TUNIS–Tunisia’s president dismissed the government and froze parliament on Sunday, prompting cheering crowds to take to the streets in support of his move while Islamist opponents called it “a coup” against the constitution.
President Kais Saied said he would assume executive authority with the assistance of a new prime minister, in the sharpest crisis yet to face Tunisia’s democratic transition since the 2011 uprising.
Clearly relived by the president’s decisions, crowds of people quickly flooded the capital and other cities, cheering and honking car horns.
Saied said he had also suspended the legal immunity of parliament members and that he was taking control of the general prosecutor’s office.
He warned against any armed response to his actions. “Whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets,” said Saied, who has support from a wide array of Tunisians.
Although there are still questions about the extent of support for Saied’s moves against a fragile government, largely seen as inept, and a fractious parliament embroiled in sterile disputes, the population seemed to clearly welcome Saied’s actions.
Hours after the statement, military vehicles surrounded the parliament building as people nearby cheered and sang the national anthem.
Years of paralysis, corruption, declining state services and growing unemployment had already soured many Tunisians on their political system before the COVID-19 pandemic hammered the economy last year and coronavirus infection rates shot up this summer. Increasingly, the population pinned the blame for the country’s woes on Ennahda which gradually saw its support base shrink.
Protests, called by social media activists but not backed by any of the big political parties, took place on Sunday with much of the anger focused on the Ennahda party.
In a statement late on Sunday, Saied invoked article 80 of the constitution to dismiss the prime minister and decree a freeze of the parliament for a period of 30 days. The constitution provides for opponents of the measures to appeal to the constitutional court past the 30 days. However, the court required by the 2014 constitution to adjudicate such disputes between Tunisia’s branches of state has never been established after years of wrangling over which judges to include, allowing rival interpretations of law.
The move came after a day of protests against the government and the biggest party in parliament, the Islamist Ennahda, following a spike in COVID-19 cases and growing anger over chronic political dysfunction and economic malaise.
Successive governments failed to deliver sound governance or prosperity.
Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, which has played a leading role in successive coalition governments, decried the moves as a “coup” and an “assault on democracy”.
In the early hours of Monday, Ghannouchi arrived at the parliament where he said he would call a session in defiance of Saied, but the army stationed outside the building stopped the 80-year-old former political exile from entering.
“I am against gathering all powers in the hands of one person,” he said outside the parliament building. Dozens of Ennahda supporters faced off against Saied supporters near the parliament building, exchanging insults as the police held them apart, televised pictures afterwards showed.
Saied, a political independent who swept to office after campaigning as the scourge of a corrupt, incompetent elite, rejected accusations that he had conducted a coup.
He framed his move as a popular response to the economic and political paralysis that have mired Tunisia for years.
Heart of Tunisia and Karama parties who are allies of the Islamists in parliament, joined Ennahda in accusing Saied of a coup.
The president and the parliament were both elected in separate popular votes in 2019, while Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi took office last summer, replacing another short-lived government.
The president has been enmeshed in political disputes with Mechichi for a year, as the country grapples with an economic crisis, a looming fiscal crunch and a flailing response to the pandemic.
Under the constitution, the president has direct responsibility only for foreign affairs and the military, but after a government debacle with walk-in vaccination centres last week, he told the army to take charge of the pandemic response.
Tunisia’s soaring infection and death rates have added to public anger at the government as the country’s political parties bickered.
Meanwhile, Mechichi was attempting to negotiate a new loan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that was seen as crucial to averting a looming fiscal crisis as Tunisia struggles to finance its budget deficit and coming debt repayments.
Disputes over the economic reforms, seen as needed to secure the loan but which could hurt ordinary Tunisians by ending subsidies or cutting public sector jobs, had already brought the government close to collapse.
The country faces the spectre of needing to request the rescheduling of its debt before international creditors.