Tunisian President Kais Saied sacked the defence minister yesterday, a day after ousting the prime minister and suspending parliament, plunging the young democracy into constitutional crisis in the midst of a pandemic.
Street clashes erupted yesterday outside the army-barricaded parliament, after Saied dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and ordered parliament closed for 30 days, a move the biggest political party Ennahdha decried as a “coup”. Saied declared on Sunday he had “taken the necessary decisions to save Tunisia, the state and the Tunisian people,” following street protests in multiple cities against the government’s handling of the Covid pandemic in the North African country.
The president, who under the constitution controls the armed forces, warned his opponents against taking up arms, threatening that if anyone “fires a single bullet, our forces will respond with a rain of bullets”. Yesterday afternoon, the presidency announced the dismissals of Defence Minister Ibrahim Bartaji and Hasna Ben Slimane, the acting justice minister.
Soldiers from early yesterday blockaded the assembly in Tunis while Saied 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.
Later in the afternoon, the protests died down, with the presidency ordering an overnight curfew.
Saied’s dramatic move — a decade on from Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, often held up as the Arab Spring’s sole success story — comes even though the constitution enshrines a parliamentary democracy. It “is a coup d’etat against the revolution and against the constitution,” said Ennahdha, the lead party in Tunisia’s fractious ruling coalition, warning its members “will defend the revolution”. France urged a speedy return to “normal functioning” of the government, Russia said it was monitoring the situation, while Turkey, where the government supports Ennahdha, called for “democratic legitimacy” to be restored. 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 one of the world’s highest per capita rates. More than 18,000 people have died of coronavirus in a nation of 12mn.
The powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) which played a key role in the 2011 uprising, said the president acted “in accordance” with the constitution to “prevent imminent danger and to restore the normal functioning” of the state.Saied’s power-grab sparked jubilant rallies late Sunday by supporters who flooded the streets of Tunis, waving the national flag and sounding their car horns as fireworks lit up the sky.Since Saied was elected in 2019, he has been locked in a showdown with Mechichi and Ghannouchi, who is also house speaker. The rivalry has blocked ministerial appointments and diverted resources from tackling Tunisia’s many economic and social problems.
Among chaotic scenes outside parliament yesterday, Ghannouchi admonished an army officer who was blocking access and who had declared the troops were “the protectors of the nation”. Ghannouchi retorted that “the Tunisian people will never accept an authoritarian government, whatever your efforts”. Saied said he would assume executive power “with the help” of a government whose new chief he would appoint himself.
In the 10 years since Tunisia’s popular revolution toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has had nine governments.
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