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Tunisia leader denies coup, saying he acted to prevent chaos

Tunisia leader denies coup, saying he acted to prevent chaos

4 min. 27.07.2021 From our online archive
'I am baffled by those who speak of a coup. I studied and taught the law and I know what a coup means - violating legitimacy'
Tunisian security officers hold back protesters outside the parliament building in the capital Tunis on 26 July
Tunisian security officers hold back protesters outside the parliament building in the capital Tunis on 26 July
Photo credit: AFP

Tunisia’s president said his suspension of parliament and firing of the prime minister were to restore order and retake the country from “thieves,” dismissing claims he orchestrated a coup in the Arab Spring’s birthplace.

Kais Saied’s comments - a staunch defence of his moves a day earlier - came as he ordered a 7 pm to 6 am curfew through 27 August and barred public gatherings for more than three people. The combined steps have rattled the nation’s already brittle democracy and thrust it into what may be its worst constitutional crisis since the 2011 uprising ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Explaining his reasoning, Saied said Tunisia had shifted from single-party rule to a one-lobby governance, accusing coalition parties of dividing the spoils. He dubbed them “thieves” and said he acted after his “patience had run out.”

“I am baffled by those who speak of a coup. I studied and taught the law and I know what a coup means - violating legitimacy,” he said in a Monday meeting with Tunisian representatives, a video of which was posted on his Facebook page. “I applied the constitution since conditions” for taking the decisions “were met,” he said.

Saied took action late on Sunday after masses of mainly young people demonstrated in the capital, Tunis, and other cities calling for the fall of the government and railing against hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The new movement restrictions, for which no official reason was given, will likely be taken as an attempt to quell any potential unrest from those opposed to his steps, including supporters of the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, the biggest bloc in parliament.

High stakes

The stakes are huge for Tunisia, a rare Arab democracy whose 2011 uprising unseated the country’s long-serving president and sparked unprecedented upheaval in the Middle East. Politics have been bitterly contested in the country ever since, and the current tensions hint at broader regional shifts at play. Since coming to power in 2019, Saied has forged stronger ties with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, states with zero tolerance for Islamists.

In measured remarks, Saied on Monday accused politicians of “stealing billions off the sweat of the Tunisian people.”

“I reassure Tunisians that the state is still standing, and there will be no room for violating rights and freedoms or equality,” he said. “I also urge them not to to take to the streets. The most serious threat confronting states and societies is an implosion or internal fighting.”

The call for calm was echoed by the international community, including by key regional actors, the United Nations and the Arab League. US officials expressed concern about the situation, while saying there’s been no determination whether the situation is a “coup.”

“We are in touch at a senior level from both the White House and the State Department with Tunisian leaders to learn more about the situation, urge calm and support Tunisian efforts to move forward in line with democratic principles,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken “urged President Saied to maintain open dialogue with all political actors and the Tunisian people,” according to a statement on Monday from spokesman Ned Price.

The president’s power play comes at a critical time as Tunisia tries to secure new backing from the International Monetary Fund. Tunisia’s economy contracted by 3% in the first quarter of 2021, and a record 8.6% in 2020, according to the central bank.

IMF stands ready

The IMF said on Monday it was “closely monitoring” the situation and stands “ready to continue to support Tunisia and its people to cope with the impact of Covid crisis, achieve an inclusive job-rich recovery, and restore sustainable finances.”

Tunisia “continues to face extraordinary socio-economic pressures, including as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is causing tragic loss of life, and Tunisians’ unmet aspirations for higher, job-rich, and inclusive growth,” an IMF spokesperson said in a statement to Bloomberg.

Fitch Rating said earlier the fresh turmoil could delay an IMF deal, while the president is “unlikely” to use his authority to enact measures to cut the public wage bill as such steps “would be unpopular and could coalesce social pressure against him”

Saied lifted immunity for lawmakers and has vowed to soon replace Hichem Mechichi, the prime minister he fired on Sunday after only grudgingly appointing last year. Mechichi said in a statement on Monday evening that he accepted Saied’s decision and stood “on the side of the people.”

Ennahda sounded the alarm over Sunday’s developments, which mirrored events that preceded the 2013 crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief dalliance with elected power in Egypt.

In a video posted on the party’s official page, Rashid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader and the speaker of parliament, said the nation was “facing a coup attempt in the name of the constitution

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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