US calls on Tunisian president to lay out timetable for return to 'democratic path'

Call comes a week after President Kais Saied invoked a national emergency to dismiss the prime minister, suspend parliament and seize executive control

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied must outline a timetable for his country's swift return to the “democratic path”, US National Security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday.

Mr Saied invoked a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic and poor governance to dismiss the prime minister, suspend parliament and seize executive control last week.

The move was welcomed by Tunisians, who took to the streets to show their support, but was branded a coup by his opponents.

In a phone call with Mr Saied, Mr Sullivan emphasised the need to quickly form "a new government, led by a capable prime minister, to stabilise Tunisia’s economy and confront the Covid-19 pandemic", as well as ensure the timely return of the elected parliament, the White House National Security Council said.

Mr Saied told his Algerian counterpart at the weekend that important decisions will be made soon, as Tunisians await the naming of a new prime minister.

Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune discussed developments in Tunisia by phone and Mr Saied assured him that the country was “on the right path to establish democracy and pluralism, and that there will be important decisions soon”, the Algerian presidency said in a post on Facebook.

Later on Sunday, Mr Saied visited Habib Bourguiba Street, the centre of protests in the capital, Tunis, and spoke to people on the street, local media reported.

Separately, Mr Saied met Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan at Carthage Palace in Tunis on Friday to discuss ties between the two countries.

“I had the honour to convey the greetings of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and His Highness the Crown Prince … to President Kais Saied,” Prince Faisal said.

The kingdom was among the first to issue a statement in support of stability in the country after last week’s crisis in Tunis.

Saudi Arabia was also among several countries in the region, including the UAE, to send medical aid to Tunisia as the country’s Covid-19 crisis worsened. They dispatched 169 oxygen concentrators, about 300 ventilators for intensive care units and one million N95 face masks.

“During my meeting with His Excellency, I reiterated the kingdom’s position in support of the security and stability of Tunisia and standing by everything that achieves prosperity and prosperity for the brothers in Tunisia,” said Prince Faisal.

Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party, which branded the president’s move a coup, delayed a meeting of its highest council at the weekend after senior members called for party chief Rached Ghannouchi’s resignation over his handling of the political crisis, party officials said.

Dozens of younger party members and some of its leaders, including member of parliament Samir Dilou, urged Mr Ghannouchi to resign.

Mr Ghannouchi, who is also the Speaker of Parliament, has played a critical role in Tunisia's democratic crisis and has long been at loggerheads with the president – a contributing factor to the political crisis.

He has led Ennahda, the biggest party in parliament, for decades, including from exile in Britain before the revolution in 2011, after which he returned to a tumultuous welcome at Tunis airport. He stood for election for the first time in 2019 and won a parliamentary seat before becoming speaker.

Dr Anwar Gargash, UAE presidential adviser and former minister of state for foreign affairs, hit back at Mr Ghannouchi over a weekend interview with The Times in which the Ennahda leader claimed that the Emirates was behind Mr Saied's move.

"I was not surprised by Mr Rashid Ghannouchi’s dialogue with the London newspaper ... and his accusations against the Emirates. We have become accustomed to the use of the name of the Emirates by these authorities to justify local and structural shortcomings," he said. "My advice is to read the internal events of his country."

Meanwhile, a judge accused by rights groups of hiding terrorism-related files was placed under house arrest at the weekend, according to a local radio report and Reuters, which quoted security officials.

Judge Bechir Akremi’s detention comes after the president vowed to lead an anticorruption drive in all sectors – long a call of Mr Saied’s.

Right activists in Tunisia see Judge Akremi as symbolising corruption in the judiciary and have said that he is close to the Ennahda.

Lawyers and secular parties said the files he allegedly hid include those related to the 2013 assassination of two secular leaders, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, which led to massive protests at the time that ended with the overthrow of the government.

Judge Akremi has not commented on these accusations and was not immediately available for comment on Saturday.

Ennahda rejects accusations that it has ties to the judge or that it has interfered in judicial matters.

Updated: August 01, 2021, 2:58 PM