Tunisia: A 'populist' coup two years in the making

Tunisia: A 'populist' coup two years in the making
Opinion: Sunday night's coup in which Tunisian President Kais Saied dissolved parliament and fired the prime minister should have been anticipated in light of Saied's frequent and public criticisms of the political system, writes Ernest Khoury.
5 min read
26 Jul, 2021
'Tunisia has found itself with a populist president who created a new mode of coup' writes Khoury. [Getty]

It does not need much deliberation to label the decisions made by Tunisian President Kais Saied on Sunday night as a coup. The unconstitutionality of the steps he has taken is clear, regardless of legalities around the interpretation of Article 80 of the constitution, and regardless of your opinion of Ennahda or political Islam.

Saied has mounted a model of coup strange by any measure - not only in the Arab world - but in the history of coups. This is a president who began preparing to bring down the constitution which brought him into power the day he was elected, and similarly to attack the very institutions it was his job to protect. Usually, coups are staged by forces external to the ruling regime, not by the person who heads that regime.

In general, it is the military and its leadership, or a defence minister, or an opposition who will mount a coup attempt. They make false promises about their desire to reinstate democracy and run early elections in order to deliver an "honest" ruling regime; they will slam the toppled regime for having descended into a tyrannical mode of government, failing to manage its affairs and betraying the people.

As for Kais Saied, Tunisia has found itself with a populist president who has created a new mode of coup that many may aspire to further down the line.

"This is a president who began preparing to bring down the constitution which brought him into power the day he was elected, and similarly to attack the very institutions it was his job to protect"

It's no exaggeration to state that preparations for the coup in Tunisia since Sunday night have been underway since October 2019 - the month of Saied's election into the presidency. From day one, Saied embraced the slogans and fervour of the Tunisian revolution, cultivating a populist image, while it was clear from his speeches that he had no actual political substance.

The well-known chant of the revolution "The people want the fall of the regime" was adopted by Saied as soon as he came to power. He has been saying it himself: "The president wants the fall of the regime". He does not recognise the institutions, the parties, nor the 2014 constitution, which he has spent half of his time in power insulting because it curbs governmental power and counters the powers of the legislative, judicial and executive authorities.

While refusing to take part in the committee which drafted the constitution, Saied did not hesitate to use it once it was complete as a vehicle into the presidency.

In another political twist - with psychological aspects - Saied has been able to play on the emotions and revolutionary nostalgia which exists in a large segment of Tunisian society. In doing so, he benefitted from the clear failure of successive governments in the wake of the worst economic and health crises the country has ever seen.

Security forces try to secure the parliament building as supporters and opponents of the coup gather in front of it [Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

Saied has also benefitted from the fact that across the political spectrum there have been those loudly announcing that Tunisia should end its democratic exceptionalism. This is within an Arab region broadly opposed to everything Tunisia has represented for the last 10 years; a dangerous, potentially contagious democratic experiment whose influence still looms large in the hearts and minds of many in the Arab world.

Since he was elected, Saied has been frank regarding his opinions and his intentions: The parliamentary system is poison; the separation of powers hinders my ability to act; I have tools to attack individual absolute power and these are available at any time; parties are expired instruments in politics; politics is in any case an awful system; parliament means chaos. Saied has repeated these six statements at every opportunity for the last two years and perhaps everyone should take responsibility for a failure to deal with them with the necessary seriousness.

Tunisians did not expect this to happen. Nor did Arabs, who thought that during Tunisia's democratic experience over the last 10 years, freedoms and institutions had been established which would guard against the tyrannical and power-hungry aspirations of a president who hated his country’s constitution and political system.

He has committed multiple crimes: he stopped a constitutional court being formed; incited against parliament; waged war against all political parties, and disrupted the functioning of institutions under the pretext of wishing to preserve the powers enshrined in the constitution, which he openly detested.

"This is within an Arab region which is opposed to everything Tunisia has represented for the last 10 years"

As for the Tunisian army, we had long thought that there were no political aspirations among its leadership. This reassurance was made frequently in political and academic discourse when events in the region - for example in Egypt and Syria - were compared with Tunisia's situation. However, on Sunday night it became apparent that there were limits to the nature of this Tunisian military exceptionalism.

High-ranking military leaders gathered around the president and gave their blessing to the coup. The subtext in this action was clear: parliament is surrounded by the army who are stationed in the streets. The headquarters of parties hated by Saied have been left unprotected and the prime minister is in hiding, either fleeing arrest or having already been arrested.

Politics has been shunted aside for gangs in the streets enacting a coup with the same old slogan: "The people want…". The silence in the face of the coup is a moral scandal, as is the support professed for it by some who wish to posture as liberals. Tunisians have been slow to descend into the streets in order to protect Tunisia's democratic institutions.


It is expected that they will come out in force, but peacefully, and there are no real fears of civil war. In Tunisia, civil war is not impossible, but highly unlikely. Those who have tasted freedom for the last 10 years, even if they have also experienced poverty and a failure to fully realize their democracy, know that it is possible to protect the country's greatest gains without sliding into violence.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here. Translated by Rose Chacko.

Ernest Khoury is the Managing editor of Al-Araby al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication.

Have questions or comments? Email us at editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.