According to a report from Middle East Eye on Wednesday, Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi was persuaded to resign over the weekend by getting repeatedly punched in the face, allegedly with the involvement of visiting Egyptian security officials advising President Kais Saied on his bid to assert total control by invoking emergency powers.
Tunisia, birthplace of the “Arab Spring” upheaval a decade ago, was billed as “one of the few democratic transition success stories” (as the UK Guardian put it) to emerge from that once-optimistic international movement.
Saied ran as a dark-horse outsider candidate and won the presidency in 2019, defeating a rich, charismatic, well-connected media mogul named Nabil Karoui. He promptly became entangled in a bitter constitutional dispute over division of powers with the Tunisian parliament.
The Tunisian public – disgruntled over a poor economy, government ineptitude, bureaucratic paralysis, widespread corruption, and then a bungled response to the coronavirus pandemic – largely sided with Saied, a stern reformer whose style was well-matched to a frustrated electorate. His supporters fondly joked that his campaign budget amounted to just enough for a cup of coffee and a pack of cigarettes. He ran his shoestring campaign out of an apartment with peeling paint and broken windows, in a building with a busted elevator.
Saied’s manifestly thin patience with Tunisian politics ran out on Sunday when he invoked emergency powers to seize complete control. Backed by the Tunisian military, he announced he was suspending parliament, sacking the prime minister, rescinding parliamentary immunity so its members could be prosecuted for corruption, and henceforth ruling by decree.
Opposition leaders denounced Saied’s move as a “coup” and violation of the constitution, although Saied argued he was acting in accordance with a constitutional provision that allowed him to exercise unilateral emergency powers for up to 30 days in the event of “imminent danger,” which he said the coronavirus and Tunisia’s economic collapse represented.
Saied’s opponents responded that the national constitutional court would surely rule against his power grab – if it existed. Unfortunately for the sclerotic and bitterly factional parliament, it had never quite gotten around to confirming the court’s membership, even though it was supposed to handle that task in 2014.
The Tunisian military weighed in by blocking the entrance to the parliament building, while Tunisia’s powerful and respected Nobel Prize-winning General Labor Union surprised many observers by siding with Saied, and protesters were marching in the streets urging Saied to finish the job by wiping out the entire government.
The last obstacle was Prime Minister Mechichi, chosen for the job by Saied shortly after his election, whose office is supposed to be roughly equal to the presidency in constitutional stature. Mechichi was also the head of the Tunisian Interior Ministry.
Saied fired Mechichi and several other high-ranking ministers over the weekend, to the great satisfaction of angry Tunisians who blamed Mechichi for mismanaging pandemic response.
Mechichi refused several demands for his resignation before finally giving in. According to Middle East Eye (MEE), Mechichi only agreed to resign because he was beaten up by army officers during his meeting with Saied on Sunday night:
MEE understands that the injuries the 47-year-old sustained were “significant”, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.
“He had injuries to the face, which is why he has not appeared [in public],” one of the sources said.
Mechichi was summoned to the presidential palace on Sunday where President Kais Saied sacked him from his post, announced the suspension of parliament and assumed executive authority following a day of tense anti-government protests. Sources close to the premier made it clear to MEE that the security chiefs who accompanied him to the palace were not part of the plan, whereas the army was.
MEE’s sources further said there were “non-Tunisians” in the palace during the assault on Mechichi, specifically “Egyptian security officials who have been advising Saied before the coup and directing operations as it was taking place.” MEE said it was “unclear” if they played a role in the “interrogation” of the prime minister.
According to the report’s sources, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – who himself took power in a coup against the Muslim Brotherhood and its President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 – and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed offered Saied their support.
The U.S. government expressed “concern” for the “developments in Tunisia” on Monday without explicitly denouncing Saied. The Biden White House said the State Department would “conduct a legal analysis before making a determination” about whether Saied was conducting a coup.
Judging by the reactions from the Biden administration and similar tepid criticism from Europe, Western leaders may not be happy with Saied’s power grab, but they are withholding their strongest condemnations until they see if he can improve the health and economic situation and stabilize Tunisia.
Mechichi said on Thursday that he was not forced to resign and denied the accuracy of the MEE report.
“I categorically deny that I was subjected to violence,” he declared.
MEE nevertheless stood behind the entirety of its report, with editor-in-chief David Hearst suggesting the local papers quoting Mechichi’s denial could be “under threat and subject to intimidation.” MEE also took umbrage at Tunisian media suggesting it was funded and directed by the government of Qatar.
The Washington Post on Wednesday reported that whatever their government policies might be, powerful media “influencers” in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and UAE clearly support Saied’s actions as the “death knell for political Islam,” the “final fall” of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a triumph of “popular will” over Tunisia’s Islamist political parties.
“There has been no talk about Tunisian institutions or keeping up any kind of democratic governance; it’s just being portrayed as people who have liberated themselves from an oppressive Islamist government,” International Crisis Group analyst Elham Fakhro told the Washington Post.
The Post added that it appears “unlikely” any foreign government pressured Saied into taking action, although Saudi and Emirati social media campaigns are strongly supporting him.