Clashes erupt in Tunisia after PM’s ouster

Published July 27, 2021
Tunisian security officers hold back supporters of the country's Islamist Ennahda party during a protest outside the parliament building in the capital Tunis on July 26. — AFP
Tunisian security officers hold back supporters of the country's Islamist Ennahda party during a protest outside the parliament building in the capital Tunis on July 26. — AFP

TUNIS: Street clashes erupted on Monday outside Tunisia’s army-barricaded parliament, a 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 biggest political party Ennahdha decried as a “coup”, following a 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 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”, Ennahdha, the lead party in Tunisia’s fractious ruling coalition, charged in 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 one of the world’s highest per capita rates.

Saied declared on Sunday that he had “taken the necessary decisions to save Tunisia, the state and the Tunisian people”, after a day where Covid street protests flared in multiple cities.

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”.

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 happening is very dangerous, it is proof that freedom of the press is threatened”.

‘Imminent danger’

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 national flag and sounding their car horns as fireworks lit up the sky.

But the shock move was criticised abroad, with Germany urging a rapid “return to constitutional order”

The foreign ministry in Turkey, where the government supports Ennahdha, said it was “deeply concerned” and called for “democratic legitimacy” to be restored.

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.

Published in Dawn, July 27th, 2021

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