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Tunisia: Kaïs’s coup – chronicle of a crazy day

By Frida Dahmani
Posted on Tuesday, 27 July 2021 13:11

After the broadcast of Kaïs Saïed's statement, several thousand Tunisians took to the streets to celebrate what looked like a "constitutional coup d'état" and to welcome the military who had moved to the top of Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis/rights reserved

During the evening of 25 July, President Kaïs Saïed surprised his government with the announcement of the suspension of the activities of the National Assembly and the removal of the head of government, Hichem Mechichi. How did Tunisia get here?

Tunisians thought that the gold medal won by swimmer Ayoub Hafnaoui in the 400 metres in Tokyo would be the highlight of the commemoration of the advent of the Republic, held in the context of popular demands. They were wrong: they were going to witness twists and turns in rapid succession, until the President of the Republic, Kaïs Saïed, finally announced he had assumed full powers.

Between the pandemic, the heat wave and multiple simultaneous crises, Tunisians had not paid much attention to the demonstrations announced for 25 July.

Even the most passive Tunisian believes that going out in the street is a necessary outlet for general frustration and that the calls to demonstrate made by different factions were justified, including those who were pro-Saïed. No one could have imagined that this was all a preamble to a coup d’état.

Usually, the demonstrations are concentrated in Tunis. But on this day, from eleven o’clock in the morning, various towns came alive, including the most peaceful ones, such as Tozeur. The demonstrators demanded the dissolution of the Assembly and violently attacked the Islamists party Ennahdha.

Unlike the rallies that have shaken the country since last January, this time the demonstrators attacked, looted and burned the regional offices of the party. The perpetrators were young people identified by observers as ‘the machine that supports Kaïs Saïed’, young people to whom the head of state owes his popularity and his installation in Carthage in 2019.

Suspension of the Parliament

On 25 July, this group helped to stage an uprising that allowed Saïed, just a few hours later, to push through his most forceful move.

For several days now, the president has been in the habit of holding nightly meetings with the armed forces, of which he is the chief, to deal with the pandemic which he has entrusted to the army to manage.

So far, nothing unusual. But the rumours circulating were becoming more and more insistent about an uprising of the poor neighbourhoods against the wealthy, a movement that will push Saïed to his most radical decisions.

By the beginning of the evening, Saïed takes everyone by surprise and accelerates events. He sends Assembly and the government home by announcing the suspension of the work of the Parliament for 30 days, the lifting of the immunity of the deputies and the dismissal of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and his team.

His last move? He gave himself full power.

Saïed invokes Article 80 of the Constitution to legitimise his actions. This article defines the margins of manoeuvre “in case of imminent danger threatening the institutions of the nation and the security and independence of the country and hindering the regular functioning of the public authorities”. But it does not provide for any of the measures that have been taken.

Popular jubilation

No one is fooled: this is a coup by Saïed against the system that allowed him to be elected. “It’s unheard of for a president to carry out a coup d’état,” says an expatriate on holiday who is struggling to understand events.

The popular reaction is immediate. Despite the curfew introduced to curb the pandemic and the state of emergency constantly renewed since the terrorist attacks of 2015, Tunisians let their joy explode, invading the streets, singing, dancing and crying with relief.

No one had realised that the detestation of the Islamists was so deeply rooted in the population. In power since 2011, they are accused of all the excesses and the catastrophic situation of the country. The chaos of the debates in the Assembly, regularly disrupted by the outbursts of the El Karama coalition, and the excesses of Abir Moussi, have not enhanced the value of parliamentary democracy among the population.

Mechichi detained in Carthage

Impassioned debates are raging on social networks. Those who believe that the coup was necessary show little regard for the president’s methods. Some, on the contrary, try to explain that the president has contributed to the crisis, but are immediately taken to task.

“Personally, I am horrified. I would have liked the parliament to be dissolved and the government dismissed, just like Kaïs Saïed. I want early elections, not a coup d’état, and even less that the army gets involved,” writes Emna Mnif, a civil society figure. Many are of this opinion, but their voices are lost in the general hullabaloo.

In the meantime, the army has been deployed throughout the country around the institutions and vital centres of the country. Land and air borders are closed and 64 deputies, who have cases in court, are likely to be arrested. Saïed offered himself to a crowd in the centre of Tunis, a stone’s throw from the Ministry of the Interior, which he had just entrusted to Khaled Yahyaoui, head of the presidential guard.

Saïed marks the end of the mandate of the head of government, Mechichi, who was himself acting as interim head of government. Mechichi and his ministers are absent: the outgoing head of the executive is held in Carthage until the deployment of the army, then driven home.

Ennahdha sit-in

Less than a kilometre from the eruptions of jubilation of the city centre, demonstrators are trying to fight back and are trying, without success, to reach the headquarters of Ennahdha where an emergency meeting has just been adjourned. Its leader and president of the Assembly, Rached Ghannouchi, immediately denounces a ‘coup d’état’. Ghannouchi goes with elected officials to the Bardo, the Assembly Palace.

The army prevent him from entering the parliament and he spends the rest of the night in his car, in front of the gate of the Bardo Palace. He tells Al Jazeera that he considers the actions of Saïed to be illegal, and calls for reinforcements from his militants at the same time as he starts a sit-in. They join him in the morning and are pushed back when they launch an assault on the Parliament.

There is a peculiar silence on Monday morning, 26 July. It is like the morning after a wild party, everyone waking up to the consequences of the day before. The politicians do not speak much, but seem to be opposed to the presidential manoeuvre. Like all Tunisians, one question torments them: “Can we now avoid bloodshed?

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