Tunisian president sacks prime minister and freezes parliament

The move is a drastic escalation of the country's deepening political crisis

Hours after Tunisia’s president took the unprecedented step to dismiss the government and freeze parliament on Sunday night, political parties have begun to push back as supporters of the dramatic shake-up and its opponents take to the streets.

Political opponents of President Kais Saied's labelled the move a coup after he dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and froze Parliament for 30 days in a marked deterioration of the country's ongoing political crisis.

On the streets of Tunis on Monday morning, supporters of the president and the government gathered. The atmosphere was tense with reports of stones being thrown, but later in the day protests died down.

After months of political instability and deepening governmental rifts, Mr Saied invoked Article 80 of the constitution, an emergency provision that enables the president to “take any measures necessary to stop imminent danger".

He said he would assume executive authority with the assistance of a new prime minister, in the biggest challenge yet to a 2014 constitution that split powers between the president, prime minister and Parliament.

“The Constitution doesn't allow me the dissolution of the Parliament,” Mr Saied said in a broadcast carried on state media on Sunday night. “But it allows me to freeze all its activities.”

“Many people were deceived by hypocrisy, treachery and robbery of the rights of the people.”

On Monday afternoon, a statement from the presidency announced the dismissals of Defence Minister Ibrahim Bartaji and acting justice minister Hasna Ben Slimane, who is also the government spokeswoman.

Tunisians rose up in 2011 against decades of autocracy, installing a democratic system that ensured new freedom. But, it has not delivered economic prosperity. The country has had 13 governments in the last decade. The moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which has been at the heart of most of those governments, has come under particular fire.

Several protests against the government in towns and cities across the country on Sunday targeted Ennadha offices.

Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who leads Ennahda, accused Mr Saied of overthrowing the government and democracy.

“What Kais Saied did is a coup against the revolution and the constitution, and the supporters of Ennahda and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution,” Mr Ghannouchi said on his official Twitter account.

Mr Ghannouchi attempted early on Monday morning to enter the Parliament but was turned away by security forces, who are largely seen as loyal to President Saied.

Mr Ghannouchi refused to leave the premises and is currently staging a sit-in.

“The Tunisian people will never accept autocracy again,” Mr Ghannouchi said as he stood outside the gates of Parliament. “As long as freedom is threatened, life has no value.”

If he can gain enough support for a two-thirds majority vote, he can have Mr Saied removed from office.

Early on Monday, the centrist Democratic Current (Attayar) party condemned Mr Saied's “interpretation of Article 80 of the Constitution and rejects the decisions and procedures that resulted from it outside the Constitution.”

Mr Saied assured the country, which has been under a state of emergency since two terror attacks in 2015, that he would not overturn the Constitution.

“I am not suspending the Constitution. These are temporary measures,” he said.

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.

“Kais Saied was a professor of constitutional law here in Tunisia before being elected into power, so he knew what levers to pull,” said Dean Mikkelsen, a geopolitical and security intelligence consultant for Hannibal Global Insight. “The issue is when.”

Mr Mikkelsen said the president saw the timing as finally being right to move, as dissatisfaction with political deadlock grew along with Covid-19 cases.

He said Mr Saied led the efforts to secure major aid donations from foreign countries, “so politically, he looks favourable to the general public".

Thousands of Tunisians took to the streets on Sunday night to celebrate the president's announcement, waving flags and honking horns in cities and towns across the country. Crowds sang the national anthem as military vehicles rolled down Avenue Habib Bourguiba.

“I am very happy with the decisions the president took tonight,” said Oukail, 25, who was out on the street in downtown Tunis. “This is why we have voted for him, for this exact moment.”

Tunisia has been in a political crisis for months, with a deadlock between Mr Saied, a populist outsider without a political party elected in 2019, technocratic Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi appointed in early 2020 and Parliament, led by Mr Ghannouchi. The three men are at loggerheads as the country tackles an economic crisis, a looming fiscal crunch and a flailing response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

While many hailed the move as a bold step in breaking up political deadlock, others fear it is a step backwards to autocracy.

“Some fear the Egyptian scenario of cracking down on opposition,” said Tunisian political analyst Huda Mzioudet. “Saied will have to tread carefully not to allow what many fear a return to dictatorship.”

Mr Saied's move was criticised abroad. The European Union urged all political actors in Tunisia to respect the country's constitution and avoid violence.

A UN spokesperson on Monday warned all parties to 'exercise restraint, refrain from violence and ensure the situation remains calm.

Updated: July 26th 2021, 4:37 PM
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