210726 Tunisia
Supporters of Tunisia's President Kais Said gather on the streets as they celebrate after he dismissed the government and froze parliament, in Tunis, Tunisia July 25, 2021. Image Credit: Reuters

Abu Dhabi: Tunisia’s President Kais Said on Sunday dismissed the government and froze parliament in a dramatic escalation of the country’s political crisis following a day of protests around the democratic country that his opponents labelled a coup.

Against the backdrop of violent protests that took place in several cities, President Said said he would assume executive authority with the assistance of a new prime minister, in the biggest challenge yet to a 2014 constitution that split powers between president, prime minister and parliament.

Said announced these measures under article 80 of the constitution, after an emergency meeting at the Carthage Palace.

Following the announcement of his decisions, Said said, “The Tunisian people today continue their revolution under the shadow of legitimacy, and we will work to apply the law to everyone on an equal footing. No one is superior to anyone, neither in his wealth nor in his stature. All people are equal before the law. What I am saying now is within the scope of the law, and I cannot remain silent and observe what is going on.”

“Many people were deceived by hypocrisy, treachery and robbery of the rights of the people,” Saied said in a statement carried on state media.

Said added, “There are other measures that will be taken successively. We don’t want bloodshed. And I warn those who prepare themselves tonight and distribute money in some neighborhoods for burning and looting, that the law is above all and will apply to them.”

Said’s decisions come after hundreds of protesters gathered in the vicinity of the parliament headquarters in Tunisia to call for the government to step down and dissolve parliament, as part of moves called by activists on social media a few days ago.

Soon after the statement, cars filled the streets of the capital Tunis in defiance of a COVID-19 curfew, as supporters of Said honked horns and cheered from the windows.

The president has been entangled in political disputes with Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi for over a year, as the country grapples with an economic crisis, a looming fiscal crunch and a flailing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, head of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, the biggest in parliament, accused Said of launching “a coup against the revolution and constitution.”

“We consider the institutions still standing, and the supporters of the Ennahda and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution,” he added, raising the prospect of confrontations between supporters of Ennahda and Saied.

Said and the parliament were both elected in separate popular votes in 2019, while Mechichi took office last summer, replacing another short-lived government.

Disputes over Tunisia’s constitution were intended to be settled by a constitutional court. However, seven years after the constitution was approved, the court has yet to be installed after disputes over the appointment of judges.