Tunisia coup: What Europeans can do to save North Africa’s only democracy

Europeans cannot stand apart from the chaos in Tunisia – indeed, active European involvement now can help restore stability to the country

Protestors in Tunisia scale the gates of a government complex
Image by picture alliance / AA | Nacer Talel
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On the evening of 25 July – Tunisia’s Republic Day, no less – President Kaies Saied upended Tunisian politics in a move widely decried as a constitutional coup. In an address to the nation, the constitutional law professor turned populist politician invoked Article 80, which provides the president with extraordinary measures to deal with an “imminent threat” to the country. At the same time, Saied exploited his de facto role as arbiter of the constitution – as there is currently no sitting Constitutional Court – to declare himself prosecutor general, dismiss the prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, suspend Tunisia’s parliament, and strip parliamentarians of immunity. He has said he will appoint a new prime minister shortly.

The political ramifications are still rippling through the young republic, but Europeans cannot afford to sit and watch from the side-lines as they have done in other moments of tumult in the region. They must move to protect Tunisia’s democracy, turning the country’s many crises into something positive that draws its divergent politicians back together. The alternative is to relinquish European influence as Tunisia topples into the political trench dug by its president.

Despite the clear political perils of his actions, many Tunisians’ initial response was jubilant. People poured into the streets, honking horns and launching fireworks, relieved that Tunisia’s political class – the source of so much public despair and anger since the country’s revolution in 2011 – had been subordinated. Earlier that day riots had taken place across the country (a regular feature in recent years), prompted by years of economic mismanagement and a bungled covid-19 response. The main targets of popular anger included local offices of the country’s biggest political parties – including the Islamic democratic party Ennahda, whose leader Rachid Ghannouchi is the speaker of parliament – which were ransacked and burned.

The sight of Tunisians cheering the overthrow of the country’s prime minister and parliament has eerie echoes of Egypt’s own counter-revolution in 2013 – in which the Egyptian military exploited an ongoing protest movement to remove the democratically elected government of Islamist president Muhammad Morsi.

While Saied’s announcement came as a shock, few were surprised. Since ascending to the presidency in October 2019,  he has sought to effectively run Tunisia as a presidential system based on the pretext that he was elected with more votes than received by the entire parliament. A document from his office was even leaked just two months ago laying out last night’s plan. The president has also made constitutionally dubious plays before: ironically, the now-deposed prime minister (who was previously Saied’s adviser) was himself appointed through presidential machinations, when Saied forced him upon the parliament as the only candidate for the role. And a couple of months ago, the president tried to assume exclusive control over the security services, with limited success.

In the cold light of day, what happened last night was not a sincere effort to defend against an imminent threat to Tunisia. But nor was it a well-planned coup to leverage local discontent to seize absolute power and dispose of the political opposition – as happened in Egypt. In reality it was a characteristically poorly thought-through, aggressive, and clumsy political ploy by Saied to gain control over the executive. It is reminiscent of the political novice’s past moves, and it is already apparent that his pronouncements yesterday evening have not been carried through as he might have hoped.

European inaction will only help unmoor Tunisia as an island of stability and dim future prospects for positive political transformations

As the night wore on, a lack of institutional cooperation meant that the president was forced to rely on his supporters in the streets to carry the momentum: the interior ministry – which was under the prime minister’s authority and was not yet following presidential orders – stopped them from ransacking Ennahda’s headquarters. This led Saied to try to appoint the head of his presidential guard to oversee the interior ministry. Attempts by the military to stop an emergency session of the parliament also failed. Following a prolonged sit-in by leading figures such as Ghannouchi, the parliament’s bureau – consisting of the speaker, his deputies, and ten MPs representing all parties in the legislature – is now planning to meet to discuss a response. Meanwhile, Mechichi, who still claims the mantle of prime minister, will attempt to hold a cabinet meeting, despite the military denying him access to his offices.

The main effect of Saeid’s constitutional coup has been to deepen Tunisia’s already profound political divides. As is clear from how the last 24 hours have played out, these fractures are etched into the states’ various institutions. Yet as shown by ministries’ and parliament’s efforts to continue operating as normal, Tunisia’s system of governance is proving more resilient than many observers may have expected. In addition, unlike similar moments in nearby countries, there are few reasons to believe the region’s messy geopolitics played any real role in this coup, despite Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia all hailing Saied’s announcement as a victory against the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Nevertheless, a protracted constitutional crisis is the last thing Tunisia needs right now. The government’s attempts to manage the covid-19 Delta variant have been poor, largely because the different offices of state have spent the pandemic working against one another. A new battle between the country’s legislative and executive branches will drive the country’s economy, and hopes of a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, towards a similarly disastrous conclusion. Moreover, it seems inevitable that Saied will respond to the intransigence of parliament and prime minister by using the military to try to place them under house arrest (as per the original, leaked, plan) given his penchant for absolutism and lack of belief in deal-making with political rivals.

Europeans cannot simply wait for domestic dynamics to play out before choosing which side to back. Not only is no real power-broker likely to emerge in a decisive way, but – left unchecked – the current dynamics in Tunisia will also exacerbate the economic and pandemic crises in play and fatally undermine the country’s democracy. European inaction will only help unmoor Tunisia as an island of stability and dim future prospects for positive political transformations. This could very well bring about an ‘anti-democratic’ domino effect in an already precarious region.

A European vacuum here will also inevitably lead to other regional powers trying to exploit the situation in Europe’s backyard, as has been most painfully played out in Libya.

To avoid this, Europe must urge Saied back from the brink, and provide a face-saving way out for him. This way out must be one that prizes Tunisia’s democracy over any particular individual. Key EU member states could achieve this by proposing a renewed national dialogue that draws up a roadmap out of the current constitutional chaos. Alongside this, consensual committees between the government, parliament, and presidency could convene to take charge of the covid-19 response and secure an economic recovery plan. A national dialogue saved Tunisia’s transition in 2014 and the idea was raised by domestic politicians again earlier this year in response to a worsening political and economic stalemate. This last attempt was shot down by Saied, who feared it would show him to be weak, but the context is very different now. Additionally, the covid-19 and economic recovery projects, which could work alongside this dialogue, are issues where Europeans can provide meaningful technical support and political incentives that could increase the chances of success. If skilfully navigated, with European help this crisis can provide both the impetus and opportunity to tackle previously intractable political and economic issues, and support Tunisia’s continued transition to democracy.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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Senior Policy Fellow

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