France has urged Tunisia to appoint a new prime minister and government quickly as the North African country lurched further into political uncertainty.
On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told his counterpart Othman Jerandi that Tunisians expected such a move, after President Kais Saied sacked more officials.
He had earlier suspended parliament and assumed executive powers in what opponents have labelled a “coup”.
Speaking to Mr Jerandi by phone, Mr Le Drian underlined “the importance of a rapid appointment of a prime minister and the formation of a government that is in a position to meet the expectations of Tunisians,” according to a French foreign ministry representative.
He also said it was “necessary to preserve calm, and the rule of law, and to allow a rapid return to a normal functioning of Tunisia’s democratic institutions”.
France had already called on Tunis to create the conditions for institutions to refocus their efforts on theirr country’s health, economic and social crises.
Civil society groups in Tunisia have warned against any “illegitimate” extension of Mr Saied’s 30-day suspension of parliament, and demanded in a joint statement a timeline for political action.
Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Jerandi phoned his counterparts in Turkey, France, Italy, Germany and the EU to reassure them after parliament was suspended and the government dismissed, the ministry said on Tuesday.
It said he had explained that the extraordinary measures were temporary and that his counterparts had pledged to continue to support the young democracy.
The discussions were held as the Moroccan and Algerian foreign ministers, Nasser Bourita and Ramtane Lamamra, met Mr Saied in Tunis on Tuesday, according to the Tunisian foreign ministry. It made no reference to the political crisis.
Tunisia is seen as central to North African stability owing to its location. It lies between Algeria, which faces political turmoil, and war-battered Libya, from where thousands of desperate migrants seek to cross the Mediterranean to Europe each year, with many dying along the way.
Within the country, opponents of Tunisia’s Mr Saied said on Tuesday they were ready for early elections “for the sake of the democratic path,” it and that they were “ready to go to early legislative and presidential elections” while warning “that any delay is not used as a pretext to maintain an autocratic regime”.
Noureddine B’Hiri, a senior member of the opposition Ennahda party, said they had “decided to campaign peacefully to defeat” the president’s plans, and “national solidarity” was needed.
But before any elections, “parliament should resume its activities and the military end its control,” he told AFP.
Mr Saied – an independent – campaigned in 2019 as a new broom against what he painted as a corrupt, stagnant political elite focused on its own narrow interests and responsible for a decline in Tunisian living standards after the 2011 revolution.
On Wednesday, local media outlets reported that investigations had been launched into the funding of Ennahda and two other leading opposition parties, Heart of Tunisia and Aysh Tunessi.
The parties reportedly stand accused of accepting undeclared foreign funding for campaigns before 2019 polls, outlets including Mosaique FM and Shems FM reported. The investigations began in mid-July following a complaint first filed by the Democratic Current Party, which is staunchly opposed to Ennahda.
Heart of Tunisia is led by businessman Nabil Karoui, who also faces a long-running investigation into other accusations of financial offences that led to his remand in custody during much of the 2019 election campaign and again this year.
The judiciary later confirmed the probe, and said it was not linked to the actions of Mr Saied.
The country of 12 million people was thrust into a constitutional crisis on Sunday.
Mr Saied appeared on national television to declare he had dismissed the premier, Hichem Mechichi, and ordered parliament to close for 30 days, later sending army troops to the legislature and the prime minister’s office.
Clashes between supporters of Mr Saied and Ennahda party occurred outside the gates of Parliament on Monday and several people were injured after demonstrators threw stones.
The president’s actions, ostensibly “to save Tunisia”, followed a day of street protests against the government’s poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. The country has one of the world’s highest death tolls, per capita.
The pandemic has crushed vital tourism revenue, compounding a national economic crisis amid political deadlock which has plagued the country for years.
Mr Saied also said he would pick a new prime minister, lifted the parliamentary immunity of politicians and fired the defence and justice ministers.
Late on Monday, the office of the Tunisian parliament, chaired by Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, voiced its “absolute rejection and strong condemnation” of the president’s actions.
Tunisia had often been cited as the sole success story of the Arab uprisings of 2011, the tumult sparked across the region after Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor, self-immolated in December 2010.
On Monday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by telephone with Mr Saied and urged him “to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights that are the basis of governance in Tunisia”.
Mr Blinken urged Mr Saied to “maintain open dialogue with all political actors and the Tunisian people,” the State Department said.
On Tuesday, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called for “the resumption of parliamentary activity, respect for fundamental rights and an abstention from all forms of violence”.