The Tunisian president fired the government and froze parliament on Sunday, prompting crowds to fill larger cities in support of a move that dramatically escalated a political crisis but called his opponents a coup.
President Kais Saied said he would take over the executive branch with the help of a new prime minister, in the biggest challenge so far for the democratic system that Tunisia introduced in a 2011 revolution.
Lots of people quickly flooded the capital and other cities, cheering and honking car horns in scenes reminiscent of the revolution, which triggered the Arab Spring protests that cramped the Middle East.
However, the extent of support for Saied’s actions against a fragile government and fragmented parliament was not clear and he warned of violent reactions.
“I warn anyone who is considering using weapons … and whoever fires a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets,” he said in a statement on television.
Hours after the statement, military vehicles surrounded the parliament building as people nearby cheered and sang the national anthem, two witnesses said.
Years of paralysis, corruption, declining government services and rising unemployment had already soured many Tunisians on their political systems before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the economy last year and coronavirus infection levels soared this summer.
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 Ennahdha party, the largest in parliament.
Ennahdha, banned before the revolution, has been the most consistently successful party since 2011 and a member of successive coalition governments.
Its leader Rached Ghannouchi, who is also the speaker of parliament, immediately noted Saied’s decision “a coup against the revolution and the constitution” in a phone call to Reuters.
“We believe that the institutions still stand, and the supporters of Ennahdha and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution,” he added, raising the prospect of confrontations between supporters of Ennahdha and Saied.
The leader of another party, Karama, and former President Moncef Marzouki both joined Ennahdha and called Saied’s move a coup.
“I ask the Tunisians to pay attention to the fact that they imagine this is the beginning of the solution. It is the beginning of slipping into an even worse situation,” Marzouki said in a video excerpt.
Crowds in the tens of thousands stopped on the streets of Tunis and other cities, with some people setting off fireworks for hours after Saied’s announcement as helicopters circled overhead.
“We have been liberated from them,” said Lamia Meftahi, a woman celebrating in central Tunis following Saied’s statement, speaking of parliament and the government.
“This is the happiest moment since the revolution,” she added.
Saied said in his statement that his actions were in line with Article 80 of the Constitution and also quoted the article in order to waive the immunity of Members of Parliament.
“Many people were deceived by hypocrisy, treason and robbery against the rights of the people,” he said.
The president and parliament were both elected in separate referendums in 2019, while Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi took office last summer and replaced another short-lived government.
Saied, an independent without a party behind it, vowed to review a complex political system plagued by corruption. Meanwhile, the parliamentary elections resulted in a fragmented chamber in which no party had more than a quarter of the seats.
Disputes over Tunisia’s constitution were intended to be resolved by a constitutional court. But seven years after the constitution was approved, the court has not yet been installed following disputes over the appointment of judges.
The president has been involved in political disputes with Mechichi for over a year, as the country struggles with an economic crisis, a looming fiscal crisis and a weak response to the pandemic.
According to the constitution, the president has direct responsibility only for foreign affairs and the military, but after a government debate with walk-in vaccination centers last week, he told the army to take care of the pandemic response.
Tunisia’s soaring levels of infection and death have increased public anger against the government as the country’s political parties clash.
At the same time, Mechichi sought to negotiate a new loan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that was considered crucial to avert a looming fiscal crisis as Tunisia struggles to finance its budget deficit and future repayments.
Disputes over economic reforms, seen as necessary to secure the loan, but which could harm ordinary Tunisians by ending subsidies or reducing public sector jobs, had already brought the government close to collapse.