Tensions high in Tunisia after president suspends parliament

A man is seen next to a Tunisian flag as people stage a protest on the call of the Tunisian General Workers Union (UGTT) in Kairouan, Tunisia on December 03, 2020 [Yassine Gaidi / Anadolu Agency]

Tensions spread on the streets and divisions dominated the political scene in Tunisia on Monday, after President Kais Saied’s decision to sack the prime minister and suspend parliament.

Saied had announced on Sunday that he was assuming executive authority along with a new prime minister to replace Hichem Mechichi, who was also in charge of the Interior Ministry.

The decisions come amid deepening political, health and economic crises in the country.

On Monday, Saied also relieved Defence Minister Ibrahim Bartagi and Acting Justice Minister Hasna Ben Slimane of their posts, the presidency said in a statement.

They will not act as caretaker ministers, as Saied ordered lower-ranking administrative and finance officials at each ministry to carry out any needed tasks until a new premier and cabinet are appointed.

Military forces were deployed around the government’s offices in Tunis in the morning. Employees were stopped from entering the building, a source at the Cabinet told dpa.

Supporters of the Ennahda movement, Tunisia’s largest political party, gathered outside parliament after the party called for protecting “the revolution and people’s will.”

The party decried Saied’s decisions as a coup.

Ennahda leader and head of parliament Rached Ghannouchi and other lawmakers tried to enter the building early on Monday, but were stopped by the military.

“We are the military, implementing instructions … that parliament is closed,” a member of military personnel was heard telling them in a video posted by Ennahda.

Hours later, some protesters climbed the closed gate of parliament shouting “open the door,” while an armoured vehicle was parked behind it. Shortly after, police pushed protesters away from the gate.

Protesters and lawmakers were shouting “The people want to overturn the coup” and “Supporting legitimacy is a must.”

Al Arabiya television reported that Saied’s supporters also gathered near parliament, leading to scuffles between the two sides until security forces separated them.

Tunisia has experienced an economic slowdown due to public unrest and attacks by militant insurgents since an uprising that inspired the Arab Spring revolts of 2010-11.

Saied, an ex-law professor who took office in 2019, has been locked in a political dispute about the powers of the government and parliament.

His decisions on Sunday came hours after protesters took to the streets in several parts of the country, demanding the government resign and the parliament be dissolved.

Speaking to media, Saied denied accusations of a coup.

“What happened is not a coup. How can a coup be based on a constitution or the law?” Saied said.

The presidency said the parliament would be suspended for 30 days, though Saied told reporters the 30-day period can be extended if needed “until the situation settles down.”

Saied based his decisions on article 80 in the constitution, which allows the president to take extraordinary measures if there is “imminent danger threatening the nation.”

However, it also states that parliament is to be deemed in a state of continuous session.

His supporters celebrated in the Tunisian capital at night, setting off fireworks, honking car horns and waving the national flag.

However, the measures left his two main allies in parliament divided.

The People’s Movement party hailed his move as “a path towards correcting the course of the revolution, which has been violated by anti-revolutionary forces, led by Ennahda.”

However, the Democratic Current party rejected the president’s measures and called for unifying efforts to get the country out of the crisis by respecting democracy, human rights and fighting political corruption.

Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera said that Tunisian security forces have stormed its office in the capital, Tunis. At least 20 heavily armed plainclothes police officers entered the office and ordered reporters to turn off their phones and leave.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) denounced the move and called on the authorities to respect press freedom and pluralism.

Al Jazeera’s critics accuse it of biased coverage and support for Islamist movements in Arab countries, charges that the Qatari television network has denied.

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