TUNIS – Tunisia faced its biggest crisis in a decade of democracy on Monday after President Kais Saied toppled the government and froze the activities of parliament, a move that enemies called a coup that needs to be done. oppose in the street.
In a statement Sunday night, Saied invoked the constitution to sack Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and order a freeze on Parliament for a period of 30 days, saying he would rule alongside a new prime minister.
The move came after a day of protests against the government and the largest party in parliament, moderate Islamist Ennahda, following a spike in Covid-19 cases and growing anger over chronic political dysfunction and economic malaise.
It poses the greatest challenge to Tunisia to date after its 2011 revolution that sparked the ‘Arab Spring’ and toppled an autocracy in favor of democratic rule, but failed to ensure good governance or prosperity.
Within hours of Saied’s announcement, huge crowds gathered in support of him in Tunis and other cities, cheering, dancing and screaming as the military blocked parliament and the TV station. State.
Speaker of Parliament Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, who has played a role in successive coalition governments, has called the measures a coup and an attack on democracy.
In the early hours of Monday, Ghannouchi arrived at parliament where he said he would call a session in defiance of Saied, but the military stationed outside the building prevented the 80-year-old former political exile from entering. .
“I am against the regrouping of all the powers in the hands of a single person”, he declared in front of the parliament. He had previously called on Tunisians to take to the streets, as they had done on the day of the revolution in 2011, to oppose this decision.
Download the NBC News app for the latest news and politics
Dozens of Ennahda supporters clashed with Saied supporters near the parliament building, exchanging insults as police kept them away, then showed television footage.
Saied, a political independent who came to power in 2019 after campaigning as the bane of a corrupt and incompetent elite, has dismissed accusations he carried out a coup.
He said his actions were based on article 80 of the constitution and presented them as a popular response to the economic and political paralysis that has plagued Tunisia for years.
However, a special tribunal required by the 2014 constitution to try such disputes between branches of the Tunisian state was never established after years of wrangling over which judges to include, allowing for competing interpretations of the law.
Two of the other main parliamentary parties, Heart of Tunisia and Karama, joined Ennahda in accusing Saied of a coup. Former President Moncef Marzouki, who helped oversee the transition to democracy after the revolution, said it could represent the start of a slope “towards an even worse situation”.
Saied, in his statement announcing Mechichi’s impeachment and the freezing of parliament, said he also suspended the legal immunity of parliamentarians and took 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 the support of a wide range of Tunisians, including Islamists and leftists.
Tens of thousands of people supporting the president remained in the streets of Tunis and other cities, with some setting off fireworks, for hours after his announcement as helicopters circled overhead.
“We were relieved,” said Lamia Meftahi, a woman celebrating in central Tunis after Saied’s statement, speaking of parliament and government. “It is the happiest moment since the revolution.”
The president and 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 embroiled in political disputes with Mechichi for a year, as the country grapples with an economic crisis, a looming budget crisis and a turbulent 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 centers last week, he asked the military to take charge of the response to the pandemic.
The skyrocketing infection and death rates in Tunisia have added to public anger against the government as the country’s political parties bicker.