TUNIS: Tunisia’s president has announced the suspension of the Tunisian parliament and the dismissal of Prime Minister Hicham Mechichi after violent protests broke out in several Tunisian cities over the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy.
President Kais Saied said on Sunday he would assume executive authority with the assistance of a new prime minister, prompting the biggest challenge yet to a 2014 constitution that split powers between the president, prime minister and parliament.
“Many people were deceived by hypocrisy, treachery and robbery of the rights of the people,” he said in a statement carried on state media.
He said in his statement that his actions were in line with the constitution and he also suspended the immunity of members of parliament.
The statement followed an emergency meeting at his palace after thousands of Tunisians marched in several cities, with much of the anger focused on the Ennahdha party, the biggest in parliament.
Tunisian Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi accused President Saied of launching “a coup against the revolution and constitution” after the move.
“We consider the institutions to be still standing and supporters of Ennahdha and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution,” Ghannouchi, who heads Ennahdha, told the Reuters news agency by phone.
The party also slammed the president’s move as a “state coup against the revolution”.
“What Kais Saied is doing is a state coup against the revolution and against the constitution, and the members of Ennahda and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution,” Ennahdha wrote in a statement on its Facebook page.
Saied has been enmeshed in political disputes with Prime Minister Mechichi for more than a year, as the country grapples with an economic crisis, a looming fiscal crunch and a flailing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tunis-based journalist Rabeb Aloui told Al Jazeera that Saied’s move did not come as a surprise, as he had threatened to dissolve parliament and sack the prime minister.
“Since last September we (have) lived under a political crisis,” Aloui said.
She said many young Tunisians, particularly those who were protesting on Sunday, have expressed joy at the announcement.
The demonstrators had also called for social and economic reforms, however, and those issues still need to be addressed, Aloui added.
“We are really living under an economic crisis, with the health crisis too [from] the coronavirus pandemic,” she said.
Tunisia has been overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases, with more than 18,000 people dying from the disease in the country of about 12 million.
Thousands of people had defied virus restrictions and the scorching heat to demonstrate earlier on Sunday in the capital of Tunis and other cities. The largely young crowds shouted “Get out!” and slogans calling for the dissolution of parliament and early elections.
A large number of security forces were deployed, especially in Tunis where police blockades blocked all streets leading to the main artery of the capital, Avenue Bourguiba. The avenue was a key site for the Tunisian revolution 10 years ago that brought down a dictatorial government and unleashed the Arab Spring uprisings.
Police also deployed around the parliament, preventing demonstrators from accessing it.
In Tunis on Sunday, police used pepper spray against protesters who threw stones and shouted slogans demanding that Prime Minister Mechichi quit and parliament be dissolved.
Witnesses said protesters stormed or tried to storm the offices of Ennahdha in Monastir, Sfax, El Kef and Sousse, while in Tozeur they set fire to the party’s local headquarters.
Ennahdha, banned before the revolution, has been the most consistently successful party since 2011 and a member of successive coalition governments. (Int’l Monitoring Desk)