Tunisian President dismisses prime minister, freezes parliament
- President dismisses government, freezes parliament
- President says he will rule with the new prime minister
- Parliament speaker calls for a coup
- Tunisia’s democratic constitution is facing its biggest test to date
TUNIS, July 25 (Reuters) – Tunisia’s president sacked the government and frozen parliament on Sunday, causing crowds to fill large cities in support of a move that dramatically escalates a political crisis but unites its opponents Call a coup.
President Kais Saied said he would take executive power, with the assistance of a new prime minister, in the biggest challenge yet to the democratic system that Tunisia instituted in a 2011 revolution.
Crowds of people quickly flooded the capital and other cities, cheering and honking their horns in scenes reminiscent of the revolution that sparked the Arab Spring protests that shook the Middle East.
However, the extent of support for Saied’s moves against a fragile government and a divided parliament was not clear and he warned against any violent reaction.
“I warn anyone who thinks to take up arms … and whoever fires a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets,” he said in a televised statement.
Hours after the statement, military vehicles surrounded the parliament building while people nearby cheered and sang the national anthem, two witnesses said.
Years of paralysis, corruption, declining government services and rising unemployment had already ruined many Tunisians in their political system before the COVID-19 pandemic pounded the economy last year and coronavirus infection rates skyrocketed this summer.
Protests, called by social media activists but not supported by any of the major political parties, took place on Sunday, with much of the anger centered on the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, the largest in parliament.
The Ennahda, which was banned before the revolution, is the most successful party since 2011 and a member of several coalition governments.
Their leader, Rached Ghannouchi, who is also speaker of parliament, immediately described Saied’s decision in a telephone conversation with Reuters as “a coup against the revolution and the constitution”.
“We believe the institutions are still standing, and the Ennahda supporters and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution,” he added, holding out the prospect of confrontations between Ennahda and Saied supporters.
Another party leader Karama and former President Moncef Marzouki joined Ennahda and called Saied’s move a coup.
“I ask the Tunisian people to make sure that they think of this as the beginning of the solution. It is the beginning of sliding into an even worse situation,” Marzouki said in a video statement.
Crowds of tens of thousands roamed the streets of Tunis and other cities, with some people setting off fireworks for hours as helicopters circled overhead, according to Saied’s announcement.
“We have been freed from them,” said Lamia Meftahi, a woman who is celebrating in central universities after Saied’s declaration, about parliament and the government.
“This is the happiest moment since the revolution,” she added.
Saied said in his statement that his actions are in accordance with Article 80 of the Constitution and also cited the article on the waiver of immunity for members of parliament.
“Many people have been deceived by hypocrisy, betrayal and the robbery of the rights of the people,” he said.
The president and parliament were elected in separate referendums in 2019, while Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi took office last summer, replacing another short-lived government.
Saied, an independent with no party behind him, vowed to overhaul a complex, corruption-ridden political system. Meanwhile, the general election left a fragmented chamber with no party holding more than a quarter of the seats.
Disputes over the constitution of Tunisia should be settled by a constitutional court. However, seven years after the Constitution was passed, the court is yet to be set up after disputes over the appointment of judges.
The president has been mired in political disputes with Mechichi for over a year as the country grapples with an economic crisis, an impending financial crisis and a reluctant response to the pandemic.
Under the constitution, the president only has direct responsibility for foreign affairs and the military, but after a government debacle with walk-in vaccination centers last week, he told the army to take over the pandemic response.
Rising infection and death rates in Tunisia have fueled public anger against the government as the country’s political parties squabbled.
Meanwhile, Mechichi attempted to negotiate a new loan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which was seen as crucial to averting an impending financial crisis as Tunisia struggles to finance its budget deficit and upcoming debt payments.
Disputes over the economic reforms deemed necessary to secure the loan but which could harm Tunisians by cutting subsidies or cutting public sector jobs had already brought the government close to collapse.
Reporting by Tarek Amara and Ahmed Tolba; Letter from Angus McDowall; Adaptation by Jonathan Oatis
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