Tunis (Reuters) – Tunisia’s president dismissed the government and froze parliament on Sunday in a dramatic escalation of a political crisis that his opponents labelled a coup, calling their own supporters to come onto the streets in protest.
President Kais Saied said he would assume executive authority with the assistance of a new prime minister, in the biggest challenge yet to the democratic system Tunisia introduced in a 2011 revolution.
Crowds of people quickly flooded the capital and other cities to support Saied, cheering and honking car horns in scenes that recalled the revolution, which triggered the Arab Spring protests that convulsed the Middle East.
As his supporters filled the central Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the epicentre of the 2011 revolution, Saied joined them in the street, state television pictures showed.
However, the extent of backing for Saied’s moves against a fragile government and divided parliament was not clear, as Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi called on Tunisians to come into the streets to stop what he called a coup.
Saied, in his televised statement announcing his move, had warned against any violent response.
“I warn any who think of resorting to weapons… and whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets,” he said in a statement carried on television.
Hours after the statement, military vehicles surrounded the parliament building as people nearby cheered and sang the national anthem, two witnesses said. Local media reported that the army had also surrounded the state television building.
Years of paralysis, corruption, declining state services and growing unemployment had already soured many Tunisians on their political system before the COVID-19 pandemic hammered the economy last year and coronavirus infection rates shot up this summer.
Protests, called by social media activists but not backed by any of the big political parties, took place on Sunday with much of the anger focused on the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, the biggest in parliament.
Ennahda, banned before the revolution, has been the most consistently successful party since 2011 and a member of successive coalition governments.
Its leader the parliament speaker Ghannouchi, immediately labelled Saied’s decision “a coup against the revolution and constitution” in a phone call to Reuters.
“We consider the institutions still standing, and the supporters of the Ennahda and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution,” he added, raising the prospect of confrontations between supporters of Ennahda and Saied.
After calling for people to come onto the streets in protest in a video message later in the night, Ghannouchi said the parliament would meet in defiance of Saied’s move.
The leader of another party, Karama, and former President Moncef Marzouki both joined Ennahda in calling Saied’s move a coup.
“I ask the Tunisian people to pay attention to the fact that they imagine this to be the beginning of the solution. It is the beginning of slipping into an even worse situation,” Marzouki said in a video statement.
Crowds numbering in the tens of thousands stayed on the streets of Tunis and other cities, with some people setting off fireworks, for hours after Saied’s announcement as helicopters circled overhead.
“We have been relieved of them,” said Lamia Meftahi, a woman celebrating in central Tunis after Saied’s statement, speaking of the parliament and government.
“This is the happiest moment since the revolution,” she added.
Police used teargas to disperse people who tried to storm the Ennahda headquarters in Tunis late on Sunday.
Saied said in his statement that his actions were in line with Article 80 of the constitution, and also cited the article to suspend the immunity of members of parliament.
“Many people were deceived by hypocrisy, treachery and robbery of the rights of the people,” he said.
The president and the parliament were both elected in separate popular votes in 2019, while Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi took office last summer, replacing another short-lived government.
Saied, an independent without a party behind him, swore to overhaul a complex political system plagued by corruption. Meanwhile the parliamentary election delivered a fragmented chamber in which no party held more than a quarter of seats.
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.
The president has been enmeshed in political disputes with Mechichi for over a year, as the country grapples with an economic crisis, a looming fiscal crunch and a flailing response to the pandemic.
Under the constitution, the president has direct responsibility only for foreign affairs and the military, but after a government debacle with walk-in vaccination centres last week, he told the army to take charge of the pandemic response.
Tunisia’s soaring infection and death rates have added to public anger at the government as the country’s political parties bickered.
Meanwhile, Mechichi was attempting to negotiate a new loan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that was seen as crucial to averting a looming fiscal crisis as Tunisia struggles to finance its budget deficit and coming debt repayments.
Disputes over the economic reforms, seen as needed to secure the loan but which could hurt ordinary Tunisians by ending subsidies or cutting public sector jobs, had already brought the government close to collapse.