A supporter of the country’s Islamist Ennahda party is injured by a stone thrown at him during a protest outside the parliament building in the capital Tunis on July 26, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

Tunis: Street clashes erupted on Monday outside Tunisia’s army-barricaded parliament, a day after President Kais Said ousted the prime minister and suspended the legislature, plunging the young democracy into a constitutional crisis.

Said 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 pandemic.

What led to the crisis?
* Tensions between the prime minister and president have been blamed for poor management of the virus, and a bungled vaccination drive led to the sacking of the health minister earlier this month.
* To date, 7% of the population has been fully vaccinated, while more than 90% of the country's ICU beds are occupied, according to health ministry figures.
* Videos have circulated on social media showing dead bodies left in the middle of wards as morgues struggle to deal with growing deaths.
* Ennahdha has been a particular target, accused of focusing on its internal concerns instead of managing the virus.

Soldiers from early Monday blockaded the assembly in Tunis while, outside, the president’s supporters hurled stones and insults at backers of Islamist-inspired Ennahdha, whose leader staged a sit-in to protest being barred entry to the complex.

Said’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 and largely limits presidential powers to security and diplomacy.

It “is a coup d’etat against the revolution and against the constitution,” Ennahdha, which was the biggest party in Tunisia’s fractious ruling coalition, charged in a Facebook post, warning that its members “will defend the revolution”.

The crisis follows prolonged deadlock between the president, the premier and Ennahdha chief Rached Ghannouchi, which has crippled the COVID-19 response as deaths have surged to one of the world’s highest per capita rates.

“I have taken the necessary decisions to save Tunisia, the state and the Tunisian people,” Said declared in a statement on Sunday, a day that had seen Covid street protests flare in multiple cities.

The president’s announcement sparked jubilant rallies by many thousands of his supporters who flooded the streets of the capital late Sunday to celebrate and wave the national flag, as car horns sounded through the night and fireworks lit up the sky.

But the shock move was criticised abroad. Turkey’s foreign ministry said it was “deeply concerned” and called for “democratic legitimacy” to be restored.

‘Most delicate moments’

Before the president’s announcement, thousands had marched in several cities protesting against Ennahdha, criticising the lead party in Tunisia’s government for failures in tackling the pandemic.

A senior Ennahdha official, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, alleged that the protests before Said’s announcement, and the subsequent celebrations, had all been choreographed by the president.

“We are also capable of organising large demonstrations to show the number of Tunisians who are opposed to these decisions,” this official said.

Since Said 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.

“We are navigating the most delicate moments in the history of Tunisia,” Said said on Sunday.

He said the constitution did not allow for the dissolution of parliament, but did allow him to suspend it, citing Article 80 which permits it in case of “imminent danger”.

In a later Facebook post, he clarified the suspension would be for 30 days.

Said said he would take over executive power “with the help” of a government, whose new chief he would appoint himself.

He also said that parliamentary immunity would be lifted for deputies.

‘Birth of a dictator’

In the 10 years since Tunisia’s popular revolution toppled dictator Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, the North African country has had nine governments.

Some of them have lasted only a few months, hindering the reforms needed to revamp its struggling economy and poor public services.

Tunisia has recently been overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases which have raised the death toll to more than 18,000.

Last week, Mechichi fired his health minister as cases skyrocketed, the latest in a string of health ministers to be sacked.

In Sunday’s COVID-19 protests, hundreds rallied in front of parliament, shouting slogans against Ennahdha and Mechichi. Demonstrations were also reported in the towns of Gafsa, Kairouan, Monastir, Sousse and Tozeur.

Several demonstrators were arrested and a journalist was wounded when protesters hurled stones and police fired tear gas canisters, an AFP reporter said.

“The people want the dissolution of parliament,” the crowd had chanted.

After Said’s announcement, many Tunisians expressed relief and took to the streets in joyful celebration.

A jubilant Nahla, brandishing a Tunisian flag, told AFP: “These are courageous decisions ... This is the president we love!”

But one man, aged in his forties, watched on without enthusiasm and said: “These fools are celebrating the birth of a new dictator.”