Tunisia faced its biggest crisis since it tasted democracy 10 years ago, yesterday, after President Kais Saied toppled the government and froze the activities of Parliament, in a move his opponents described as a coup that must be opposed in the street.
In a statement issued late on Sunday night, Saeed used the constitution to dismiss Prime Minister Hisham al-Mashishi and freeze parliament for 30 days, saying he would rule alongside a new prime minister.
The move came a day after protests against the government and the Islamist Ennahda party, the largest party in parliament, following an increase in coronavirus infections, and growing anger over chronic political dysfunction and economic problems.
This constitutes the biggest challenge so far for Tunisia, after the 2011 revolution that sparked the “Arab Spring” and overthrew absolute rule in the interest of democratic rule, but failed to achieve sound governance or prosperity.
In the hours following Said’s announcement, huge crowds gathered to support him in Tunisia and other cities, and cheers and ululating shrieked, while the army surrounded the parliament building and state television.
Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who heads the Ennahda party, which has played a role in successive coalition governments, condemned these measures, describing them as a coup and an attack on democracy.
Ghannouchi arrived at the parliament building in the early hours of yesterday morning, where he said he would call for a session of defiance of Said, but army forces stationed outside the building prevented Ghannouchi, the 80-year-old former political exile, from entering.
Outside Parliament, he said he objected to having all power in the hands of one person. He earlier called on Tunisians to take to the streets, as they did on the day of the revolution in 2011, to protest this step.
Pictures broadcast on television after that showed dozens of Ennahda supporters confronting Saeed supporters near the parliament building, where they exchanged insults, while the police separated them. Saeed, the independent politician who took power in 2019, rejected accusations that he staged a coup. He said that he based his actions on Article 80 of the constitution, describing it as a popular response to the economic and political paralysis that Tunisia has been suffering from for years.
However, the special court stipulated in the 2014 constitution has never been established to adjudicate such disputes between the branches of the Tunisian state, after years of controversy over the selection of judges, allowing for interpretations that contradict the law.
Two main parties in parliament, Qalb Tounes and Karama, joined Ennahda in accusing Said of the coup. Former president Moncef Marzouki, who helped oversee the transition to democracy after the revolution, said this could mark the beginning of a descent “into a worse situation.” Saeed, in his statement announcing the dismissal of Al-Mashishi and the freezing of parliament, said that he had also suspended the legal immunity of members of parliament.
Saeed warned against any armed response to his actions, and said, “I warn many who are considering resorting to arms. And whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will confront him with bullets.” Saied has the support of a wide range of Tunisians, including Islamists and leftists.
Crowds, numbering in the tens of thousands, remained on the streets of Tunis and other cities, with some setting off fireworks for hours after Said’s announcement, as helicopters hovered overhead. Lamia Muftahy said during the celebration in the center of the Tunisian capital that people were relieved of them, in reference to Parliament and the government. “This is the happiest moment since the revolution,” she added.
For its part, the Democratic Current Party, which is close to Tunisian President Kais Saied, announced yesterday its rejection of the decisions announced on Sunday/Monday night.
A statement by the party represented in Parliament stated that it disagrees with the President’s interpretation of Article 80 of the Constitution, and rejects the decisions and actions that resulted from it outside the constitution.
The president relied on the content of the dismissal, which allows him to take exceptional measures in specific situations, taking advantage of the protests and riots that swept a number of Tunisian cities, the day before yesterday.
The current party said that it “sees no solution except within the framework of the constitution,” calling for unifying efforts to get the country out of the crisis by respecting democracy, human rights and resisting political corruption.
The president and parliament were elected in separate popular elections in 2019, while Prime Minister Hisham al-Mashishi took office last summer, replacing another government that only lasted for a short period.
At the same time, parliamentary elections resulted in a divided parliament, in which no party held more than a quarter of the seats.
There have been political differences between the president and Al-Mashishi for a year, with the country fighting a looming economic and financial crisis, and an unsuccessful response to the Corona pandemic.
Under the constitution, the president is directly responsible for foreign affairs and only the military, but after the chaos of vaccination centers last week, the president asked the military to take charge of the pandemic response.
Tunisia’s high infection and death rates have increased public anger with the government.
• During the hours that followed Said’s announcement, huge crowds gathered to support him in Tunisia and other cities, and cheers and ululations erupted as the army surrounded the parliament building and state television.
• Political disputes have been taking place between the President and Al-Mashishi for a year, with the country fighting a looming economic and financial crisis, and an unsuccessful response to the Corona pandemic.
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