a period,” rather than frozen. Unfortunately, the only authority that could evaluate whether Article 80 was implemented correctly— and, for that matter, the only body that could abolish Saied’s exceptional powers under Article 80— is the constitutional court, which still does not exist. Even though the 2014 constitution mandated the court’s establishment, Tunisia’s broken political environment has precluded parties from agreeing on the court’s membership. 

Although most political parties opposed Saied’s actions, the absence of resistance (or even apparent backing) from the military, police, and UGTT suggests that Saied will not back down anytime soon. Moving forward, the issue is likely to worsen, with both sides encouraging their supporters to take to the streets. Who can mobilize the most people to “vote with their feet” will define the outcome of the crisis? At this point, the balance of power appears to be in Saied’s favor. Although he no longer has the 87 percent popularity rating in 2019 (polls currently put him closer to 40 percent), he is still Tunisia’s most famous figure. Beyond his core supporters, Tunisians favoring a more decisive president and those opposed to political parties in general, and Ennahda in particular, may support his decrees. Most political parties have spoken out against the coup and will likely organize in large numbers as well. However, the dueling protests that have developed today exacerbate the situation, raising the prospect of violence between the two groups.

To avoid the possibility of bloodshed, Saied and the political parties must de-escalate and negotiate a way out of the problem. Another key element to monitor is the international community’s reaction. Except for Turkey, which strongly condemned Saied’s “suspension of the democratic process,” most countries and bodies that weighed in (Germany, the European Union, the United Nations, and the United States) took a “wait and see” stance, expressing concern and urging restraint and dialogue. 

However, suppose the world’s democracies do not strongly condemn the coup attempt. In that case, counterrevolutionary powers such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will have an opportunity to influence the issue in support of Saied, as they did for Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. With Tunisia’s economy in shambles, international assistance — and support — may likely define the outcome of this crisis – for the best or worst.


  • Kirby, J. (2021, July 28). What is happening in Tunisia? Vox. https://www.vox.com/22594759/tunisia-coup-president-arab-spring
  • ​​Grewal, S. (2021, July 26). Kais Saied’s power grab in Tunisia. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/07/26/kais-saieds-power-grab-in-tunisia/
  • Allahoum, R. (2019, October 23). Kais Saied: Who is Tunisia’s new president? Courts News | Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/23/kais-saied-who-is-tunisias-new-president
  • ​​Beaumont, P. (2021, July 29). What is going on in Tunisia? All you need to know. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/28/what-is-going-on-in-tunisia-all-you-need-to-know
  • United States Institute of Peace. (n.d.). Tunisia Timeline: Since the Jasmine Revolution. Retrieved August 12, 2021, from https://www.usip.org/tunisia-timeline-jasmine-revolution

Featured Image Courtesy: EPA/Mohamed Messara

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