CAIRO — Tunisia’s fledgling democracy, the only one remaining from the popular revolutions that swept the Arab world a decade ago, trembled on the brink of collapse Monday after its president sought to seize power from the rest of the government in what his political opponents denounced as a coup.
The president, Kais Saied, who announced the power grab late Sunday, did not appear to have completely succeeded in taking control as of Monday evening, as chaos enveloped the North African country. But many Tunisians expressed support for him and even jubilation over his actions, frustrated with an economy that never seemed to improve and a pandemic that has battered hospitals in recent weeks.
With Syria, Yemen and Libya undone by civil war, Egypt’s attempt at democracy crushed by a counterrevolution and protests in the Gulf States quickly extinguished, Tunisia was the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring revolutions with a democracy, if a fragile one.
But the nation where the uprisings began now finds even the remnants of its revolutionary ideals in doubt, posing a major test for the Biden administration’s commitment to democratic principles abroad.
statement. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, in a phone call Monday with Mr. Saied, encouraged him “to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights,” a spokesman said.
Defying the Tunisian president, the prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, said he would hold a cabinet meeting even after Mr. Saied announced the dismissal of him and several ministers. Parts of Parliament said they would meet virtually even as soldiers cordoned off the Parliament building.
But the danger remained that Mr. Saied would back up his power grab with greater force, whether by further deploying the military or arresting top officials.
“This is a very concerning development that puts the democracy at great risk of unraveling,” said Safwan M. Masri, executive vice president of Columbia University’s Global Centers network, who studies Tunisia. Referring to Mr. Saied, he said: “An optimistic scenario would be that the Parliament and the Constitution and democratic institutions would prevail and that he would be forced out of office. But I would not bet any money on it.”
Already, the president has announced that he was assuming the public prosecutor’s powers and stripping lawmakers of immunity.
whether the revolution was worth it.
Protests and strikes frequently racked the country, and popular discontent widened the gap between elites who praised Tunisia’s democratic gains and Tunisians who simply wanted to improve their lot.
The coronavirus pandemic made things worse by devastating Tunisia’s tourist industry, an important economic engine. The virus has shaken the government and the health system even further in recent weeks as Tunisians have died of Covid-19 at the highest rate in the Middle East and Africa.
On Sunday, demonstrators across Tunisia called for the dissolution of Parliament, giving Mr. Saied some popular cover to announce that night that he was firing Mr. Mechichi, freezing Parliament for 30 days and assuming executive authority.
Tarek Megerisi, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “They blame them for all the country’s problems and think that they need to be removed.”
The showdown was a long time coming, with Mr. Saied locked since his election in political infighting with Mr. Mechichi and the speaker of Parliament, Rachid Ghannouchi.
Mr. Saied has been hinting for months at expanding his authority by refusing to swear in ministers and blocking formation of a constitutional court, raising alarm among opponents and political analysts.
In response to chaos in Tunisia’s Covid-19 vaccination rollout last week and a surge in cases that has overwhelmed hospitals, Mr. Saied stripped control of Tunisia’s coronavirus response from the Health Ministry and handed it to the military.
On Sunday night, Mr. Saied cited Article 80 of the Constitution, which he said permits the president exceptional powers. He said he had consulted both Mr. Mechichi and Mr. Ghannouchi and held an emergency meeting with other officials before acting.
Mr. Saied said he was doing so to preserve the country’s “security and independence and to protect the normal operation of state institutions.”
Article 80, however, accords the president such powers only if the country faces an imminent threat and only after the prime minister and parliament speaker have been consulted. Mr. Ghannouchi denied that he had been.
In a statement, Mr. Ghannouchi deplored what he called a “coup” and described the suspension of Parliament as “unconstitutional, illegal and invalid.” The assembly “remains in place and will fulfill its duty,” he said.
In a televised statement, Mr. Saied said, “This is not a suspension of the Constitution.” And he sounded an ominous warning to adversaries: “Whoever fires a single bullet, our armed and security forces will retaliate with a barrage of bullets.”
Videos posted to social media showed crowds cheering, honking, ululating and waving Tunisian flags after the president’s actions Sunday night, the dark night lit up by red flares. Other videos showed Mr. Saied wending through cheering supporters along the main thoroughfare of Tunis, where revolutionaries gathered during the 2011 protests.
The next step for Tunisia is unclear. The country has so far failed to form the constitutional court, called for in the 2014 Constitution, that could adjudicate such disputes.
In his statement, Mr. Saied said cryptically that a decree would soon be issued “regulating these exceptional measures that the circumstances have dictated.” Those measures, he said, “will be lifted when those circumstances change.” He also fired the defense minister and acting justice minister on Monday afternoon.
Tunisia’s divisions reflect a wider split in the Middle East between regional powers that supported the Arab revolutions and the political Islamist groups that came to power at the time (Turkey and Qatar), and those that countered the uprisings (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt). While Turkey and Qatar expressed concern on Monday, the others remained quiet.
Reporting was contributed by Nada Rashwan from Cairo, Lilia Blaise and Massinissa Benlakehal from Tunis, and Michael Crowley from Washington.
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KISUMU, Kenya — Before Kenya’s president and other leaders arrived in late May to mark a major public holiday, health officials in Kisumu on Lake Victoria saw disaster brewing. Coronavirus infections were spiking, hospital isolation units were filling up and the highly contagious Delta variant had been found in Kenya for the first time — in Kisumu County.
Dr. Boaz Otieno Nyunya, the county executive for health and sanitation, said he and other health specialists argued and pleaded for the politicians to hold a virtual celebration and skip the mass, in-person events that can supercharge an outbreak. Just weeks earlier, huge political rallies had helped fuel the catastrophic Covid-19 wave in India, where the Delta variant first emerged and became dominant.
Their objections were waved away, the health officials said. President Uhuru Kenyatta, Deputy President William Ruto, the former prime minister Raila Odinga and others descended on Kisumu, drawing large and mostly unmasked crowds who thronged the streets to watch their slow-moving motorcades through the city and gathered to hear them at marketplaces and parking lots.
turning away patients for lack of beds or oxygen, health officials say they fear a wave like the one that ripped through India in April and May could be looming over Kisumu.
“The India example is not lost to us,” Dr. Nyunya said.
Though data on infections and deaths is spotty, more than 23 percent of the people tested for the virus in Kisumu last week were positive — more than double the national rate. Kenya’s overall positivity rate is similar to that of the United States when the pandemic peaked there in January. But the Delta variant was still rare then, the American health system is far more robust than Kenya’s and the U.S. government was ramping up vaccination on a grand scale.
All of Africa is vulnerable, as the latest wave of the pandemic sweeps the continent, driven in part by more transmissible variants. Fewer than 1 percent of Africa’s people have been even partially vaccinated, by far the lowest rate for any continent.
“I think the greatest risk in Africa is to look at what happened in Italy earlier on and what happened in India and start thinking we are safe — to say it’s very far away from us and that we may not go the same way,” said Dr. Mark Nanyingi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Liverpool in Britain. He called the surge in western Kenya a “storm on the horizon.”
said. But experts say the true scale of the pandemic far exceeds reported figures in Africa, where testing and tracing remain a challenge for many countries, and many nations do not collect mortality data.
To forestall the ongoing crisis, Kenya’s Ministry of Health last week imposed a restriction on gatherings and extended a dusk-to-dawn curfew in Kisumu and more than a dozen surrounding counties. But the measures were too late for Dr. Nyunya, who said that thinking back on the deliberations — which involved the county governor Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, a former national health minister — over the celebrations last month, “It makes you feel impotent.”
record cases and deaths, President Yoweri Museveni has imposed a strict 42-day lockdown. Just weeks ago, Rwanda hosted the Basketball Africa League and other big sporting events, raising the possibility for a full reopening. But after a spike in cases, the government introduced new lockdown measures on Monday.
The Democratic Republic of Congo — where the virus has claimed the lives of more than 5 percent of lawmakers — is grappling with a third wave as it falters in rolling out vaccines. South Africa, the continent’s worst-hit nation, has reported new infections doubling in just two weeks’ time, with the sharpest increases in major urban centers. Tunisia, where hospitals are full and oxygen supplies are low, is enduring a fourth wave.
“New, higher transmitting variants create a precarious situation in many countries that have weak health systems,” said Dr. Ngozi Erondu, a senior health scholar at the O’Neill Institute at Georgetown University.
The W.H.O. attributes the surge in Africa to lack of vaccination, insufficient adherence to precautionary measures like mask wearing and social distancing and the Delta and other variants.
lament a lack of protective gear and health insurance.
“We are buying our own gloves and masks,” said Dr. Onyango Ndong’a, chairman of the local chapter of the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union. “We are covering for government inadequacies. We are tired now. We are stretched.”
For now, families who have lost loved ones are adjusting to a new reality.
Edward Onditi, 33, lost both his brother and his mother to Covid-19 this month. He said he left Nairobi to come and assist his family after his brother, Herbert, whom he regarded as a best friend and mentor, fell ill.
For weeks, the family transported Herbert, 43, between three hospitals in two counties — a distance of 70 miles in total — so that he could get high-flow oxygen. On the day before Herbert died, Edward had fish, his brother’s favorite meal, delivered to his isolation ward and promised to take him on a holiday once he was out.
“I’m so touched,” his brother said in a text message sent on June 2.
Barely 12 hours later, he was gone.
A few days later, their mother, Naomi, who had been ailing, succumbed to complications from Covid-19, too.
“It’s one of the toughest moments of my life,” Mr. Onditi said on a recent afternoon, his eyes welling with tears. “Things are just not working. They are not adding up.”
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