What happened in Tunisia was a coup

The president’s decision to suspend parliament and dismiss the government cannot be defined as anything other than a coup d’etat.

Protesters gesture as Tunisian military forces guard the area around the parliament building in the capital Tunis on July 26, 2021 [Khaled Nasraoui/EPA]

When Tunisia’s President Kais Saied announced on Sunday his decision to invoke Article 80 of the country’s constitution, he was doing what he had publicly threatened to do for a while. Using the article, which allows the president to take “necessary measures” when the country is “in a state of imminent danger”, Saeid dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspended parliament.

Prior to Sunday’s announcement, Saied had on numerous occasions insisted that Tunisia’s 2014 constitution is a flawed text, that the current distribution of powers can only result in a political deadlock, and especially that the country’s worsening economic and public health challenges are caused by the corruption and recklessness of the biggest party in parliament, Ennahda.

Many Tunisians believed Saied’s claims.

Indeed, the inability of successive political coalitions to revitalise the economy and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic effectively, coupled with the warnings of the president, convinced many Tunisians that there is an urgent need for a radical solution. They took to the streets across the country to demand the government step down, and even attacked the offices of the Ennahda Party.

Thus when Saied announced his decision to invoke Article 80 and suspend parliament, even though it was not clear whether the move would lead to meaningful change, hundreds rushed to the parliament building to celebrate and many more cheered on social media.

Some voiced concerns over possible foreign interference in the democratic process and others peddled various conspiracy theories, but overall it was a genuine moment of jubilation in the country – a majority of Tunisians appeared supportive of the president’s decision to sack his unpopular prime minister.

And yet, it is crucial to call Saied’s move what it actually is: a coup.

Indeed, the president’s decision to suspend parliament and dismiss the government with the backing of the army and the security forces, while putting limitations on press freedom and making threats of violence, cannot be defined as anything other than a coup d’etat.

This is not an attempt to get lost in technical definitions or police the language being used to define what is currently happening in the country. It is just a statement of fact.

Tunisia’s parliament speaker and head of the Ennahda Party, Rached Ghannouchi, already called the president’s move to sack the prime minister and suspend parliament a coup. But it is not only the resentful leaders and members of the Ennahda Party who are branding it as such and voicing their concerns for the future of Tunisian democracy.

Out of the 12 leading political parties in Tunisia today, six have clearly stated their opposition to President Saied’s move and denounced it as illegitimate. This includes not only Ennahda and its allies Qalb Tounes and Karama, but also the social democratic political party Attayar, the centrist liberal party Al Joumhouri and even the Marxist-Leninst political party Hizb al-Ummal. Two other parties, the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties Ettakatol, meanwhile, opted for a wait-and-see approach and offered limited support to the president while voicing their concerns for the country taking an authoritarian turn following the move.

Indeed, Saied’s actions since Sunday gave further weight to these concerns about a possible slide into authoritarianism.

Faced with growing criticism, he opted to control the media narratives about his move and cracked down on media freedoms. On Monday, at least 20 plain-clothed police officers stormed Al Jazeera’s office in Tunis and shut it down. The move did little to convince Saied’s critics that he is merely leading a constitutional and democratic transition of power, and instead added weight to claims that the country is in fact experiencing a coup. Indeed, democratic transitions do not normally involve the storming of media offices.

Yet, to date Saied has managed to thwart any vehement criticism from the international community, and especially from his Western allies, by falsely reiterating that his moves are based on Article 80 of the constitution, and thus perfectly legal and legitimate.

Article 80 indeed allows a president to take extraordinary measures when there is an “imminent danger threatening the nation”. Yet, it remains unclear what the “imminent danger” was. Tunisia’s economic woes have a been a reality for years now, and its catastrophic health crisis has only been made worse as a result of the president’s political gamble.

Saied’s decision to deny the right of the parliament to remain in a state of continuous session and to give himself the prerogative to appoint the next prime minister were also undoubtedly unconstitutional.

Moreover, the role the Tunisian military played throughout the process, especially its risky decision to block off the parliament, made it even more difficult to deny that this was a coup.

The military’s role in politics as an anti-system force has been expanding for years, but by overtly supporting Saied’s coup it all but publicly announced that it is now officially a politicised force that has a say in who obtains and retains political power in the country.

Moreover, Saied unashamedly used the military to subdue his critics, announcing that if anyone shoots a bullet, “the armed forces will respond with bullets”. This has drawn the military even more dangerously into domestic politics and has undoubtedly changed the balance of force in favour of Saied and his supporters. For instance, it has led to the ousted Tunisian PM Mechichi to quickly accept his sacking and agree to hand over responsibility to whomever the president picks.

Ghannouchi, meanwhile, could only manage to stage a small protest outside Parliament after being denied entry by soldiers. Regardless of what anyone thinks of Ghannouchi or his party, the image of the dismissed head of Tunisia’s parliament trying to reason with faceless soldiers in the dark was a harrowing sign of things to come.

Saied’s character and political track record was another factor that made it obvious to many that what happened on Sunday was a coup. Since taking over the presidency, Saied has repeatedly peddled conspiracy theories, suggested “deep state agents” are plotting against him and even once declared that the “army is on alert to confront conspirators”. His zealous belief in conspiracy theories eventually led him to reject mainstream politics and develop a belief that the state is always under threat and that he is the only one to protect it. Moreover, Saied believes the best path forward for post-revolutionary Tunisia is to abolish political parties and establish instead a direct democracy of local councils. So when he announced that he is suspending the parliament for a 30-day period that can be extended if needed “until the situation settles down”, it was hard to believe that his intention is to ensure a democratic transition of power.

So far, thanks to popular support and military backing, Saied’s coup appears to have been successful. But this does not mean Tunisia has come any closer to establishing a truly democratic and efficient political system and government. The opposing political and non-political forces in the country are now gearing up for a new struggle to establish a new balance of power, and everything signals that the recent developments will only strengthen Tunisia’s political deadlock.

In short, following Saied’s coup, Tunisia’s democracy is still in crisis.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.