Tunisia’s political crisis worsens as president dissolves parliament

Populist Kais Saied claims ‘attempted coup’ amid food shortages and debt talks with IMF

Tunisia’s populist president has dissolved the democratically elected parliament, intensifying the country’s political crisis eight months after he staged a power grab decried by his opponents as a coup.

On Wednesday night, Kais Saied issued a decree dissolving the assembly after more than half its members defied him by voting to repeal the measures he passed to take over power in July.

Mr Saied accused the deputies of “an attempted coup” and said his decision to dissolve parliament was aimed at protecting the state. The justice minister was reported to have ordered an investigation of deputies who took part in the online session “for conspiring against state security”.

Until Mr Saied's power grab, Tunisia was seen as the only democracy to have emerged from the string of popular uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011. Mr Saied, a political outsider and former professor of constitutional law, was elected in a landslide in 2019. His victory was seen as a rebuke by the electorate to the country's established political parties, including the moderately Islamist Nahda, over their failure to address worsening economic problems.


Failing economy

Mr Saied's takeover of power enjoyed massive popular support and some political parties sided with him. But eight months after he became sole ruler, he is seen as having failed to arrest the country's economic decline with the war between Russia and Ukraine piling pressures on Tunisia's failing economy due to the rise in oil and wheat prices. Even before the war, analysts were predicting that the country would be unable to repay its debt without a long-delayed deal with the International Monetary Fund.

There are food shortages and the country is in talks with the IMF over a loan agreement that will require austerity measures such as subsidy cuts and public sector wage caps. These have already been rejected by the UGTT, the politically influential main trade union, which has threatened a general strike.

"Tunisia's external position is already in a dire state and, against the backdrop of no IMF deal, low reserves and being locked out of global capital markets, it further cements that the government is heading towards default," said Capital Economics, the London-based consultancy in a note on Wednesday.

Hamza Meddeb, scholar at Carnegie Middle East Centre, said the deputies had been emboldened to meet because support for Mr Saied had slipped particularly among political elites which first sided with him.

National dialogue

He pointed out that 116 out of 217 deputies took part in the session, indicating that opposition to Mr Saied extended beyond Nahda, the largest political party in the assembly with a quarter of the seats.

“He has lost support among some political parties and mainly he lost the backing of the UGTT labour union which has been critical of him because it has been urging him to organise a national dialogue and he has refused,” said Mr Meddeb.

“He has been acting unilaterally without consulting anyone. Besides, there is the deterioration of the social and economic situation. The country is living with shortages and many people are now pessimistic about the future.”

Since July, Mr Saied has exhibited increasingly authoritarian tendencies: lashing out at critics, seeking to control the judiciary and refusing all dialogue with the country’s political forces. He wants to remake the political system and has announced a strategy that includes a referendum in July on a new constitution to be drafted by a handpicked committee of experts. He is understood to favour a more presidential system and has made clear he wants a form of direct democracy that bypasses political parties.

“I think the main aim of the parliamentary session was to pressure Saied into negotiations,” said Mr Meddeb. “Whether he will accept or not, he is weakened. If he stubbornly pursues his way by rejecting negotiations, he will be alone with the country collapsing around him.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022