Tunisia’s President Takes Control as Islamists Cry ‘Coup’

Tunisia’s president fired the government and suspended parliament, plunging the brittle North African democracy into its most serious political crisis since protesters launched the Arab Spring revolts a decade ago.

The moderate Islamist Ennahda party, the dominant force in the idled parliament, accused Kais Saied of carrying out a coup. Markets tumbled at a move that could reverberate across the region.

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.

Saied took action late Sunday after masses of largely 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 moves, he said, were aimed at “preserving the integrity of the country, its security and independence, and to ensure the normal functioning of the state.”

“We don’t want bloodshed,” but “whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will confront him with many bullets,” he warned.

Units of the Tunisian army were deployed in front of parliament and state television headquarters, and the TV station broadcast songs in praise of the military. Clashes erupted between Ennahda and Saied loyalists near the legislative building on Monday. The Qatar-based al-Jazeera network said its office in Tunis was raided by authorities.

Tunisia’s President Takes Control as Islamists Cry ‘Coup’

Saied, who invoked a special provision in the constitution granting him broader authority, said he would appoint a replacement for Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, but didn’t say when. He also lifted immunity for lawmakers.

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.” He called on the “youth of the revolution” and security forces to preserve the nation’s institutions, and urged supporters to take to the streets.

There’s little legal recourse for critics of the move, however, because Tunisia hasn’t yet appointed a promised constitutional court.

Saied’s conduct also has implications for Tunisia’s neighbors. The fate of Islamists in Tunisia could echo elsewhere in the region, including Libya, which is holding elections later this year.

Libya’s eastern military commander, Khalifa Haftar, congratulated Saied for taking action against Islamists, Al-Hadath TV reported. Turkey and Qatar, which have both backed Islamist governments, called on all sides in Tunisia to show restraint.

The turmoil sent Tunisia’s dollar bonds due 2025 sinking below 85 cents on the dollar, sending the yield to 11.4%, the highest since April 2020. The benchmark Tunisian stock index fell as much as 1%, the most intraday since May 5.

Tunisia Holds Interest Rate as It Targets IMF Deal by July

Saied’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. Earlier this month, Fitch downgraded its sovereign rating to B- from B, citing what it said was heightened fiscal and external liquidity risks in the absence of a new IMF program.

Tunisia’s powerful UGTT trade union, which has often been seen as an impediment to broader economic plans, threw its support behind the president, saying he sought to prevent “imminent danger” and restore normalcy.

The 2019 election of Saied -- a professor without standard political affiliations -- was seen as a repudiation of the status quo and had been cast as a chance for new stability. But his disputes with Mechichi over how to extricate the country from its crises have crippled decision-making.

Yet for many Tunisians, it’s the establishment officials who are to blame for the country’s current ills. While Ennahda has been was careful to craft a moderate stand, distancing itself from more hardline Islamists, its position at or near the top of at least 10 successive governments since 2011 has made it a target of Tunisians’ ire.

“This ruling system, especially Ennahda, contributed to our starvation and impoverishment and even failed to provide vaccines to combat the coronavirus,” said Kholoud al-Sayeh, a 25-year-old activist. “The game is over for all of them. They have to leave.”

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