Tunisia: President dismisses PM Mechichi, freezes parliament

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied on Monday denied he was planning a coup and defended his decision to dismiss the prime minister and freeze parliament.

The president dismissed the prime minister on Sunday and said he would assume the country’s executive authority. He claimed he acted to to fight the “hypocrisy, treachery and robbery” of the political class.

The head of Tunisia’s largest parliamentary party, Rached Ghannouchi, held a sit-in protest outside the parliament building on Monday after the army barred him from entering.

The political escalation followed a weekend during which thousands of Tunisians took to the streets in anti-government protests that turned violent.

Supporters of Ghannouchi’s moderate-Islamist Ennahda party and of President Saied hurled stones and bottles at each other outside the parliament on Monday, AFP reported.

Police also reportedly raided the offices of Al-Jazeera in Tunis on Monday, the Qatar-based broadcaster said. Journalists working in the offices said they were told to leave and some reporters had phones and equipment confiscated.

What did the president say?

After announcing the dismissal of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, Saied said he would take over executive power “with the help” of a government headed by a new chief that he would appoint. Saied had appointed Mechichi as non-aligned prime minister in September last year.

The president also announced the Tunisian parliament would be frozen for 30 days and the immunity of all deputies would be suspended.

Saied claims his move is permitted in case of “imminent danger” under Article 80 of the country’s constitution.

The Tunisian president said he was acting in response to the “hypocrisy, treachery and robbery of the rights of the people” by politicians denying he was orchestrating a coup. But he warned violent opposition to his actions would be met “with bullets”.

“The constitution does not allow for the dissolution of parliament, but it does allow for its work to be suspended,” Saied said.

Mechichi had been appointed by President Saied to lead the coalition government including Ennahdha

What was the reaction in Tunisia?

Hundreds of Tunisians flooded the streets in celebration after Saied’s announcement. Local media reported that military vehicles surrounded the parliament building as some parts of the crowd cheered while others showed their anger.

Although Saied insisted that his move was constitutional, Parliament Speaker Ghannouchi accused the president of launching “a coup against the revolution and constitution.”

In a video posted by his party, Ghannouchi called on Tunisians to take to the streets against the “coup.”

Watch video 04:21 Tunisia’s democracy in crisis: Analyst Mariam Salehi speaks to DW

What do protesters want?

Early Sunday, thousands of demonstrators across Tunisia defied COVID-19 restrictions to protest against the ruling party and the prime minister. Crowds shouted “Get out!” and called for the dissolution of parliament.

Police arrested several protesters and fired tear gas as the crowd hurled stones, according to the AFP news agency.

Protesters clashed with security forces on Sunday

Protesters stormed the office of the Ennahdha party. There was also a heavy security presence around the parliament.

“Many people were deceived by hypocrisy, treachery and robbery of the rights of the people,” Saied said after the unrest.

“I warn any who think of resorting to weapons […] and whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets,” he added.

How has the international community reacted?

United Nations deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said they were “trying to see to it that all of the various parties … do what they can to ensure that the situation does remain calm.”

He added that this volatile country “cannot bear to have more unrest than it has presently had.”

Germany’s Foreign Ministry expressed its concern over the suspension of the government and said it hoped the country would “return to the constitutional order as soon as possible.”

Although the ministry avoided the term “coup,” it called Saied’s use of the constitution to suspend parliament as a “rather broad interpretation” of the law.

France, Tunisia’s former colonial power, called for “respect for a state of law and the return, as soon as possible, to the normal functioning of institutions.”

How did the political situation escalate?

Tunisia has remained prone to political turmoil a decade after the 2011 revolution that ousted strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The Ennahdha party has held sway in the country since then. While still the largest party, it has been ruling in a coalition and often in open confrontation with President Saied. But its support has waned in recent years.

Politicians have been unable to form lasting governments. Mechichi’s government was the third Cabinet to come to power in less than a year.

The two main political camps have been locked in a standoff — in February, Saied refused to approve new cabinet members. Tunisia lacks a supreme court that could have resolved such a conflict.

The coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn have ravaged the country.

The crisis led to one of Tunisia’s deepest recessions since independence in 1956. It also saw its sovereign debt rating downgraded, posing further difficulties to acquiring loans to pull itself out of the crisis.

Tunisia grapples with COVID-19 Infections on the rise Tunisia is seeing more coronavirus cases — last week, between 3,500 and 4,000 new infections were reported daily. Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi also contracted the virus in a country with little testing, and where many hospitals are overwhelmed by the many COVID-19 patients.

Tunisia grapples with COVID-19 Curfews and lockdowns A night-time curfew has been in place nationwide since October 2020. Depending on the incidence rate, the government has also imposed lockdowns for cities and regions, sealing them off from the outside world, like in the northeastern city of Manouba (photo). Beja, Silyana, Zaghouan and Kairouan report the highest incidence rates.

Tunisia grapples with COVID-19 Lockdown in Kairouan Kairouan is located about 150 kilometers southwest of the capital, Tunis. With well over 400 infections per 100,000 inhabitants, the city of about 120,000 inhabitants has one of the country’s highest infection rates at present. The square in front of the mosque is normally crowded and bustling with activity. But Kairouan is currently sealed off and looks more like a ghost town.

Tunisia grapples with COVID-19 Ambulances everywhere Only a few street vendors and stores selling necessary goods remain open. Ambulances are omnipresent, transporting COVID-19 patients to various hospitals in Kairouan.

Tunisia grapples with COVID-19 Makeshift COVID-19 wards Kairouan has grappled with high infection levels for weeks. The hospitals in the city have been overwhelmed, and special COVID-19 wards were not readily available everywhere. In the meantime, such units have been set up to make sure coronvirus patients are kept far away from regular patients.

Tunisia grapples with COVID-19 Shortage of staff Thinning medical personnel: Some doctors and members of the already scarce nursing staff have also become infected with the virus. Some patients have to be supplied with oxygen until a hospital bed can be found for them in another city.

Tunisia grapples with COVID-19 Death rate up At present, 8 to 10 people die of COVID-19 every day in Kairouan. According to official figures, almost 15,000 people have died in Tunisia since the beginning of the pandemic.

Tunisia grapples with COVID-19 Delta variant spreads Doctors and nurses work round the clock. The Health Ministry, which urges the population to comply with coronavirus measures, said 18 people have been identified so far as having contracted the more contagious COVID-19 delta variant. Seven of them, including children, live in Kairouan, according to a ministry statement.

Tunisia grapples with COVID-19 Slow vaccination campaign The vaccination campaign in Tunisia is making slow progress. Fewer than 1.8 million of the country’s about 11.5 million inhabitants have been vaccinated so far; only about 500,000 of them have received full vaccination protection, according to the Tunisian Health Ministry. It looks doubtful, however, that the country will manage to vaccinate half the population this year as planned. Author: Diana Hodali

ab, fb/nm (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)