• Tuesday, Jun 28, 2022
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Tunisian president’s feud with party elites drove him to seize reins of power

  • Published at 05:57 pm August 8th, 2021
Tunisia Political Turmoil
Police detain a demonstrator during an anti-government protest in Tunis on July 25, 2021 Reuters

'This is the first time in a long time that I don't see things moving in a positive direction'

As he was driven to an urgently scheduled national security meeting with the president, Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi was unable to reach the phones of senior officers to discuss the coming conversation.

Only when he arrived at the presidential palace in Carthage did Mechichi learn the truth: President Kais Saied was invoking emergency powers to dismiss him, freeze parliament and claim executive authority. The officers he had tried to reach were already there.

His moves, labelled a coup by opponents, have left Tunisians and foreign states wondering about the future of the country whose 2011 revolution inspired the Arab Spring and then followed a democratic path unmatched by its peers.

"This is the first time in a long time that I don't see things moving in a positive direction," said Safwan al-Misri of Columbia University and the author of a book on Tunisia.

Interviews with Tunisian officials and others close to major players in the crisis show how feuding over the political system culminated in Saied's intervention.

The crisis was set in train by a 2019 election in which voters rejected the establishment by choosing Saied, an anti-corruption independent, and returning a deeply fragmented parliament.

Saied feuded with Mechichi and Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi. As their quarrel encompassed control of the security forces - the moment, one political source said, that the president realised he had to act.

"Saied was sure the army would stand with him," said a source close to the president.

Saied has provided no clear roadmap but he is widely expected to enshrine a presidential system in a new constitution, ending years of tussling between rival branches of state.

However, except for taking over security institutions and other key ministries, Saied did not appear well prepared, said political scientist Mohammed Dhia-Hammami.

Feud

As the 2019 election approached after years of economic stagnation, established players such as Ghannouchi's moderate Islamist Ennahda party were unpopular.

The unstable government that finally emerged from it collapsed within months and Saied nominated Mechichi as premier. They quickly fell out over Mechichi's choice of coalition partners.

"The president told us he hated treachery. And treachery had come from those closest to him," a senior politician close to Saied said.

Mechichi did not respond to efforts by Reuters to contact him by phone and text message.

In January, after a dispute over a reshuffle, Mechichi said he would serve as interior minister - putting himself at the centre of the security apparatus.

It meant reconciliation with the president was impossible, two sources close to Saied said, and the pair did not meet for two months.

In April, Saied said Interior Ministry forces belonged under his authority. Mechichi responded by appointing an Ennahda ally to head intelligence.

At a meeting with two political parties, Saied said it showed "Mechichi was there only to serve the interests of his allies," one of those present said.

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