President Kais Saied has said he will assume executive power with the help of a new prime minister, in the biggest challenge yet to the democratic system Tunisia introduced in a 2011 revolution.
Crowds of people quickly flooded the capital and other towns, clapping and honking their horns in scenes reminiscent of the revolution, which sparked the Arab Spring protests that rocked the Middle East.
However, the extent of support for Saied’s actions against a fragile government and a divided parliament was unclear and he 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.
Hours after the statement, military vehicles surrounded the Parliament building as people nearby applauded and sang the national anthem, two witnesses said.
Protests, called by social media activists but not supported by any of the major political parties, took place on Sunday, with much of the anger focused on the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, the largest in parliament.
Ennahda, banned before the revolution, is the most consistently successful party since 2011 and a member of successive coalition governments.
Its leader Rached Ghannouchi, who is also Speaker of Parliament, immediately called Saied’s decision a “coup against the revolution and the constitution” in a phone call to Reuters.
“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 leader of another party, Karama, and former President Moncef Marzouki both joined Ennahda in calling Saied’s move a coup.
“I ask the Tunisian people to be careful that they imagine this is the start of the solution. It is the start of sliding into an even worse situation,” Marzouki said in a video statement.
Celebrate the crowds
Crowds numbering tens of thousands remained in the streets of Tunis and other towns, with some setting off fireworks, for hours after Saied’s announcement as helicopters circled overhead.
“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.
Saied said in his statement that his actions complied with article 80 of the constitution, and also cited the article aimed at suspending the immunity of members of parliament.
“A lot of people have been deceived by hypocrisy, betrayal and the theft of people’s rights,” he said.
The president and parliament were both elected in separate popular votes in 2019, while Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi took office last summer, replacing another short-lived government.
Saied, an independent with no party behind him, has vowed to overhaul a complex, corrupt political system. Meanwhile, the legislative elections yielded a fragmented chamber in which no party held more than a quarter of the seats.
Disputes over the Tunisian constitution were to be settled by a constitutional court. However, seven years after the constitution was approved, the court has still not been installed after disputes over the appointment of judges.
The president has been embroiled in political disputes with Mechichi for more than a year, as the country grapples with an economic crisis, a looming budget crisis and a turbulent response to the pandemic.
Under the constitution, the president has direct responsibility only for foreign affairs and the military, but after a government debacle with walk-in vaccination centers last week, he asked the military to take charge of the response to the pandemic.
The skyrocketing infection and death rates in Tunisia have added to public anger against the government as the country’s political parties bicker.
Meanwhile, Mechichi was trying to negotiate a new loan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that was seen as crucial to avert an impending budget crisis as Tunisia struggles to finance its budget deficit and upcoming debt repayments.
Disputes over economic reforms, seen as necessary to secure the loan but which could hurt ordinary Tunisians by ending subsidies or cutting public sector jobs, had already brought the government to the brink of collapse.