Tunisia's main party decries 'coup' as president suspends parliament, fires PM
Tunisia was plunged deeper into crisis as President Kais Saied suspended parliament and dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi late on Sunday, prompting the country's biggest political party to decry a "coup d'etat".
The move - a decade on from Tunisia's 2011 revolution, held up as the sole success story of the Arab spring - comes despite presidential powers being largely confined to security and diplomacy under a constitution that enshrines a parliamentary democracy.
It also comes after a prolonged period of deadlock between the president, prime minister and legislature, which has crippled management of a coronavirus crisis that has seen deaths surge to among the highest per capita rates in the world.
After Saied announced parliament's suspension following an emergency meeting at his palace, hundreds took to the streets of the capital in celebration, filling the air with the sound of car horns and fireworks.
"Finally some good decisions!" Maher, celebrating in Tunis' northwest in defiance of a coronavirus curfew, told AFP.
Before Saeid's announcement, thousands of Tunisians had marched in several cities protesting against the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha, criticising the largest party in Tunisia's fractious government for failures in tackling the pandemic.
The party, which also has the most seats in Tunisia's parliament, was swift to rebuke the president.
It "is a coup d'etat against the revolution and against the constitution," the party countered in a statement on Facebook, warning that its members "will defend the revolution".
Party leader Rached Ghannouchi, who is also speaker of the legislature, was blocked along with several lawmakers from entering parliament by soldiers, according to a video on Ennahdha's Facebook page.
Mechichi, the prime minister, had not responded to his sacking on Sunday night.
Since Saied was elected president in 2019, he has been locked in a showdown with Mechichi and Ghannouchi, a rivalry that has blocked ministerial appointments and diverted resources from tackling Tunisia's many economic and social problems.
"We are navigating the most delicate moments in the history of Tunisia," Saied said on Sunday.
He said the constitution did not allow for the dissolution of parliament, but did allow him to suspend it, citing Article 80 which permits it in case of "imminent danger".
In a later Facebook post, he clarified that the suspension would be for 30 days.
"I have taken the necessary decisions to save Tunisia, the state and the Tunisian people," he added.
Saied said he would take over executive power "with the help" of a government, whose new chief will be appointed by the president himself.
He also said that parliamentary immunity would be lifted for deputies.
A senior Ennahdha official, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, alleged that the protests on Sunday before the president's announcement, and the subsequent celebrations, had all been choreographed by Saied.
"We are also capable of organising large demonstrations to show the number of Tunisians who are opposed to these decisions," they said.
Earlier Sunday in Tunis, hundreds rallied in front of parliament, shouting slogans against Ennahdha and premier Mechichi.
Demonstrations were also reported in the towns of Gafsa, Kairouan, Monastir, Sousse and Tozeur.
Several protesters were arrested and a journalist was injured when people hurled stones and police fired tear gas canisters, an AFP reporter said.
"The people want the dissolution of parliament," the crowd had chanted.
"Our patience has reached its limit, there's no room for losers. That's it, game is over!" said 24-year-old Ibrahim, echoing an old slogan from the massive demonstrations which toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's regime in 2011.
But one man in his forties watched on without enthusiasm.
"These fools are celebrating the birth of a new dictator," he said.
In the 10 years since the revolution, Tunisia has had nine governments, some of which have lasted only a few months, hindering the reforms necessary to revamp its struggling economy and poor public services
Tunisia has recently been overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases, including more than 18,000 deaths. Last week, Mechichi fired his health minister over his handling of the pandemic as cases skyrocketed - the latest in a string of health ministers to be sacked.