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Explainer: What caused Tunisia’s President to sack PM, suspend Parliament?

Published: Updated:

On Sunday, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied announced he would sack the country’s Prime Minister and suspend Parliament following a series of widespread protests amid an economic crisis fueled by COVID-19.

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The decision has triggered reactions from around the world, with many waiting to see what President Saied’s next steps for Tunisia will be.
But what triggered the President to take these actions?

Fractured government

Since the 2010 Tunisia has been ruled by a parliament, albeit a fractured one. Opposing parties came together in a form of power-sharing with their own views and prejudices against the other, leading to clashes, sometimes physical, and governmental paralysis.

The majority of Tunisia’s Parliament consists of: The Islamist Ennahda party, the Free Destourian Party (‘Destour’ translates to ‘Constitution’ in English), the Heart of Tunisia and the Democratic Current, among others.

Ennahda became the Parliament’s largest party due to votes, which were arguably affected by the fact that it was one of the few established parties at the time of its latest formation – although turnout in 2019 for the parliamentary vote was low at just over 40 percent.

Abir Moussi (C), president of the Free Destourian Party (PLD), lifts her face mask as she gestures during a parliamentary session as Tunisian lawmakers debate ahead of a confidence vote on the new government reshuffle by the prime minister at the Tunisian Assembly headquarters in the capital Tunis on January 26, 2021. (AFP)
Abir Moussi (C), president of the Free Destourian Party (PLD), lifts her face mask as she gestures during a parliamentary session as Tunisian lawmakers debate ahead of a confidence vote on the new government reshuffle by the prime minister at the Tunisian Assembly headquarters in the capital Tunis on January 26, 2021. (AFP)

The President, however, is not affiliated with any political party. It was in fact Saied’s independence which won over voters in the 2019 presidential election, Sarah Yerkes, a former State Department and Pentagon official and senior fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program who focuses on Tunisian politics, told online news media Vox.

When asked about the heightened tensions in Tunisia’s parliament, Yerkes told Vox: “It’s always been there. The difference is the polarization — before, there was kind of a consensus government and all the parties put aside their differences. And now, people are literally beating each other up in the Parliament.”

The Tunisian people have become increasingly disenfranchised with parliament, with numerous accounts of underhand political dealings and corruption rife in its 10 years of existence. Since 2011, the country has had nine governments. The lack of stability and widespread polarization in the midst of an economic crisis caused protests to break out across the country.

Protests and the COVID-19 pandemic

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic which worsened the country’s crisis. Tunisia’s GDP contracted by 8.6 percent in 2020 alone, according to the World Bank.

Demonstrators gather in front of police officers standing guard during an anti-government protest in Tunis, Tunisia, July 25, 2021. (Reuters)
Demonstrators gather in front of police officers standing guard during an anti-government protest in Tunis, Tunisia, July 25, 2021. (Reuters)

The country’s coronavirus-related deaths kept increasing, eventually climbing to almost 18,000 – one of the biggest death rates per capita, with only 7 percent of its 11.7 million population vaccinated against the virus.

The country was experiencing mass protests spurred by the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, COVID-19 deaths reached a record, passing 300 in a period of 24 hours, the BBC reported on Tuesday.

In a move to speed up COVID-19 vaccinations, the government officially opened up vaccinations to everyone aged 18 and over. The announcement was met with stampedes and violent incidents, leading to the eventual sacking of the health minister, initiated by then-Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi.

Protests broke out on July 25, Tunisia’s Republic Day, when protestors stormed the offices of the Islamist Ennahda party, and calling for Mechichi to quit and parliament to be dissolved.

When President Saied announced that he would be suspending Tunisia’s parliament and dismissing Mechichi, people took the streets in celebration.

Read more:

What is Article 80 and how did Tunisia’s president use it to back his decisions?

Kais Saeid is no coup leader

EU calls for quick return to ‘stability’ in Tunisia