Tunisian President Kais Saied on Wednesday dissolved the country's Parliament, hours after it passed a Bill to suspend the exceptional measures he introduced in late July, paving the way to his one-man rule.
"Today, at this historic moment, I announce the dissolution of the Assembly of Representatives of the people, to preserve the state and its institutions," Mr Saied said on state TV.
Members of Parliament defied him by holding their first full session since last summer, where they passed the Bill against the measures he used since July to set aside the 2014 democratic constitution and govern with sweeping powers.
Laws passed by parliament outweigh presidential decrees in Tunisia's constitutional order, and the move represents the body's most direct challenge to Mr Saied, who has dismissed the MPs as being "of the past".
Days earlier, Mr Saied claimed he had previously turned down calls to dissolve the Parliament to preserve the country's constitution.
"We contented ourselves with the freezing of Parliament in order to be able to organise new elections” to be held this December, he said.
Mr Saied said that a meeting of Parliament would be illegal, and accused the legislators of conspiring with foreign forces to control the state.
'They can meet in a spaceship'
"Whoever wants to meet … can meet in a spaceship if they like, but Parliament is frozen and any decision they take will exist outside space, history and geography."
The meeting started after an hour's delay. The National journalists and others in Tunis said the connection to Zoom and Teams applications had stopped working temporarily, although it was not clear if the problem was connected to the political situation.
Officials at the Technology Ministry were not immediately available for comment.
The session was chaired by the Deputy Speaker Tarek Ftiti, who said that 120 politicians took part.
While the session may underscore increasing opposition to Mr Saied and will challenge the legitimacy of his moves, it is not likely to alter his grip on power.
"We are not afraid to defend a legitimate institution," said Yamina Zoglami, an MP from the Islamist Ennahda party.
"The people did not withdraw confidence from us. The president closed Parliament with a tank."
Parliament's increased confidence reflects broadening opposition to Mr Saied as he tries to rewrite the constitution, take control of the judiciary and impose new restrictions on society.
Ennahda, the biggest party in Parliament, with a quarter of the seats, and its leader Rached Ghannouchi, who is Parliamentary Speaker, have been the most vocal critics of Mr Saied.
Some regard the consequences of Wednesday's session as the next step in a long-simmering power struggle.
"I believe that with today's session, Ennahda and its allies pushed Saied towards the dissolution of Parliament," Ammar Amroussia, a member of the Worker's Party executive committee, told The National.
"This is definitely a step towards making the situation more difficult and the struggle more intense, and it is a struggle that is not in the interest of the vast majority of the Tunisian people."
Although political parties remain deeply divided, more of them are now openly rallying against Mr Saied and demanding he adopt an inclusive approach to any efforts in restructuring the country's politics.
Saied expected to keep a low profile
Ennahda MP Saida Ounissi told The National that, with Mr Saied's popularity riding high in the months after the coup, "a lot of people, including politicians, members of Parliament, felt that they were expected to keep a low profile".
"The political crisis, the economic crisis, the pandemic situation in Tunisia was very, very worrying," Ms Ounissi said.
"And then the situation kept getting worse and worse. We tried, especially inside Ennahda, to reach out to the president at several times, through several initiatives, and it didn't work."
Worsening conditions in the country, she said, led to demands for Tunisia's opposition parties to be more proactive in helping to mend the damage being done by the economic and political crises.
"The more the situation is degrading in Tunisia, the more we are solicited by stakeholders to be more proactive in finding exits from this," Ms Ounissi said.
Tunisia removed autocratic rule in a 2011 revolution and introduced democracy, but its system that shared power between the president and Parliament has proven unpopular after years of political and economic paralysis.
Tunisia protests in pictures
Mr Saied, a political newcomer and constitutional law professor, was elected in 2019 in a landslide second-round victory against a media mogul who spent much of the campaign in prison on money-laundering charges.
His critics accuse him of staging a coup last summer when he ousted the elected Parliament and moved to one-man rule. They say his political reforms lack credibility.
Mr Saied's intervention last summer initially appeared popular with a country sick of the political squabbling during a democratic era in which jobs grew scarce and public services declined.
But as the economy moves towards meltdown, with the government seeking an international bailout and the powerful labour unions warning of a general strike, many Tunisians have grown disillusioned with his focus on constitutional change.
“This is a struggle over power and authority, and it is put around the people's necks as we see hunger knocking on Tunisians doors in a way never seen before," Mr Amroussia said.
Ghaya Ben Mbarek contributed reporting