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Tunisia’s president fires prime minister, dismisses government, freezes parliament

Kais Saied, Tunisia's president.
Kais Saied, Tunisia's president.Dursun Aydemi/Bloomberg

Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the country’s prime minister and froze parliament for 30 days on Sunday, posing a major test to the young democracy and escalating a political crisis that has built for months. Opponents condemned the move as an attempted coup.

Saied announced he was firing Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and that he and a new prime minister, to be named in the coming hours, would take up executive authority. Under Tunisia's 2014 constitution, executive power is shared by the president, prime minister and the parliament.

Saied also suspended lawmakers' parliamentary immunity.

"We have taken these decisions . . . until social peace returns to Tunisia and until we save the state," he said in a televised speech after an emergency meeting with security leaders.

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The moves came on Tunisia's Republic Day, traditionally a day of celebration and protest across the North African country. This year, amid a floundering economy, a devastating coronavirus surge and widespread anger at the government, it was marked by displays of public rage.

Thousands of Tunisians across the country demonstrated on Sunday, reiterating the calls for the dissolution of parliament that have resounded at street protests in recent months, reflecting the deep dissatisfaction of many in the Arab Spring's only lasting democracy. Scuffles between police and protesters broke out at several points. Police in Tunis, the capital, fired tear gas and made several arrests.

Videos on social media Sunday appeared to show some demonstrators vandalizing local party offices of Ennahda. The moderate Islamist party has been the most significant player in Tunisian politics since the country's 2011 revolution; it holds a plurality of seats in parliament. But it's highly unpopular among many segments of the population today.

Tunisians, defying a coronavirus curfew, cheered, ululated, lit flares and waved flags on the streets of cities across Tunis following Saied's announcement. Videos on social media showed an army tank driving along the capital's central artery to applause from the crowd.

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Security forces used tear gas to disperse protesters attempting to break into Ennahda's central headquarters in downtown Tunis, state news agency Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP) reported. A group of young people also set fire to an Ennahda office in the northeastern city of Tebourba, according to TAP.

Saied argued that his actions were in line with a constitutional article that gives the president broad powers under exceptional circumstances. He said Sunday that he was "not suspending the Constitution" and that these would be "temporary measures."

"I warn any who think of resorting to weapons . . . and whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets," he said in his remarks, Al Jazeera reported.

Opponents decried the dismissal of the government and the freezing of parliament as a putsch. In a videotaped statement posted to his party's Facebook page, Rachid Ghannouchi, head of Ennahda and speaker of parliament, accused Saied of carrying out "a coup attempt."

He called on "the youth of the revolution," civil and political society, the army, police and others to "abstain from the participation in the confiscation of Tunisia's achievements."

Parliament "cannot be suspended" and remains active, Ghannouchi said in a statement to The Washington Post, describing the president's announcements as "invalid" and unconstitutional.

"We consider the Assembly to be in permanent session, the government to be in place and all our democratic institutions to be unaffected by these unconstitutional measures," he added. "We call on President Saied to stop this attempted coup and ask all our friends inside and outside to support the people of Tunisia in resisting the forces of dictatorship and tyranny."

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He and other party leaders planted themselves in front of the closed gate of parliament early Monday in Tunis, as security officers prevented them from entering the premises.

It's unclear what could happen next. Constitutional disputes are supposed to be adjudicated by a constitutional court, but seven years after the constitution was ratified, political squabbling over the court's composition has prevented its establishment.

Sharan Grewal, a professor at the College of William & Mary, called the developments "probably the most serious crisis since the protests of summer 2013." Tensions that summer nearly overturned Tunisia's democracy.

The constitution is clear that parliament must remain in continuous session, Grewal wrote in a text message. He speculated that Ennahda could try to convene a meeting of the legislature to test the loyalties of security forces. The position of the powerful national labor union - which helped broker the compromise that resolved Tunisia's last major political crisis - will also be critical in shaping how events unfold.

Sunday's developments follow months of political infighting between Saied, Mechichi - whom Saied picked for prime minister last summer and later soured on - and the parliamentary coalition led by Ennahda, which supported Mechichi's government.

Saied has refused since the winter to swear in 11 new ministers, and Ghannouchi and others accused him of overstepping his constitutional authority. Saied has also made statements in recent months aimed at bolstering the power of the presidency, setting off alarm bells among some politicians and observers.

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Popular sentiment has appeared to be largely on the president's side. As criticism of the government mounted in recent months, Saied, a law professor and political independent who won the presidency in a landslide in 2019, has maintained strong support in public opinion polls.

“Kais Saied is still the most popular figure in Tunisia, and beyond his base, his moves likely also appeal to Tunisians who loathe Ennahda and other political parties, as well as those who seek a stronger presidency,” Grewal said.