Street clashes erupted on Monday outside Tunisia’s army-barricaded parliament, each day after President Kais Saied ousted the prime minister and suspended the legislature, plunging the young democracy into a constitutional crisis.
Saied sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and ordered parliament closed for 30 days, a move the most important party Ennahdha decried as a “coup”, following each day of angry street protests against the government’s handling of the Covid pandemic.
Soldiers from early Monday blockaded the assembly in Tunis while, outside, the president’s backers hurled stones, bottles, and insults at supporters of the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha, whose leader was barred entry to the complex.
Troops also surrounded the office of Mechichi who was yet to officially react to the events rocking the North African country. Saied’s dramatic move — a decade on from Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, often delayed because the Arab Spring’s sole success story — comes albeit the constitution enshrines a democracy.
It “is a coup d’etat against the revolution and against the constitution”, Ennahdha, the lead party in Tunisia’s fractious ruling coalition, charged during a Facebook post, warning that its members “will defend the revolution”.
The crisis follows months of deadlock between the president, the premier, and Ennahdha chief Rached Ghannouchi, which has crippled the Covid response as deaths have surged to at least one of the world’s highest per-capita rates.
Saied declared on Sunday that he had “taken the required decisions to save lots of Tunisia, the state and therefore the Tunisian people”, after each day where Covid street protests flared in multiple cities.
The president, who under the constitution controls the soldiers, warned his opponents against taking over arms, threatening that if anyone “fires one bullet, our forces will respond with a rain of bullets”.
Tunisian police also shuttered the local bureau of Qatari-based Al Jazeera television, the network’s Tunis director Lotfi Hajji said, warning that “what is occurring is extremely dangerous, it’s proof that freedom of the press is threatened”.
The president’s power-grab sparked jubilant rallies late on Sunday by many thousands of his supporters who flooded the streets of the capital, waving the ensign and sounding their car horns as fireworks lit up the sky.
But the shock move was criticized abroad, with Germany urging a rapid “return to constitutional order”
The foreign ministry in Turkey, where the govt supports Ennahdha, said it had been “deeply concerned” and involved “democratic legitimacy” to be restored.
Since Saied was elected in 2019, he has been locked during a showdown with Mechichi and Ghannouchi, who is additionally house speaker. The rivalry has blocked ministerial appointments and diverted resources from tackling Tunisia’s many economic and social problems.