Envoy: Presidential purge meant to safeguard Tunisian democracy
Tunisian envoy to Nairobi Hatem Landoulsi says the recent decision by his country’s President to purge his government and suspend parliament for a month, was crucial to give power back to the people.
Mr Landoulsi argued that President Kaïs Saïed’s decision to fire his Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and several cabinet ministers was necessary to safeguard the country’s democracy, not return the country to a dictatorship.
The envoy spoke to the Nation.Africa amid chaos in his country that has seen people push for radical changes in government offices. On July 25, President Saïed removed his Prime Minister and suspended the country’s Parliament for 30 days.
He purged some key government ministers in what he argued was a response to calls by the public to tame runaway corruption and lethargic response to Covid-19. Critics of the move say it amounted to a coup.
The Ambassador disagreed, telling the Nation it was a necessary evil.
“The measures taken by the President are temporary and meant to protect the country, the democratic process, freedoms, and the rule of law, with no intention of suppressing the gains made since 2011, or instrumentalising the state for partisan purposes,” Landoulsi said, referring to the 2011 revolution which removed longtime dictator Zine el Abedine Ben Ali.
“For several months now, in several cities of the country, there have been calls for a radical change at the political class level, and for the dissolution of the parliament. President Saïed responded to this unchallenged popular appeal, basing himself on the provisions of the Constitution (Article 80).”
Tunisia, the northern Africa country of about 12 million people is often seen as the only successful story of the Arab Spring, a series of reform-calling protests that swept through the Arab world from 2010. Neighbours Libya and Egypt who faced the same protests either got worse after dictators left (Libya) or the protests’ regime change muzzled (Egypt). In the wider Middle East, some of the leaders in power got bolder as in Syria.
In Tunisia, the spark was lit by the harassment by municipal council officials of a hawker identified as Mohamed Bouazizi. Angered by the confiscation of his wares, Bouazizi immolated himself on January 4, 2011, eliciting wider anger in his locality.
The protests would expand across the country, drawing support from a public tired of Ben Ali’s corruption and rising unemployment. The country quickly turned to democracy and the council of leaders that helped with the transition, the National Dialogue Quartet, in fact, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.
Reap maximum benefits
Yet even Tunisia has struggled to reap maximum benefits from its democracy. People enjoy freedom of expression and other civil liberties, but unemployment numbers have remained high.
Tunisia has been one of the countries whose citizens have been dying at sea trying to cross into Europe to look for opportunities, according to data from the International Organisation for Migration [IMO].
The President’ decision on July 25 came in the wake of public criticism of his cabinet for graft and poor handling of the pandemic, both in preventing infections and dealing with the economic aftermath of restrictions.
By the time he fired the PM, Tunisia was reporting an average of 2,400 new cases per day in July. The country has reported more than 20,600 deaths out of 605,000 infections, making it one of the heavily affected African countries.
Mr Landoulsi admitted Tunisia was going through “a very delicate period in its history” but said political support from within and outside the country will make it survive.
“The mismanagement of the health situation unfortunately made Tunisia reach unprecedented death records. And the situation would have been even worse, without the support of many brotherly and friendly countries,” he told the Nation.
“There will be no change to Tunisia’s firm commitment and that of the President of the Republic to guaranteeing rights and freedoms, respecting the rule of law and the democratic path in our country, which he affirmed in all his interventions.”
Although there are fears of relapsing into a dictatorship, the President himself has enjoyed massive support in his purge. A local pollster last week indicated that up to nine in ten Tunisians supported the purge.
Saïed, 63, is a former constitutional law professor who came to power after the death of post-revolution President Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi in July 2019. His officials say that experience will stand him in good stead.
“Throughout his professional life, President Kaïs Saïed has taught constitutional law and related principles.
“It clearly still prevails today, in addition to the burden of the responsibilities incumbent upon it, and this integrity that no one denies, and which is a considerable asset for the country,” said the Tunisian envoy.