Egypt behind the coup in Tunis?

Sources tell Middle East Eye that Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi was physically assaulted before he agreed to resign from his post

By David Hearst, Faisal Edroos
28 July 2021

Tunisia’s outgoing Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi was physically assaulted in the presidential palace on Sunday night before he agreed to resign from his post, sources close to the premier told Middle East Eye.

The nature of his injuries could not be verified as Mechichi himself has not been seen in public.

MEE understands that the injuries the 47-year-old sustained were “significant”, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.

“He had injuries to the face, which is why he has not appeared [in public],” one of the sources said.

Mechichi was summoned to the presidential palace on Sunday where President Kais Saied sacked him from his post, announced the suspension of parliament and assumed executive authority following a day of tense anti-government protests.

Sources close to the premier made it clear to MEE that the security chiefs who accompanied him to the palace were not part of the plan, whereas the army was.

Rached Ghannouchi, the speaker of parliament and leader of Tunisia’s moderate Islamist party Ennahda, evaded being summoned as he had just been released from hospital where he was being treated for Covid-19.

According to the sources, Mechichi, who was Saied’s choice for prime minister, was asked once again on Sunday to step down.

He had until then repeatedly refused to resign in a row that erupted over the appointment of four ministers in his government.

Sources said that when Mechichi refused, he was beaten up. MEE further understands that there were “non-Tunisians” in the palace at the time.

MEE understands that the individuals present were Egyptian security officials who have been advising Saied before the coup and directing operations as it was taking place. It is unclear what role they played in Mechichi’s interrogation.

“[Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-] Sisi offered to give Saied all the support he needed for the coup and Saied took it,” one of the sources said.

“Egyptian military and security people were sent to Tunisia with the full support of MbZ [Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi],” the source added.

Mechichi is then reported to have held his hands up and agreed to resign. At that point, his security chiefs also agreed to the president’s statement.

Mechichi later returned home where he denied reports to local media that he was under house arrest.

The outgoing prime minister issued a statement on Monday in which he said he could not be “in any way a disruptive element or part of the problem that complicates Tunisia’s situation”.

“I will hand over the responsibility to the person who will be entrusted by the President of the Republic to head the government within the year of deliberation that our country has been following since the revolution and in respect of the laws that befit the state, wishing all the success to the new government team,” the statement read.

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MEE reached out to both the Tunisian presidency and Mechichi for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Months in the making

The moves undertaken on Sunday closely follow a plan of action outlined by Saied’s close advisors in May and published by MEE at the time.

The plan outlined a purge or wave of mass arrests that would take place after the announcement of what is referred to as a “constitutional coup”.

The document said Saied would declare a “constitutional dictatorship” which the authors of the document say is a tool for “concentrating all powers in the hand of the President of the Republic”.

It then outlined targets for a purge of political opponents. The document said key people would be placed under house arrest. “From the Ennahda Movement… Nur Al-Din al-Bahiri, Rafiq Abd al-Salam, Karim al-Haruni, Sayyid al-Ferjani, deputies of al-Karama Bloc, Ghazi al-Qarawi, Sufian Tubal, businessmen, advisors at the prime minister’s court, etc.”

The presidency had initially denied the existence of the document, before Saied himself acknowledged he had read it. He then claimed in televised remarks that he could not be held responsible for the advice he received.

However, presidential sources told MEE that Saied instructed his officials to draw up a list of targets of people who could be arrested.

To pave the way for this, Saied assumed control of both the civil and military judiciary and declared himself attorney general.

Officials sacked

In a decree issued late on Tuesday, Saied sacked Brigadier-General Judge Tawfiq al-Ayouni, who headed the military courts.

The president also dismissed a number of senior government officials, including the secretary general of the government, the director of the prime minister’s office and a number of advisors.

The moves, however, are meeting institutional resistance, with the Supreme Judicial Council rejecting Saied’s decision to place himself as the effective senior law officer of the government.

The council said in a statement after meeting with Saied that they emphasised the independence of the judiciary and “the need to distance it from all political disputes, and that judges are independent, and there is no authority over them in their judiciary except the law, and they carry out their duties within the scope of the constitution”.

The council’s comments came as Tunisian security forces were reported to have raided the home of Rached Khiari, an MP who had previously butted heads with Saied. According to local reports, the lawmaker was not at home at the time of the raid.

In April, Khiari published a video on his Facebook page which accused Saied of receiving foreign support and funding to enhance his chances of winning the 2019 presidential elections.

Khiari claimed that he possessed documents and videos showing Saied had received $5m through his campaign manager, Fawzi al-Daas, from an intelligence officer working at the US embassy in Paris.

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The US embassy in Tunisia denied Khiari’s claims, while Daas submitted a judicial complaint against him.

Similarly, cases have been opened against three leading opposition parties including Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia, on suspicion of receiving foreign funds during the 2019 election campaign.

Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia are two of the largest parties in the deeply fragmented parliament and opponents of Saied.

Reuters reported on Wednesday that the investigation into the parties was opened on 14 July, before Saied dismissed the prime minister, froze parliament and rescinded parliamentary immunity for MPs.

Tunisia’s judiciary has insisted it remains independent following Saied’s moves.

Pushback from US and Algeria

Diplomatically, MEE understands that Saied has received significant pushback in calls he has received since he assumed control of the executive.

US officials are reported to have told the president that they are extremely unhappy about the latest development. Washington has been reluctant to label the series of events in the country a coup.

More significantly, MEE understands that Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has told both Saied and leading opposition politicians that Algiers will not accept Tunisia falling under Egypt’s political and military influence.

Algeria regards both Libya and Tunisia as its legitimate spheres of influence. Algeria will be especially concerned about the presence of Egyptian security officers in the palace in Carthage on Sunday.

According to sources, France is reported to have had no advance warning of the moves undertaken by Saied.

Turbulent relationship

Saied is reported to have had an extremely turbulent relationship with Mechichi since he was nominated to the post of prime minister last summer when the government of Elyes Fakhfakh collapsed.

Mechichi – who was hand-picked by Saied – had initially unveiled a government of technocrats to the president, a decision which was accepted by Ennahda, the largest party in parliament, “despite [its] reservations”.

Still, Bloomberg reported that just before the country’s deeply fractured parliament approved Mechichi’s appointment, Saied had urged some blocs to vote against him for reasons that were not clear.

At some point late last year, the two men are reported to have had a falling out resulting in Mechichi turning to Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia for support.

In January, Mechichi changed 11 ministers as part of a reshuffle which was widely seen as replacing allies of Saied with those of Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia.

Saied, however, refused to invite the new ministers to swear the oath of office, stating that the changes were marred by “violations”.

In February, the powerful UGTT labour union called for four of the proposed cabinet ministers who were rejected by the president – the health, energy, employment and sports ministers – to stand aside.

“A concession must take place…I kindly ask the proposed ministers in dispute to give up their posts for the state interest,” said Noureddine Taboubi, the head of the UGTT.

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On Sunday, in his first reaction to Saied’s announcement, Ghannouchi personally appealed to Taboubi to intervene and “restore democracy”.

However, the powerful union, which represents an estimated five percent of the Tunisian population, has accepted Saied’s move, stating the president acted “in accordance” with the constitution to “prevent imminent danger and to restore the normal functioning” of the state.

No stranger to controversy, Saied was first accused of orchestrating a coup in April, two days after he claimed he had lawful control over domestic security forces.

At the time, Mechichi said that Saied’s comments highlighted the “urgent need” for a constitutional court to be formed, which should be the only body ruling on issues such as who has control of the country’s military.

Parliament had passed an amendment to the Supreme Court law that lowered the number of votes needed to approve the formation of a constitutional court from 145 to 131, but Saied rejected the proposal.

Saied returned the amended bill unsigned, and sent a letter to parliament in which he argued that he had no choice but to reject the bill as parliament had failed to observe the constitution’s requirement that the court be established within one year of legislative elections, the most recent of which occurred in October 2019.

“After more than five years, after a deep sleep, they’ve remembered about the Constitutional Court,” Saied said at the time.

On Monday, Saied tightened his grip on power by imposing a nationwide curfew from 7pm to 6am and banning gatherings of more than three people. Movement between cities has also been limited under comprehensive emergency powers.

Ennahda, which has been criticised for the country’s chronic political dysfunction and economic malaise, has urged its supporters to stay at home to ensure peace, and said it is “ready to go to early legislative and presidential elections at the same time so that the democratic process can be protected.”

Tunisia has often been cited as the sole success story of the Arab Spring. The tumult sparked across the region after Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate who could only find work as a fruit vendor, self-immolated in December 2010.

The young democracy is seen as a key to regional stability, located between Algeria, which has faced political turmoil, and war-battered Libya, from where every year thousands of desperate migrants seek to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, with many dying along the way.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Published at www.middleeasteye.net