All political power in Tunisia now rests with President Kais Saied as of July 27. Under Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution, executive power in the country lies with the president, prime minister, and parliament. On the evening of July 25, President Saied dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechiechi, suspended the country’s Parliament for 30 days, and stripped lawmakers of immunity. Parliamentary immunity is a legal doctrine, which grants members of parliament in a country immunity from prosecution. The system allows members of parliament to vote however they see fit on a policy matter or a piece of legislation without the fear of prosecution. The Speaker of the Parliament and head of the moderate Islamist Party – Ennahda – condemned Saied’s move and has called it a coup. Ennahda is also the largest political party in Tunisia.
Saied’s consolidation of power came following nationwide violent demonstrations across the country on July 25. The demonstrations transpired on Republic Day, which commemorates the anniversary of the country’s vote to abolish the monarchy and establish the republic on July 25, 1957. The demonstrations had been organized to denounce the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and deteriorating economic conditions throughout the country. Tunisia has one of the highest per capita fatality rates, with just seven percent of Tunisians fully inoculated to date. The slow rollout of the vaccine program prompted President Saied to dismiss the country’s health minister and to task the military to take over the process.
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on Tunisia’s economy, which is heavily dependent on the tourism industry. The country’s economy contracted by 8.6 percent in 2020; the current 17 percent unemployment rate will likely rise as the detrimental economic impact of the global crisis ripples throughout the country, exacerbating existing socioeconomic issues. The recent political maneuvering by Saied will almost certainly aggravate the country’s economic situation as it will introduce political uncertainty. The incident also transpires amid the Tunisian government’s efforts to secure a new loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to address budget deficits.
Tunisia has been in a precarious political situation for years. However, never has the country faced such uncertainty since the Arab Spring events of 2011 that toppled the Ben Ali regime. While Tunisia has all the accoutrements of a democracy, political infighting and lack of governance have degraded people’s confidence in its leaders and institutions. Corruption remains prevalent, and most Tunisians do not trust their political representatives.
While Saied’s actions have been widely denounced by the country’s political parties, the public appears to largely support him. Saied must move very swiftly to appoint a new prime minister to restore order and remove political uncertainty. Additionally, this political uncertainty – unless resolved very quickly – could further hurt the country’s economy, which could result in a prolonged period of political instability.
Tunisia‘s market-oriented economy has been cited as a success in Africa and the Arab world. However, it has faced an array of challenges since the 2011 Arab Spring Revolution including high rates of unemployment and slow economic growth. After the failed socialist economic policies of the 1960s, Tunisia embarked on a strategy to bolster exports, tourism and foreign investment all of which are now the country’s economic pillars. The biggest industries in Tunisia are Agriculture, Oil Mining, Renewable Energy and Electricity, Automotive Parts, Equipment and Services.