The Irish Times view on Tunisia’s democracy: a fragile thing

Opponents accuse the president of carrying out a coup after he suspended parliament and sacked the prime minister

People walk past the Sidi Bashir mosque in the Bab el-Fellah area of Tunisia’s capital Tunis on Tuesday. Tunisia lurched into political uncertainty on July 28, as President Kais Saied suspended parliament and assumed executive powers in what opponents labelled a coup. Photograph: Fethi Belaid/ AFP via Getty Images

People walk past the Sidi Bashir mosque in the Bab el-Fellah area of Tunisia’s capital Tunis on Tuesday. Tunisia lurched into political uncertainty on July 28, as President Kais Saied suspended parliament and assumed executive powers in what opponents labelled a coup. Photograph: Fethi Belaid/ AFP via Getty Images

 

Tunisians have good reason to feel betrayed by their political leaders. Since the 2011 uprising that set the Arab Spring in train, the north African country has managed to build a vibrant if fragile democracy and Tunisians are rightly proud of that achievement. But any satisfaction is tempered by frustration at the lived experience of the post-revolution years. Under leaders widely deemed to be corrupt and incompetent, Tunisians have seen their living standards fall. Unemployment is persistently high and inflation is rising. Across this young society, from the middle-class suburbs of Tunis in the north to the isolated dusty towns of the centre, opportunities are lacking and public anger is running high.

That anger tipped over into street protests in recent weeks, as the country confronted the human cost of a bungled official response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Tunisia has one of the world’s highest death rates from the virus, and the Delta variant has been placing huge strain on the country’s hospitals, some of which have lacked oxygen supplies. After weeks of demonstrations, some of which the police violently suppressed, president Kais Saied made his move. Citing a constitutional provision that allows him to claim emergency powers where there is an “imminent threat” to the country, Saied – a non-party academic lawyer who was elected in 2019 on an anti-politician platform – suspended parliament and sacked the prime minister on Monday.

His dramatic intervention leaves Tunisia in a delicate position. Many see the move as a coup and fear the country’s democracy is in peril. Saied insists his takeover control is temporary and was necessary to save a state threatened by corrupt and vested interests. Gauging public attitudes is complicated by a ban on public gatherings, but there is no doubt that some Tunisians welcome the president’s ousting of an unpopular executive. The powerful trade union federation cautiously supported Saied’s move but called for guarantees of a return to constitutional norms. Tunisia’s Mediterranean neighbours have a role to play in ensuring that happens without delay.

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