By Steve Bell
On Sunday 25th July, the Tunisian President, Kais Saied, initiated a coup. With the assistance of army tanks, he suspended parliament and locked out parliamentarians. He sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who was assaulted in the process. The constitution has been suspended, and Saied has appointed himself head of executive authority until the new government is formed. Saied has also appointed himself attorney general.
A national curfew was imposed from Monday 26th, with gatherings of more than three people banned. The coup seems to be following a similar plan for the President to obtain complete executive power, written by Saied’s advisors and leaked to Middle East Eye website, on 23rd May 2021.
The President’s justification appears to be in response to recent protests in cities across Tunisia. The demands of the protesters were focused on the economic crisis, and the worsening outbreak of the Covid pandemic. On the economy, there was a fall of GDP by 8.2% in 2021, with a further fall of 3% in the first quarter of 2021. Both inflation and unemployment have registered significant rises.
On the pandemic, there have been 19,000 deaths. With a population of 11.8 million, this gives Tunisia one of the higher per capita death rates in the world. Like many developing countries, Tunisia has had difficulty obtaining sufficient vaccine dosages. There have been 2.6 million vaccinations, but only a small number have had both jabs – reports suggest between 4 and 7 per cent of the population. The health service has been hard pressed, with over 90% of ICUs utilised. Reports have been made of morgues being full, with corpses being left on active wards for up to 24 hours. The strain on services have meant that citizen campaigns to fund the purchase of PPE, oxygen cylinders, etc., are being organised inside Tunisia and among the Tunisian diaspora in France.
Tunisia has unresolved problems of governance ever since the 2011 revolution. Stable government has yet to be achieved, with nine governments formed since the rising. There remain ambiguities in the distribution of executive power between the president, parliament and prime minister. Saied is using these ambiguities to claim constitutional authority for the seizure of power. Reports suggest Egyptian security officials are present in his office.
The targets of the coup are the largest political parties. Parliamentary immunity has been lifted for ministers. The President has authorised a judicial enquiry into allegations of foreign funding to parties. The target of the enquiry are three parties, Ennahda, Heart of Tunisia and Ayish Tounis. The first two are the largest parties in parliament, following the September 2019 elections.
It is immediately unclear whether the coup will be successful. The repression is for the moment limited. A number of senior government officials have been sacked, including the head of the military court. Al Jazeera’s bureau has been raided and equipment seized. The head of the national TV station has been sacked.
Ennadha has called for supporters to stay at home. It wants them to be prepared for early legislative and Presidential elections. Alongside the three parties targetted for investigation, almost all the other parties are denouncing the coup, including the Dignity Coalition, Democratic Current, Tunisia Workers Party, and Republican Party. The Independent High Electoral Commission, which has overseen elections since 2011, has declared its opposition to the President’s measures.
International responses have divided along political lines. Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have allowed social media to support the coup. In Saudi Arabia, a government aligned newspaper headlined “Tunisia rises up against the Brotherhood”. While in the Emirates a news channel led with “A brave decision to save Tunisia”. Both the Qatar and Turkish governments expressed grave concerns. The Algerian President has told Saied that Algeria will not accept Tunisia falling under Egypt’s influence.
The United States government appears to be biding its time. Secretary of state Blinken urged Saied to “adhere to democratic principles” and “maintain dialogue”. A White House press conference was told that the government does not yet have an opinion on whether Saied’s actions are constitutional. The French government has gone a little further, calling upon the President to “rapidly appoint a new Prime Minister”, implicitly supporting the President’s initiative.
The Tunisian people certainly deserve better results on the economy, and against the pandemic. But these do not justify the President’s actions. Socialists need to be clear that the imposition of a military backed regime against the civilian parties will be a dreadful setback for Tunisian society. The Egyptian regime under Sisi demonstrates where a successful coup terminates. We must oppose any attempts by the British government to support Saied’s coup attempt.