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Tunisia’s democracy is in crisis. What’s going on?

The North African country faced upheaval this weekend

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Tunisia President Kais Saied with members of the army and police forces in Tunis, Tunisia.

Tunisia President Kais Saied, center, leads a security meeting with members of the army and police forces in Tunis, Tunisia, Sunday, July 25, 2021.

Hedi Azouz, Associated Press

The North African country of Tunisia took a dramatic political turn this weekend. After violent anti-government protests on Sunday, the Tunisian President Kais Saied ousted the government and suspended parliament late Sunday night, reported CNN.

  • Saied removed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi from office and suspended parliament for 30 days, claiming constitutional authority, reported CNBC.
  • Demonstrators — some in opposition and some in support — took to the streets Sunday night into Monday, reported The Washington Post.

The developments in Tunisia remain uncertain with possibilities ranging from the start of an authoritarian regime to street violence to peaceful resolution, according to Reuters.

What’s happening in Tunisia? Is there a coup?

Tunisia is facing the biggest challenge to its young democracy in a decade. The country — which led the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 — is considered the only democratic country to emerge from the tumultuous protests, per The Washington Post.

  • Tunisia is currently suffering under its worst phase of the COVID-19 pandemic and one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the world, reported the Deseret News.
  • The government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as longer-standing issues of unemployment, crumbling infrastructure and economic crises fueled the recent political turmoil, reported the BBC.

Sunday, Tunisians took to the streets in massive, violent anti-government protests. In response, Saied invoked special executive powers to sack the prime minister and suspend parliament, reported CNBC.

  • Thousands of people celebrated the development and viewed this as the president removing corrupt and incompetent politicians, per CNBC.
  • Others — such as the parliamentary majority party the Islamist Ennahda — denounced the president’s action as a coup, per The New York Times.
  • So far, the street demonstrations have not turned violent, but that possibility remains, according to Reuters.

At this point, Saied has not backed his power grab with military force, but he has issued a warning against violent opposition, per The New York Times. “Whoever fires a single bullet, our armed and security forces will retaliate with a barrage of bullets,” he said.

Why did the president suspend parliament?

Saied invoked Article 80 of Tunisia’s constitution which allows exceptional executive powers in the face of “imminent threat,” per The New York Times. The article allows the president to remove the prime minister and suspend parliament.

A debate has erupted as to the constitutionality of Saied’s actions.

  • “This is completely unconstitutional,” said Yadh Ben Achour, the co-writer of Tunisia’s constitution, per CNBC.
  • A major labor union in Tunisia has tentatively backed the president so long as his exceptional executive powers remain short-term and limited, per The Washington Post.

What happens now?

Tunisia faces a crossroads that is testing the country’s underlying democratic system, per The Washington Post.

According to an analysis from Reuters, there are four possible scenarios for Tunisia:

  • The demonstrations could descend into street violence and intense confrontation, potentially leading to military power grabs and prolonged instability.
  • Saied could seek full authoritarian control by consolidating power, cracking down on individuals' freedoms and postponing — or canceling — a return to constitutional order.
  • The disruption could bring political opponents into a discussion with each other — as has previously happened in Tunisia — and result in a new compromise.
  • Saied could appoint a new prime minister and restore parliament, allowing a smooth return to constitutional order.

Will Saied emerge as a statesman or a dictator? Only time will tell, reported the BBC.