Tunisian President Kais Saied suspended parliament and dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi after a day of protests against the ruling party brought the country’s political crisis to its worst.
Jubilant crowds quickly flooded the streets of the capital Tunis after Saied’s announcement on Sunday, celebrating and honking in scenes reminiscent of the 2011 revolution that brought democracy and sparked the Arab Spring protests that rocked the Middle East.
“We were relieved,” said Lamia Meftahi, a woman celebrating in central Tunis after Saied’s statement, speaking of parliament and government.
“This is the happiest moment since the revolution,” she added.
Military vehicles surrounded the parliament building on Sunday evening, according to Reuters. Witnesses said people who gathered nearby cheered and sang the national anthem as the vehicles appeared outside the building.
State television showed footage of Saied joining the crowd in central Tunis on Monday morning to celebrate his decision to overthrow the government.
However, the opposition immediately accused Saied of staging a coup and called on his supporters to show their anger at the move.
Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party and speaker of parliament, said in a video statement that Ghannouchi said people should take to the streets “like January 14, 2011”, referring to the start of the revolution that introduced democracy and triggered the Arab Spring. .
“We consider that the institutions are still standing, and the supporters of Ennahda and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution,” he added, referring to the prospect of clashes between supporters of Ennahda and Saïed.
The extent of support for the actions taken by the Saied against the fragile Mechichi government and the divided parliament was unclear. Saied cautioned against any violent response.
“I warn all those who think of resorting to arms (…) and whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets,” he said in a statement broadcast on television.
Previously, thousands of Tunisians marched through several cities to protest the ruling party they accused of economic mismanagement, corruption and failure to prevent crippling rates of coronavirus infections.
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside parliament in Tunis, shouting slogans against the Islamist-inspired ruling party Ennahdha and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi.
Demonstrations were also reported in the towns of Gafsa, Kairouan, Monastir, Sousse and Tozeur.
“The people want the dissolution of parliament,” chanted the crowd.
Several protesters were arrested and a journalist was injured when crowds threw stones and police fired tear gas canisters.
Saied said in his statement that his actions were in accordance with the constitution and cited Article 80 to suspend MPs’ immunity.
“The constitution does not allow the dissolution of parliament, but it allows the suspension of its work,” said the president, citing article 80 which authorizes such a measure in case of “imminent danger”.
“A lot of people have been deceived by hypocrisy, betrayal and the theft of people’s rights,” he said.
Saied said he would take executive power “with the help” of a government headed by a new leader appointed by the president himself.
Saied, an independent with no party behind him, has vowed to overhaul a complex, corrupt political system. The most recent elections produced a fragmented chamber in which no party held more than a quarter of the seats.
Ennahda, banned before the revolution, is the most consistently successful party since 2011 and a member of successive coalition governments.
Tunisia has been overwhelmed by the cases of Covid-19, including more than 18,000 people who have died in a country of around 12 million people.
Despite a decade that has passed since the 2011 revolution that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia remains prone to chronic political turmoil that has hampered efforts to revive crumbling public services.
The country’s fractured political class has been unable to form lasting and effective governments.
Since Saied was elected president in 2019, he has been locked in a showdown with Mechichi and Ghannouchi.
Their rivalry has blocked ministerial appointments and diverted resources from solving Tunisia’s many economic and social problems.