Tunisia’s president Kais Saied has dismissed the country’s prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, and dissolved his government in a move critics labelled a coup amid calls for large scale street protests against it.
On Sunday, the Tunisian president invoked the constitution to dismiss Mr Mechichi and ordered a freeze of parliament for a period of 30 days, saying he would govern alongside a new premier. Mr Saied has been involved in political disputes with the prime minister for about a year.
The president, in a statement, also said he had suspended the legal immunity of members of parliament and that he was taking control of the general prosecutor’s office.
The ousted prime minister was reportedly placed under house arrest, though Tunisian security sources denied this, telling local media that while Mr Mechichi was at home he was not under arrest.
The move followed protests against the government and the biggest party in parliament, the moderate Islamist Ennahda, over economic issues and the Covid-19 situation. A recent surge in cases that peaked in mid-July saw the country declaring more than 8,000 infections in a single day.
Within hours of the president’s announcement, scores of people gathered in his support in Tunis and other cities, cheering and dancing while the military blocked off access to parliament and the studios of the main state TV station.
On Monday, rival supporters of the president and Ennahda gathered outside parliament with some of them exchanging insults and throwing bottles at each other.
In 2011, Tunisia witnessed large scale protests, considered the trigger point of the Arab Spring, and ousted an autocracy in favour of democratic rule. Mr Saied met his jubilant supporters in the very street where the biggest protests took place during the 2011 revolution.
Parliament speaker Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, decried Sunday’s move as a coup and an “assault on democracy”. On Monday, the speaker arrived at parliament where he said he would call a session in defiance of the president, but the army stopped him from entering.
“I am against gathering all powers in the hands of one person,” said Mr Ghannouchi, who asked Tunisians to come onto the streets to oppose the move.
Two other main parties in parliament, Heart of Tunisia and Karama, also joined Ennahda in accusing the president of a coup.
Former president of Tunisia Moncef Marzouki, who helped oversee the transition to democracy after the 2011 revolution, urged caution and said the dissolution of the government could represent the start of a slope "into an even worse situation".
However, the 63-year-old president, a political independent and former constitutional lawyer who assumed office in 2019, rejected the accusation of carrying out a coup and claimed his actions were based on the constitution, framing them as a popular response to the economic and political paralysis that has mired Tunisia for years.
The president also warned against any armed response to his decision. “Whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets,” said Mr Saied.
Mr Saied is seen as enjoying broad support from a wide range of Tunisians, including both Islamists and leftists, something which was visible in the thousands coming out on the streets to celebrate his announcement.
Additional reporting by agencies
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