CAIRO — Tunisia’s fledgling democracy, the only one remaining from the popular revolutions that swept the Arab world a decade ago, verged on the brink of dissolution Monday after its president sought to seize power from the rest of the government, moves that his political opponents denounced as a coup.
The president, Kais Saied, who announced the power grab late Sunday, did not appear to have completely succeeded in taking control as of Monday evening, as chaos enveloped the North African country. But many Tunisians expressed support for and even jubilation over his actions, frustrated with an economy that never seemed to improve and a pandemic that has battered hospitals in recent weeks.
With Syria, Yemen and Libya undone by civil war, Egypt’s attempt at democracy crushed by a counterrevolution and protests in the Gulf States quickly snuffed out, Tunisia was the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring revolutions with a democracy, if a fragile one.
But the nation where the uprisings began now finds even the remnants of its revolutionary ideals in doubt, posing a major test for the Biden administration’s commitment to democratic principles abroad.
In defiance of the president’s moves, the prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, said he would hold a cabinet meeting even after Mr. Saied announced the dismissal of him and several ministers, while parts of Parliament said they would continue to meet virtually even as soldiers cordoned off the Parliament building.
But the danger remained that Mr. Saied would back up his power grab with greater force, whether by further deploying the military or arresting top officials.
Already, the president had announced he was assuming the public prosecutor’s powers and stripping lawmakers of their immunity.
The Qatari-funded news channel Al Jazeera, which is politically aligned with Tunisia’s leading political party, Ennahda — one of Mr. Saied’s chief antagonists — said on Monday that a force of 20 plainclothes security officers had forced its staff to leave its bureau in Tunis, the capital, confiscating the keys and banning their re-entry without a court order.
It was a sharp escalation of a monthslong political crisis that in some ways has been brewing since Tunisians toppled their dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in January 2011, hoping for more freedoms and better lives.
While Tunisia may have achieved many of the trappings of a democracy, it has struggled with high unemployment, a sluggish economy and corruption, leaving many questioning whether the revolution was worth it.
Protests and strikes frequently racked the country, and popular discontent widened the gap between elites who praised Tunisia’s democratic gains and Tunisians who simply wanted to improve their lot. The coronavirus pandemic has recently overwhelmed the health system and shaken the government even further, as Tunisians in recent weeks died of Covid-19 at the highest rate in the Middle East and Africa.
On Sunday, demonstrators across Tunisia called for the dissolution of Parliament, giving Mr. Saied some popular cover to announce that night that he was firing Mr. Mechichi, freezing Parliament and taking executive authority.
Ennahda, which has consistently attracted support in parliamentary elections, but whose strength has proved divisive because of its Islamist background and failures to improve the economy, called it “a coup against the Tunisian democracy and its constitution” and “a betrayal of every Tunisian,” urging Mr. Saied to reverse his decisions immediately.
“Tunisia is the only Arab Spring’s success story and that story does not end here,” Ennahda said in a statement. “We call on every international supporter of democracy to come together to speak out immediately against this injustice and call for the immediate restoration of our Parliament.”
But soldiers had closed off Parliament on Monday afternoon. Outside, crowds gathered in front of the building, those in support of Ennahda on one side and supporters of Mr. Saied on the other, some occasionally throwing water bottles and rocks at the others.
Among Mr. Saied’s supporters was Amel Barhoumi, 30, who said that like many other Tunisians, she was exhausted by the country’s endless political turmoil.
“We are so tired. We are not against democracy; we want change,” she said. “Nobody trusts the political elite right now. I think the way the pandemic was handled was the last straw.”
The showdown, while shocking, was a long time coming, as Mr. Saied, who was elected in a landslide in 2019, had faced off nearly ever since with Mr. Mechichi and the speaker of Parliament, Rachid Ghannouchi.
Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution divides executive power between the president, the prime minister and the speaker of Parliament, yet Mr. Saied has been hinting for months at expanding his authority as president by refusing to swear in ministers and blocking the formation of a constitutional court, raising alarm among opponents and political analysts.
In response to chaos in Tunisia’s Covid-19 vaccination rollout last week and a surge in cases that has overwhelmed hospitals, Mr. Saied stripped control of Tunisia’s coronavirus response from the Health Ministry and handed it to the military.
On Sunday night, when he announced in a statement broadcast on state media and posted to Facebook that he would dismiss Mr. Mechichi, “freeze” Parliament for 30 days and assume executive power with the help of a new government to be appointed by him, Mr. Saied cited Article 80 of the Constitution, which he said permits the president exceptional powers. He said he had consulted both Mr. Mechichi and Mr. Ghannouchi and held an emergency meeting with other officials before acting.
Mr. Saied said he was doing so to preserve the country’s “security and independence and to protect the normal operation of state institutions.”
Article 80, however, accords the president such powers only if there is an imminent threat to the country. And Mr. Ghannouchi denied he had been consulted on Sunday in a statement on Ennahda’s Facebook page.
Mr. Ghannouchi also decried what he called a “coup” and called the suspension of Parliament “unconstitutional, illegal and invalid.” The assembly “remains in place and will fulfill its duty,” he added.
“This is not a suspension of the Constitution,” Mr. Saied said in the televised statement, adding, in what appeared to be an attempt to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the legal system, “We work within the law, but if the law turns into a tool for settling scores and a tool for thieves who have plundered funds and money from impoverished people, these are not laws that express the will of the people, but rather tools to steal the will of the people.”
He also had an ominous warning for “the many who would attempt to rebel or resort to arms,” saying: “Whoever fires a single bullet, our armed and security forces will retaliate with a barrage of bullets.”
Videos posted to social media showed crowds cheering, honking, ululating and waving Tunisian flags after the president announced Mr. Mechichi’s dismissal late on Sunday night, the dark night lit up by red flares.
Other videos showed Mr. Saied making his way through a dense crowd of cheering supporters along Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Tunis, where revolutionaries gathered during the 2011 protests.
The next step for Tunisia is unclear. The country has so far failed to form the constitutional court, called for in the 2014 Constitution, that could adjudicate such disputes.
In his statement, Mr. Saied said cryptically that “a decree will be issued in the coming hours regulating these exceptional measures that the circumstances have dictated,” adding that the measures “will be lifted when those circumstances change.” He also fired the defense minister and acting justice minister on Monday afternoon.
The political divisions in Tunisia reflect a wider split in the Middle East between regional powers who supported the Arab revolutions and the political Islamist groups that came to power at the time (Turkey and Qatar), and those who worked to roll back the uprisings (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt). There were fears that the crisis could make Tunisia more vulnerable than ever to interference from more powerful countries on both sides, though all but Turkey and Qatar, who released statements of concern, remained quiet on Monday.
“Turkey always stands with democracy and the people everywhere,” tweeted Fahrettin Altun, a spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. “We are therefore concerned about the most recent developments in Tunisia, and maintain that democracy must be restored without delay.”
Qatar’s Foreign Ministry said it hoped that “the Tunisian parties would follow the path of dialogue to overcome the crisis” and “avoid escalation.”
The European Union on Monday said it was closely following the developments in Tunis. “We call on all Tunisian actors to respect the Constitution, its institutions and the rule of law,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “We also call on them to remain calm and to avoid any resort to violence in order to preserve the stability of the country.”
Nada Rashwan contributed reporting from Cairo, and Lilia Blaise from Tunis.