Tunisian democracy in crisis after president ousts government

FETHI BELAID / AFP

Tunisia's president dismissed the government and froze parliament on Sunday in a dramatic escalation of a political crisis that his opponents labelled a coup, calling their own supporters to come onto the streets in protest.

President Kais Saied said he would assume executive authority with the assistance of a new prime minister, in the biggest challenge yet to the democratic system Tunisia introduced in a 2011 revolution.

Crowds of people quickly flooded the capital and other cities to support Saied, cheering and honking car horns.

As his supporters filled the central Habib Bourguiba Avenue, Saied joined them in the street, state television pictures showed.

However, the extent of backing for Saied's moves against a fragile government and divided parliament was not clear, as Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi called on Tunisians to come into the streets to stop what he called a coup.

Saied, in his televised statement announcing his move, had warned against any violent response.

"I warn any who think of resorting to weapons... and whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets," he said in a statement carried on television.

Hours after the statement, military vehicles surrounded the parliament building as people nearby cheered and sang the national anthem, two witnesses said. Local media reported that the army had also surrounded the state television building.

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.

Protests, called by social media activists but not backed by any of the big political parties, took place on Sunday.

Disputes

Crowds numbering in the tens of thousands stayed on the streets of Tunis and other cities, with some people setting off fireworks, for hours after Saied's announcement as helicopters circled overhead.

"We have been relieved of them," said Lamia Meftahi, a woman celebrating in central Tunis after Saied's statement, speaking of the parliament and government.

Saied said in his statement that his actions were in line with Article 80 of the constitution, and also cited the article to suspend the immunity of members of parliament.

"Many people were deceived by hypocrisy, treachery and robbery of the rights of the people," he said.

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.

Saied, an independent without a party behind him swore to overhaul a complex political system plagued by corruption. Meanwhile, the parliamentary election delivered a fragmented chamber in which no party held more than a quarter of seats.

Disputes over Tunisia's constitution were intended to be settled by a constitutional court. However, seven years after the constitution was approved, the court has yet to be installed after disputes over the appointment of judges.

The president has been enmeshed in political disputes with Mechichi for over 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.

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