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Democracy Is Teetering In Tunisia, The Country Where The Arab Spring Began

Tunisia's President Kais Saied leads a security meeting with members of the army and police forces in Tunis, Tunisia, on Sunday. Troops surrounded the parliament building and blocked its speaker Rached Ghannouchi from entering Monday after the president suspended the legislature and fired the prime minister following nationwide protests.
Slim Abid
Tunisia's President Kais Saied leads a security meeting with members of the army and police forces in Tunis, Tunisia, on Sunday. Troops surrounded the parliament building and blocked its speaker Rached Ghannouchi from entering Monday after the president suspended the legislature and fired the prime minister following nationwide protests.

A power struggle in Tunisia threatens the fragile democracy that was one of the few bright spots of the 2011 Arab Spring, the movement to oust dictators across the Middle East.

Over the weekend, President Kais Saied plunged the country into crisis after shutting down parliament for a period of 30 days and firing the prime minister as well as the country's defense and justice ministers. He was helped by the military, who have surrounded parliament. A night time curfew has been imposed and gatherings of more than three people are forbidden.

Saied, an independent who was elected in 2019, justified the moves citing the constitution, saying they were necessary after mass protests on Sunday turned violent. Demonstrators across the country mobilized over the weekend demanding the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet over its alleged mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and the country's near-economic collapse.

Critics have labelled it a coup. They say the president, who now controls the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government, is reestablishing the same type of authoritarian government the revolution ousted a decade ago.

Saied's supporter, are celebrating Sunday's dramatic turn and the removal of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi. They say it feels like fresh hope after years of chaos and disappointment. Some are standing alongside soldiers who've surrounded parliament, blocking legislators from entering.

On Monday, clashes between Saied and Mechichi supporters continued in the capital Tunis, even as the sacked Prime Minister said he would concede his powers to Saied's next appointee.

The country has been in turmoil for a decade

Discontent has been brewing in Tunisia since the revolution in 2011 and the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the country's economy and health care system toward the brink of collapse.

While the Arab Spring movement ushered in democracy and a long-awaited freedom of expression, Tunisians say the string of governments since— there have been nine — have failed to deliver tangible fixes for rampant unemployment, poverty, inflation, and poor social services, says Monica Marks, Assistant Professor of Arab Crossroads Studies at New York University in Abu Dhabi.

Marks told NPR that the economic crisis and pandemic-related lockdowns have made conditions "more difficult than ever," and another recent spike has only increased the public's frustration.

"This year has probably been the hardest year yet since the revolution, economically speaking," Marks said, adding that as a result, Tunisians are desperate for radical change. "They want radical shock therapy for Tunisian democracy because they see their system as locked in a deep political paralysis and they're desperate for any kind of solution."

But she warns Saied's supporters that in such a fragile and nascent democracy, extreme changes could have potentially grievous consequences.

"The so-called solution that President Kais Saied is posing right now threatens to kill the patient; to completely kill, in other words, democracy itself."

Saied vs. Ennahda

Saied appointed Mechichi to the PM post following his election in 2019, but the two have been caught in a power struggle ever since. (Mechichi's predecessor was forced out after only months on the job over a corruption scandal.)

The populist president who swept into office on promises of removing the scourge of political corruption is also at odds with leaders of Ennahda. That's the moderate Islamist party that is the largest group in parliament and one many blame for the nation's current woes.

On Monday, Rached Ghannouchi, who leads Ennahda and is the speaker of parliament, tried to enter the building but was blocked by troops.

Standing in front of the barricade the 80-year-old denounced Saied's unilateral take-over and repeated a call for Ennahda loyalists to stand up against Saied supporters.

"I am against gathering all powers in the hands of one person," he said outside the parliament building.

Ghannouchi disputes Saied's argument that his actions are sanctioned by the constitution and says Ennahda, not the president, has the right to nominate Mechichi's replacement.

The response from international leaders has been mixed

In the Middle East, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, which has Islamist roots, condemned Saied's actions against the Islamist Enahhda and other parties. Qatar, which has supported Sunni Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, has called on all sides to avoid escalation.

Western governments are being cautious as they take a wait and see approach. At the moment, they are avoiding describing Saied's actions as a coup. But many are signalling concern that Saied's actions are putting Tunisia's democracy at risk.

The European Union is urging politicians in Tunisia to respect the country's constitution. In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged calm and for the country to adhere to democratic principles.

With additional reporting by NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.

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