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Why are Tunisians protesting? Understanding the country’s crisis of democracy

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied on Monday suspended parliament indefinitely and fired the country’s defense minister — one day after he unilaterally fired the prime minister. Nick Schifrin reports on moves that critics call a coup — one decade after the Arab Spring — with Sarah Yerkes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tunisia's president today suspended Parliament indefinitely and fired the country's defense minister. It comes one day after he unilaterally fired the prime minister.

    Nick Schifrin reports on moves that critics call a coup one decade after the Arab Spring.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the birthplace of the Arab Spring, a crisis of democracy. Tunisian President Kais Saied said he had to remove the prime minister and suspend Parliament in order to — quote — "save the state."

  • Kais Saied (through translator) :

    Today, I have taken responsibility. Those who claim that this matter is related to a coup need to revise your constitutional lessons.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tunisians have been protesting a COVID-19 spike, a failing economy, and called for the actions that Saied took.

    But democracy watchers and the opposition party, called the moves a coup. Supporters of the moderate Islamist party that holds the most Parliament seats clashed with the president's supporters.

  • Man (through translator):

    The decisions by president Kais Saied are not correct, against the Constitution and reality.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Washington, the Biden administration was not ready to use a label.

  • Jen Psaki:

    A determination about a coup is a legal determination. And we would look to the State Department to conduct a legal analysis before making a determination.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And to discuss the events in Tunisia and the U.S. response, I'm joined by Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

    Sarah Yerkes, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    So, was this a coup?

  • Sarah Yerkes:

    From where I stand, it is a coup.

    I think, if you look at the Constitution, the way the president is justifying this, there is no way that you read this that looks like it's justified. He is not allowed to dissolve Parliament. That is against the Constitution. So, to me, it is a coup.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Saied he is an outsider. But while he was campaigning, he did warn that he wanted to direct democracy, rather than a parliamentary democracy.

    Do we know what his intentions are? Do we know what his goals are?

  • Sarah Yerkes:

    Unfortunately, he's really a black box. We don't know what his long game is here.

    It seems right now that he's looking to consolidate power in the hands of one person, and that person happens to be him. So, I think, in the long run, he's probably trying to turn Tunisia into more of a presidential authoritarian system than a parliamentary one.

    But, unfortunately, he hasn't really told us yet what his long-term plans are.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Although he has denied that it was a coup this afternoon.

  • Sarah Yerkes:

    Yes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's take a little bit of a step back and talk about these protests that he is claiming are the reason that he's taken the actions that he's taken.

    So, what led to the protests? What are Tunisians so upset about today?

  • Sarah Yerkes:

    Tunisia, unfortunately, is undergoing multiple crises at the same time.

    And the biggest one right now is the pandemic, they are having their worst COVID numbers of the entire pandemic as we speak. And people are understandably very frustrated, very angry. The health system is collapsing. So, people took to the streets this last time over that, over the failure of the government to adequately address the pandemic.

    They're also facing tremendous economic challenges. And so people are just really frustrated and fed up with this government.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, obviously, we have seen cuts to subsidies of food and fuel recently, but also fundamental political infighting, right?

  • Sarah Yerkes:

    Absolutely.

    From the get-go, the president and the prime minister have really been at odds with each other. Even though the president handpicked the prime minister, they have just been fighting with each other. They have been publicly undermining each other, publicly speaking out against each other from the beginning.

    So, when this opportunity came for the president to unseat the prime minister, to remove him, he seized on it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tunisia was, of course, the only success story in the Arab Spring, a largely nonviolent removal of a leader, the establishment of a democracy.

    What do these events say about democracy in Tunisia 10 years later?

  • Sarah Yerkes:

    So, I don't want to yet put sort of democracy in a coffin.

    I think Tunisia's democracy still has a fighting chance. I think, if we look at the way these protests are being reported upon, the way that people are allowed to go into the streets, the way that people can criticize the government, they can go out there and call this a coup, and they're not getting arrested, that shows that democracy is alive and that it is functioning.

    Now, this is a major threat to Tunisia's democracy. I think, when we look back at this in six months, maybe even a month, I might have something different to say. Maybe the democracy will have kind of ended.

    But, for now, I do think that we should still consider that democracy is alive. And we need to protect it. The United States Europe, other democracies need to stand up and protect Tunisia's democracy while it is still alive.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, you just said what the U.S. and Europe should do.

    Today, the U.S. spoke with senior Tunisian government officials, released a statement saying that no one should — quote — "stifle democratic discourse or take any actions that lead to violence."

    What should the U.S. do?

  • Sarah Yerkes:

    I think the U.S. should be out there making much bolder statements, and, frankly, calling this a coup, as I think it is.

    I mean, that needs to go through the correct legal channels. But, frankly, I think that what we're seeing is that the United States is kind of biding its time. They're in a wait-and-see mode. They're not being forceful in condemning the actions that President Saied has taken.

    And I think that that's a missed opportunity for this administration.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I want to switch gears to Iraq.

    Today, the Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, was in the White House with President Joe Biden. President Biden announced the end of U.S. combat mission in Iraq. But American troops have not been fighting combat in Iraq. They have been advising and assisting.

    Why is it important for the U.S. to make this statement politically to help the Iraqi prime minister?

  • Sarah Yerkes:

    Look, I think, first of all, this fits into Biden's greater world view, in that he's trying to get the United States out of the Middle East.

    But, domestically, for the Iraqis and for Kadhimi, I think this is helpful to him. This helps show him the United States is no longer this kind of shadow hanging over them. He's facing all sorts of pressure to get the United States out.

    And so I think this is a little bit of a gift that Biden is giving Kadhimi in order to help him achieve his own domestic goals.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sarah Yerkes, thank you very much.

  • Sarah Yerkes:

    Thank you.

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