Tunisian police barricade the Habib Bourguiba avenue in Tunis on July 27, 2021. Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring revolts a decade ago and long seen as its sole democratic success story, was plunged into constitutional crisis this week. Image Credit: AFP

Tunis: Tunisia’s biggest party, the moderate Islamist Ennahda, on Tuesday called for political dialogue to get the country out of crisis after it accused president Kais Said of a coup when he dismissed the prime minister and suspended parliament.

The statement came as Ennhahda issued instructions to its supporters through party branches not to resume a sit-in outside parliament and to avoid protests, in a reversal of an earlier call by its leader Rached Ghannouchi to take to the streets.

Though some senior party members wanted to retain a street presence, its leaders decided to avoid any further escalation and allow a period of calm, two Ennahda officials said earlier on Tuesday.

The area outside the parliament building, the site on Monday of confrontations between hundreds of supporters of Ennahda and Said, was empty on Tuesday morning. Ennahda’s supporters left the parliament on Monday evening and have not returned.

Tunisia is facing its biggest crisis since the 2011 revolution that introduced democracy. Saied said his actions were in line with a constitutional clause allowing extraordinary measures during an emergency.

It raised the spectre of major street confrontations or a slide back from the democratic gains won a decade ago.

Ennahda and the next three largest parties in parliament have all denounced the move as a coup.

A Tunisian political source said neighbouring Algeria had pushed both Saied and his opponents to step back from any confrontation to avoid further destabilisation or the intervention of any external forces.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Saied late on Monday and said he had urged him to “to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights”.

Said has yet to announce a new interim prime minister and has said he will replace the defence and justice ministers. He has not said whether the other cabinet ministers will remain in place.

Ealier, Said said his suspension of parliament and firing of the prime minister were to restore order and retake the country from “thieves,” dismissing claims he orchestrated a coup in the Arab Spring’s birthplace.

Night curfew until August 27

Kais Said’s comments — a staunch defense of his moves a day earlier — came as he ordered a 7pm to 6am curfew through August 27 and barred public gatherings for more than three people. The combined steps have rattled the nation’s already brittle democracy and thrust it into what may be its worst constitutional crisis since the 2011 uprising ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Explaining his reasoning, Said said Tunisia had shifted from single-party rule to a one-lobby governance, accusing coalition parties of dividing the spoils. He dubbed them “thieves” and said he acted after his “patience had run out.”

“I am baffled by those who speak of a coup. I studied and taught the law and i know what a coup means - violating legitimacy,” he said in a Monday meeting with Tunisian representatives, a video of which was posted on his Facebook page. “I applied the constitution since conditions” for taking the decisions “were met,” he said.

Said took action late Sunday after masses of mainly young people demonstrated in the capital, Tunis, and other cities calling for the fall of the government and railing against hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The new movement restrictions, for which no official reason was given, will likely be taken as an attempt to quell any potential unrest from those opposed to his steps, including supporters of the Ennahda Party, the biggest bloc in parliament.

In measured remarks, Said on Monday accused politicians of “stealing billions off the sweat of the Tunisian people.”

“I reassure Tunisians that the state is still standing, and there will be no room for violating rights and freedoms or equality,” he said. “I also urge them not to to take to the streets. The most serious threat confronting states and societies is an implosion or internal fighting.”