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For twenty-three years, Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali led a bloody dictatorship marred with killings, torture, and severe corruption. In 2011, he was ousted from power and fled to Saudi Arabia, where he died in 2019. This event, the outcome of what is known as the Jasmine Revolution, started with a single man: Mohamed Bouazizi, a poor Tunisian fruit stand vendor.
Police officers and inspectors often stole fruit from, demanded bribes of, and harassed Mohamed Bouazizi. When the officers confiscated his fruit, wrongly accusing him of violating an arbitrary permit requirement, Bouazizi appealed for his property to be returned. He was rejected. In January 2011, Bouazizi lit himself on fire in front of a government building. He entered a coma and died in a hospital.
Bouazizi’s suicide symbolized the economic hardship and injustice that many other Tunisians experienced and sparked massive anti-government protests. With the help of social media, the Jasmine Revolution bred protests in surrounding nations such as Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain. These waves of unrest, known as the Arab Spring, led to the overthrow of rulers in some countries.
While some consider the Arab Spring a failed attempt to bring change in other nations, Tunisia has since transitioned into a democracy, with a new constitution and fair elections. Many analysts praise Tunisia as a beacon of hope attesting to the possibility that democracy can bloom in the Arab World. In fact, Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet earned a Nobel Peace Prize honoring the success of Tunisia’s largely bloodless revolution.
However, economic progress has remained stagnant. Since 2011, ten Tunisian governments have struggled to make progress on reducing poverty, creating jobs, and improving the economy.
On July 25, 2021, the anniversary of the republic, Tunisians protested and spoke out against the government’s poor management amidst serious COVID-19 outbreaks, police brutality, and economic crisis.
According to figures from the Associated Press, Tunisia already faced an 18% unemployment rate before entering the pandemic, more than 90% of the country’s intensive care unit beds are currently occupied, and only 7% of the population has been fully vaccinated.
Following the protests, Tunisian President Kais Saied suspended parliament for 30 days, fired the Prime Minister and other ministers including the minister of defense, and seized executive power. As Sarah Yerkes, a former State Department and Pentagon official and now a senior fellow focusing on Tunisia at Carnegie’s Middle East Program, observes, “The president, in normal times, just has control over foreign affairs, defense, and national security. The prime minister oversees everything else. But now the president is overseeing everything.”
Mr. Saied’s opponents call his moves unconstitutional, a coup, and an attempt at dictatorship. They cite the arrest of parliament members, the judiciary investigation into members of an opposing political party, and the closure of an Al-Jazeera news office as alarming characteristics of authoritarianism.
President Kais Saied was a constitutional law professor who won in the 2019 presidential elections by a landslide. Mr. Saied responded, “I know the constitutional texts very well, respect them and taught them and after all this time I will not turn into a dictator as some have said.” He claims that Tunisia’s constitution allows him to seize such expansive powers in times of emergency.
However, the Brookings Institute explains that Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution “mandates that the prime minister and parliamentary speaker be consulted, and that the parliament remain in ‘a state of continuous session throughout such a period,’ not frozen.” To complicate things further, the court, the sole body responsible for determining the constitutionality of actions, is nonexistent as parties cannot agree on the court’s members. When some parliament leaders attempted to hold a parliament session, an army unit blocked their entry. Now, many suspect that Saied has attempted to gain loyalty with the military and police.
The story continues to unfold as no one knows Saied’s next move. The world is watching to see whether the ten-year-old democracy can survive.