Tunisia’s largest political party, Ennahda, has called for national dialogue and even withdrew calls for protest, after accusing the country’s president of instigating a coup, when he fired the prime minister and suspended parliament.
Countries across the world have expressed alarm about President Kais Saied’s dramatic decisions as they plunged the country into its deepest political crisis in a decade and drew comparisons to Egypt’s military takeover in 2013.
Mr Saied, an independent and former constitutional lawyer, claimed he was responding to nationwide protests against the ruling elite and acting in line with a clause in the country’s constitution allowing extraordinary measures during an emergency.
Four of the biggest parties in parliament including moderate Islamist Ennahda have denounced the move as a coup, saying his actions were unconstitutional and had consolidated executive, legislative and judicial powers in his hands.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Mr Saied late on Monday and said he had urged him to "to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights”. The State department warned Tunisia not to "squander its democratic gains."
A UN spokesperson Farhan Har said the already volatile region "cannot bear to have more unrest than it has presently had.”
Germany, Italy and France, Tunisia’s former colonial ruler, have all also expressed alarm, with German Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Adebah saying the Tunisian president appeared to be relying on a "pretty broad interpretation of the constitution”. France meanwhile said it counted on Tunisia returning to “as soon as possible the normal functioning of institutions”.
The ousted prime minister Hichem Mechichi, who is at his home and not under arrest, finally released a statement saying he would not be a "disruptive element" and was ready to hand over power to whomever Saied appointed.
Tunisia has been rocked by a week of violent protests, as citizens took to the streets angry with the near total collapse of the health care system because of the pandemic and the escalating economic woes.
Ten years on from the 2011 ouster of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, few have seen tangible change.
The economy shrank 8 percent last year while youth unemployment had soared to nearly 40 per cent. Tunisia has one of the highest Covid-19 death rates in the region. On Monday, Tunisia’s hard-currency bonds tumbled.
Much of the anger during the rallies was directed towards the large political parties like Ennahda.
But few expected the president, a staunch independent, to take such drastic measures which have raised the spectre of major street confrontations as both supporters and critics of the president held rallies.
On Monday, as troops surrounded the parliament, there were already brief scuffles between hundreds of supporters of Ennahda and Saied. Mr Saied also lengthened an existing nationwide curfew from 7 pm to 6 am for one month and banned gatherings of more than three people in public places.
He has been quick to dismiss the label of coup and told major civil society groups including the powerful labour union, the UGTT, that the emergency situation was temporary and that he would "protect the democratic path” a senior union official said.
But experts expressed deep concern about the future of Tunisia and the democratic gains made since the 2011 Arab Spring.
Tarek Kahlaoui, a Tunisan political analyst said the president went well beyond the constitution, in particular suspending parliament and by making this decision without consulting the constitutional court, a body which has yet to be formed.
“This is a major breach of the constitution. It has allowed him to amass most powers,” he told The Independent, clarifying he did not believe it amounted to a coup.
“I think we are going to have a transitional period where we will have an agreement to change the system from semi-parliamentary to presidential, which could be worrisome if too much power is given to the president,” he added.
Monica Marks, an expert on Tunisian politics at New York University Abu Dhabi agreed and told The Independent that “so many Tunisians seem fed up and unwilling to wait for elections now”.
“There may be a presidential hybrid regime,” she said.
“There won’t be neither full Sisi-style autocracy nor anything approaching genuine democracy if Kais Saied gets his way. It will be a kind of bastardised no man’s land in which Tunisian politics could be more paralysed, and civil society’s liberties more restrained than ever,” she added .