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Tunisia's fledgling democracy in turmoil as president ousts government, freezes parliament

Tunisia is facing its worst crisis in a decade of democracy after President Kais Saied ousted the government and suspended parliament with help from the army, a move denounced as a coup by the country's main parties, including Islamists. Saied's action followed months of deadlock and disputes pitting him against Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and a fragmented parliament, as Tunisia descended into an economic crisis exacerbated by one of Africa's worst COVID-19 outbreaks. Dr. William Lawrence, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the American University in Washington DC, calls this unfolding political crisis "an extremely dangerous situation," referring to the Tunisian president's power grab as "January 6th United States on steroids: he's succeeded in doing what Trump would have wanted to do." Dr. Lawrence has been getting reports from Tunisia that the "prime minister was physically attacked" during his meeting with the president on Sunday. And as a part of this current power grab, the president is "taking control of all three branches of government. There's even word from Tunisia that he sacked all of the elected mayors, which doesn't really make sense but that's what they're saying - the mayors themselves." Dr. Lawrence warns this is "looking more and more like a coup," lamenting that "you don't really get the sense that this is about problem-solving, it's about score-settling and grabbing power." Following the advent of the Arab Spring in 2011 two revolutions unfolded in Tunisia, observes Dr. Lawrence: "a political one and a socio-economic one. And the political one succeeded in getting rid of the dictator and setting up a constitutional democracy. But the socio-economic one never really bore dividends, and the people are just as angry now about their socio-economic conditions as they were before. And Covid made it much much worse." Now the former French colony finds itself in a likely standoff between the president and "a block of the majority of parties opposing this action." (Dr. William Lawrence is also a former senior diplomat and the former North Africa Project Director at International Crisis Group)
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