TUNIS (Reuters) -- As he was driven to an urgently scheduled national security meeting with the president, Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi was unable to reach the phones of senior officers to discuss the coming conversation.
Only when he arrived at the presidential palace in Carthage did Mechichi learn the truth: President Kais Saied was invoking emergency powers to dismiss him, freeze parliament and claim executive authority. The officers he had tried to reach were already there.
His moves, labeled a coup by opponents, have left Tunisians and foreign states wondering about the future of the country whose 2011 revolution inspired the Arab Spring and then followed a democratic path unmatched by its peers.
“This is the first time in a long time that I don’t see things moving in a positive direction,” said Safwan al-Misri of Columbia University and the author of a book on Tunisia.
Interviews with Tunisian officials and others close to major players in the crisis show how feuding over the political system culminated in Saied’s intervention.
The crisis was set in train by a 2019 election in which voters rejected the establishment by choosing Saied, an anti-corruption independent, and returning a deeply fragmented parliament.
Saied feuded with Mechichi and Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi. As their quarrel encompassed control of the security forces - the moment, one political source said, that the president realized he had to act.
“Saied was sure the army would stand with him,” said a source close to the president.
Saied has provided no clear roadmap but he is widely expected to enshrine a presidential system in a new constitution, ending years of tussling between rival branches of state.
However, except for taking over security institutions and other key ministries, Saied did not appear well prepared, said political scientist Muhammad Dhia-Hammami.
“He is a strongman in a weak position,” he said.
As the 2019 election approached after years of economic stagnation, established players such as Ghannouchi’s moderate Ennahda party were unpopular.
The unstable government that finally emerged from it collapsed within months and Saied nominated Mechichi as premier. They quickly fell out over Mechichi’s choice of coalition partners.
“The president told us he hated treachery. And treachery had come from those closest to him,” a senior politician close to Saied said.