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Tunisia’s Young Democracy Is Being Tested

[Amman] All eyes are glued on the sudden changes that are taking place in the Republic of Tunisia after the country’s elected president fired the prime minister, suspended the parliament and declared a monthlong state of emergency under which he assumed executive authority. Tunisian police also closed down the offices of the 24-hour Arab news satellite station, Al Jazeera, causing many to complain about the possibility of a widespread effort to curtail independent news from being transmitted from Tunis.

Major blocs in the Tunisian parliament opposed the decision. Al Nahda Islamist, or Ennahda, which occupies 52 of 217 seats, called the decision a “coup,” while the Heart of Tunisia party, with 29 seats, called it a “grave violation of the constitution.” The democratic Stream bloc, with 22 seats, rejected the decision. The Karama (Dignity) Coalition, with 18 seats, called it “illegitimate,” while the left-wing People’s Party, with 15 seats, and the Free Constitution party, with 16 seats, supported the decision.

The Tunisian civil society organization that includes the powerful workers union “warned” President Kais Saied against extending the emergency regulations that were called for on Sunday for longer than one month. The organization, as well as the unions of lawyers and journalists, called for “a road map worked out with partners to get out of the crisis.”

The White House refrained from describing what happened as a coup but expressed concern for the fate of the young democracy in Tunisia. “We are concerned about the developments in Tunisia,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki at a news briefing. “We are in touch at a senior level from both the White House and the State Department with Tunisian leaders to learn more about the situation, urge calm and support Tunisian efforts to move forward in line with democratic principles,” she added.

Psaki said the White House has not made a determination as to whether the Tunisian president’s actions were a coup, adding that it was looking to the US State Department to conduct a legal analysis before making a determination.

Unless Tunisian politicians themselves return to politics of democratic consensus, little the international community can do will spare Tunisia from this fate

Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Media Line that what happened in Tunis reminds him of the Roman historian Tacitus, who said that the best day after the death of a bad emperor is always the first day.  Miller listed the problems facing Tunisia, including: “Touted by so many as the only example of an Arab country that emerged as a democracy in wake of the Arab Spring, a bad economy, COVID, polarization, and a nostalgia for the old order of the (Zine El Abidine) Ben Ali era.”

Miller, a former US State Department Middle East analyst, and peace negotiator in both Republican and Democratic administrations, said that Tunisia is verging on regression to a sad but all-too-familiar state of anti-democratic practice and disorder. “Unless Tunisian politicians themselves return to politics of democratic consensus, little the international community can do will spare Tunisia from this fate,” he said.

“Tunisia has done a remarkable job for the past decade in building the foundation of democratic governance after decades of autocratic rule. This has not been easy, nor has the outcome been assured,” Daniel Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Egypt and Israel, and the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University, told The Media Line. “Outside powers would be wise to offer support for Tunisia’s continued transition, but refrain from overt interference. Democratic governance must emanate from within, not be imposed from the outside,” he added.

Palestinians whose PLO leadership spent years in Tunisia were similarly concerned. The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said it is following closely what is happening in the county, expressing hope that it can overcome the challenges that it is facing. “We hope they will be able to overcome the current challenges and come out of it stable and prosperous,” the ministry said in a statement.

Jordanian lawmaker Omar Al Aisra, a former journalist, told the Media Line that he is opposed to any action that includes prohibiting free expression. “I am clear in my opposition that the closure of Al Jazeera’s office is part of the gagging of free speech and expression. What has happened in Tunisia is very dangerous because it shakes the faith in the experiment of an Arab country which has experienced a mature democratic process and was moving in the right direction after the Arab Spring,” he said.

Tunisian authorities must immediately and unconditionally allow Al Jazeera’s Tunis bureau to resume operations and let all journalists in the country work freely

Nedal Mansour, chairman of the board of the Amman-based Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists, told the Media Line that the Tunisian authorities need to respect freedom of expression.

“Tunisian authorities must respect the right of media outlets to cover in an independent manner what is happening without the pressure of influence,” he said. Mansour called on Tunisia to refrain from any action that curtails this freedom, calling the closure of the Al Jazeera office a “source of concern.”

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) criticized the closure of the media outlet. “Today’s raid by Tunisian security forces on Al Jazeera’s bureau jeopardizes the country’s bellwether status for press freedom in the region, 10 years after Tunisians fought to begin a transition to democracy,” said CPJ Senior Middle East and North Africa Researcher Justin Shilad. “Tunisian authorities must immediately and unconditionally allow Al Jazeera’s Tunis bureau to resume operations and let all journalists in the country work freely,” he added.

Arab countries have taken positions that reflect where Tunisia stands with regard to Islamists, even while making a general statement of support for the stability of the country.

Qatar called on all sides to avoid escalation while “giving the higher interest of the Tunisian people the priority, without escalation.”

According to the Saudi Press Agency, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan called his Tunisian counterpart, Othman Jerandi. The Saudi minister expressed his country’s deep concern about the security, stability and prosperity of Tunisia and offered “any help in this direction.”

Most Arab countries have taken a neutral or passive position.

(With additional research by Mohammad Ersan)