Imperfect and riven with political deadlock, Tunisia's democratic experiment was seen as a model, albeit imperfect. The country's elected president, however, sees the country's future under a different political system.

"It's definitely a turning point," says Huda Mzioudet, a researcher in Tunisian and Libyan affairs. "Tunisia after 25 July is not going to be the same as before," she added following President Kais Saied’s announcement he would now be taking over the reins of power.

Tunisian politics has been once again upended with outbreaks of violence providing cover for Saied's announcement. The 63-year-old Saied dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who has the backing of the largest party in parliament, Ennahda, and then quickly suspended parliament.

"It is a leap into the unknown despite the euphoria for some and fears for others," says Mzioudet speaking to TRT World, adding that "we are holding our breaths of what may unfold."

Rumours that Saied was planning to take power have been swirling for months.

A leaked paper, which TRT World has not independently verified, was leaked from the presidential palace in May. The document outlined the steps that President Saied should take to announce taking power and usher in a "constitutional dictatorship."

According to the document, the justification would be an "unusual situation in which the state is in a state of imminent danger."

Events on Sunday seem to have been the trigger for President Saied activating Article 80 of the constitution and accumulating the state's power.

Tunisians were set to mark the country's Republic Day over the weekend. Instead, demonstrations were called all over the country, organised in part by anonymous Facebook groups that sought to rename the national holiday as a "day of anger" against the country's institutions.

The offices of the conservative Ennahda party were ransacked and set on fire by masked men in several cities.

In a statement, the Ennahda party called the attackers "criminal gangs that are instrumentalised from outside and from within the country" in a bid to overthrow democracy and "paving the way for the return of oppression and tyranny."

The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have made no secret of their distaste at the precedent Tunisia has set by engaging in democratic politics since the revolution in 2011 that resulted in widespread protests overthrowing despotic leaders in the Middle East.

Against this backdrop, anger at the government's handling of Covid-19 has proved to be a catalyst for the unfolding events. As a result, Tunisia is the third-worst affected country in Africa, with more than half a million infections. It also has the second-highest death toll on the continent, with almost 19,000.

Disillusionment with the post-Arab spring situation, political deadlock, heightened polarisation, rising corruption and a personal feud between President Saied on the one hand and Prime Minister Mechichi and the Ennahda party have created the impression of a country adrift.

President Saied is using his "political enmity" with Ennahda to further his powers, says Mzioudet.

Is Tunisia's democratic experiment over?

Following his shock announcement, President Saied went to the streets at night in a show of strength greeted by supporters chanting anti-Ennahda slogans.

Yet the move by Saied, far from bringing stability to the beleaguered nation, "represents an important challenge to the democratic experiment in Tunisia," says Umberto Profazio, a North Africa researcher.

Saied's response to genuine popular anger at the country's state has been to "accelerate authoritarian tendencies" in the country that still doesn't have proper checks and balances set up, added Profazio speaking to TRT World.

The country has been without a constitutional court for more than five years amid political wrangling over who should serve on the body that would act as an arbiter in constitutional disputes.

Earlier this year, the Tunisian president rejected a bill that would have set up the constitutional court as five years too late and an attempt by parties to tilt laws in their favour.

"The absence of a constitutional court that would have a say in the president's recent decisions also highlights the deficiencies in Tunisia's system checks and balances, the only legitimate way to shed light on a very extensive and controversial interpretation of article 80 of the Constitution," says Profazio.

Amid the institutional vacuum, critics of the president have dubbed his move a "coup".

The role that social media has been playing in Tunisia is another aspect that will need to be carefully monitored, warns Profazio with a flurry of anti-government messages appearing online.

"The sophistication of these public campaigns on social media has reached unprecedented levels, and it is now difficult to distinguish between a genuine uproar against authorities and their (mis)management of public services and a public campaign aimed at discrediting political rivals using social media as a weapon of mass 'distraction'," says Profazio.

Back in 2011, as protesters took to the streets demanding the overthrow of the longtime dictator Zine el Abedine Ben Ali, social media was a powerful weapon raising awareness and connecting protest groups across the country.

According to Facebook, Tunisia was a significant distributor of propaganda targeting Francophone countries in sub-Saharan Africa until the social media network took down hundreds of fake accounts and news sites masquerading as independent voices.

Yet social media is feeding into some real grievances rather than generating them as is reflected in some of the protests.

The emergence of a strongman?

While some proteseors were jubilant at Presidents Saied's move, "that doesn't reflect the views of everyone," says Mohamed-Dhia Hammami, a Tunisian based analyst says from his home in the country's capital Tunis.

In a country that has been accustomed to one-man rule for several decades, there are still those that cling to notions of a strongman at the helm guiding the nation and making executive decisions. Democracy, in contrast, has proved to be messy and, at times, slow or unable to meet people’s high expectations.

"There has been a demand amongst some quarters for a change in governance style towards a strongman," says Hammami speaking to TRT World.

When President Saied addressed his supporters earlier this year as they chanted for the dissolution of parties and the parliament, his silence indicated to critics a man with a different political vision of the country.

In January of this year, when the parliament approved additional ministers to the government of the now-dismissed Prime Minister Mechichi by almost two-thirds, Saied refused to swear them into office, a constitutional requirement.

That led to the speaker of parliament, Rachid Ghannouchi, a co-founder of the Ennahda party, calling for the country to move to a fully parliamentary system and the president as a figurehead. A proposal that angered the president's supporters.

Saied's tough talk on corruption and entrenched interests has been juxtaposed against the parliament's inability to root it out.

"There is a real, undeniable disillusionment with political parties, and many see Saied as a strongman and as a potential saviour," says Hammami. And Saied has felt comfortable with those demands, added Hammami.

"It will be difficult for him to bring stability even if he concentrates power. If he really goes into an anti-corruption war as he claims, there will definitely be a reaction from the established elites," which will only exacerbate political tensions, says Hammami.

Another complicating factor for Saied will be his ability to control the military, which remained neutral during the 2011 uprising.

Unlike Egypt, where the military was a decisive factor in overthrowing the country's first democratically elected leader, the Tunisian army doesn't have the same economic control over the country as the Egyptian military limiting Saied's control over the productive apparatus of the country, says Hammami.

"Tunisia's problems are too entrenched to be solved by someone like Saied," adds Hammami, as the country leaps into the political unknown. 

Source: TRT World