It took one man to ignite a wave of uprisings against poverty, entrenched authoritarianism, and political repression. In 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in response to humiliating treatment by state officials catalyzed unprecedented citizen unrest and resistance in Tunisia, leading to the overthrow of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship. It is now taking one man to extinguish Tunisia’s flames of democracy with an iron fist.
On July 25, 2021, President Kaïs Saïed invoked Article 80, the emergency powers clause of the constitution, declaring the parliament and government existential threats to the state. This resulted in the dismissal of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, the suspension of parliament for thirty days, and the deployment of military vehicles outside the parliament and governmental palace. Through blatant removals on democratic checks on the executive, President Kaïs Saïed asserted his authoritarian grip. At the end of the thirty days, he extended the exceptional period indefinitely, suspending parts of the constitution and his power to rule by decree on September 22. Recently, on April 22, 2022, President Saïed took control of the independent election commission (ISIE), removing yet another democratic check on the executive. His moves provide a clear example of an executive coup, defined by Nancy Bermeo as involving a freely elected chief executive suspending the constitution to seize power in one sweep. Before the President’s unilateral seizure of power, Tunisia had represented the only successful democratic transition that emerged from the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011. So, why was President Kaïs Saïed able to carry out his coup?
It seems that grievances against the country’s economic crisis, weak parliament, and endemic corruption strengthened popular support in favor of Saïed. His measures were also met with little resistance from the military and civil society, and the absence of a Tunisian Constitutional Court removed a significant institutional check over the executive. Though Saïed’s actions were likely unconstitutional, his popular legitimacy provided him a platform to thrive in Tunisia’s weak political environment.
Economic stagnation heightened the population’s discontent and produced the permissive context for Saïed’s executive coup. Tunisia’s successive governments had failed to deliver on the primary demand of the revolution: economic opportunity. The country’s high inflation and stagnant growth, coupled with pervasive unemployment and a perceived decline in public services, widened the gap between the people and the elite. Youth unemployment jumped from 23 percent in 2010 to 30 percent in 2018, which heightened insecurities among the population. The country’s economic crisis was compounded by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, as restrictions severely hit the vital tourism industry and GDP growth contracted by 8.8 percent in 2020. As poverty and vulnerability grew, so did frustrations against the political system—perceived to be inefficient and corrupt—which sparked a wave of protests calling for parliament’s dissolution.
Rising discontent with Tunisia’s weak parliamentary system and the persistent political paralysis provided Saïed with a strong popular support base and legitimized his anti-democratic initiatives. The 2014 constitution established a semi-presidential system dividing executive power between the president and the head of government, resulting in slow governance and competition over cabinet appointments. Despite the creation of the National Unity Government in 2016 to stabilize Tunisia’s democratic transition, the coalition failed to ease ideological polarization between the secular Nidaa Tounes and the Islamist Ennahda parties. Saïed’s landslide victory during the 2019 elections resulted in a parliamentary chamber in which no party had more than a quarter of the votes, leaving the country without a strong political opposition. The fragmented parliament, characterized by ideational fights and deadlock on key policy issues, has stalled political activity and prevented any constructive economic and social reform from occurring in Tunisia. According to a 2018 Afrobarometer survey, 81 percent of Tunisians did not “feel close to any political parties.” Many believed that the political system and slow political process “perpetuated the socioeconomic despotism of the ancient régime.”
Endemic corruption, pervading both the public and private sectors, further aggravated the people’s disillusionment with the political system. In 2021, Ennahda, the largest party in parliament, was one of the three parties under investigation for receiving foreign donations during the 2019 elections. In June 2020, Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh resigned after suspicions of conflict-of-interest over his stake in a company that won 15 million euros worth of government contracts. Alleged fraudulent dealings by the political class confirmed perceptions of rampant corruption plaguing the political system. Tunisia’s ranking in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index dropped from 59 out of 178 countries in 2010, to 70 out of 180 countries in 2021. Considering the population’s growing mistrust towards the government, Saïed’s outsider status left him untouched by Tunisia’s post-revolutionary politics and accusations of corruption. Therefore, his anti-establishment platform and focus on eradicating corruption provided him with substantial popular support.
The lack of institutional checks from the parliament, the constitutional court, and the military ultimately allowed the unraveling of Saïed’s power grab. Kaïs Saïed’s suspension of the legislature benefited from the institutional support of the military. The military prevented Ghannouchi and other parliamentary speakers from defying Saïed’s decree and holding parliamentary sessions by effectively blockading the assembly building on July 25. This amplified perceptions of the army’s loyalty to Saïed, solidifying impressions of a self-coup. The coup also met little resistance from powerful civil society groups like the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), which appeared supportive of Saïed’s actions.
Finally, weak enforcement of the 2014 constitutional framework and contested appointments have failed to institutionalize the Constitutional Court, removing a powerful check on the president’s power. President Saïed has justified his moves by claiming to have followed Article 80 of Tunisia’s 2014 constitution, which allows the president to claim exceptional powers in the event of “imminent danger” to the state, yet Article 80 mandates parliament to operate throughout the exceptional period and requires the consultation of the prime minister and the parliamentary speaker. While the constitutional court is the only body that can adjudicate the legality of Saïed’s seizure of power, it has yet to be formed. Party disagreements on judicial appointments have prevented the formation of the constitutional court, leaving the opposition with no legal recourse to contest Saïed’s coup.
Tunisia’s political and economic crises reinforced popular support for Kaïs Saïed, paving the way for the execution of his executive coup by claiming to take power in the name of the people. The military’s shared disillusionment with the government enabled Kaïs Saïed to block parliament from revoking his measures. Similarly, the absence of a constitutional court left his centralization of power unchecked by judicial accountability. In theory, Bermeo suggests that the decline of coups means that democratic erosion today is more commonly associated with an incremental, rather than sudden, backsliding of democratic institutions. However, Tunisia’s case reveals an alarming instance of sudden democratic erosion and a possible resurgence of executive coups, particularly in the context of nascent democracies. In a similar light, Egypt’s military coup d’état in 2012, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, also followed widespread protests against the country’s government. Is Tunisia the exception, or should we expect a resurgence of sudden coups? How many exceptions will it take to make it the rule?