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Tunisian president sacks prime minister, freezes parliament

TUNISIA: The Tunisian president ousted the government and froze parliament on Sunday, prompting crowds to fill major cities in support of a move that sharply exacerbated the political crisis, but which his opponents have called a coup.

President Kays Syed (pix) said he would take over executive power with the help of a new prime minister, which is the biggest challenge to the democratic system that Tunisia has introduced as a result of the 2011 revolution.

Crowds of people quickly filled the capital and other cities, applauding and honking with car honks in scenes reminiscent of the revolution that sparked the Arab Spring protests that rocked the Middle East.

However, the degree of support for Syed’s actions against a fragile government and a divided parliament was not clear, and he cautioned against any violent retaliation.

“I warn anyone who thinks to use a gun … and whoever fires a bullet will be responded by the military with bullets,” he said in a televised statement.

Hours after the announcement, military vehicles surrounded the parliament building and people nearby applauded and sang the national anthem, two witnesses said.

Years of paralysis, corruption, declining public services and rising unemployment have already tainted the political system of many Tunisians before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the economy last year and coronavirus infection rates soared this summer.

Protests sparked 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 party, Ennahda, the largest in parliament.

Banned before the revolution, Ennahda has been the most consistently successful party since 2011 and has been a member of successive coalition governments.

Its leader, Rashed Gannouchi, who is also the speaker of parliament, immediately called Syed’s decision “a coup against the revolution and the constitution” in a telephone conversation with Reuters.

“We believe that institutions still exist and that Ennahda’s supporters and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution,” he added, raising the prospect of a confrontation between Ennahda’s and Sayed’s supporters.

Another party leader, Karama, and former president Moncef Marzouki joined Ennahda in calling Syed’s move a coup.

“I ask the Tunisian people to pay attention to what they see as the beginning of a solution. This is the beginning of a slide into an even worse situation, ”Marzuki said in a video message.

Controversy

Crowds in the tens of thousands remained on the streets of Tunisia and other cities, and some people set off fireworks for hours after Sayed’s announcement, as helicopters circled overhead.

“We have been freed from them,” said Lamia Meftahi, a woman celebrating in central Tunisia after Sayed’s statement, speaking of parliament and government.

“This is the happiest moment since the revolution,” she added.

Said said in a statement that his actions were in accordance with Article 80 of the Constitution, and also quoted an article on the suspension of the immunity of members of parliament.

“Many people have been deceived by hypocrisy, betrayal and violation of the rights of the people,” he said.

The president and parliament were elected by separate popular votes in 2019, and Prime Minister Heechem Mecici took office last summer, replacing yet another short-lived government.

Syed, an independent figure without a party, has vowed to rethink a complex political system plagued by corruption. The parliamentary elections, meanwhile, produced a fragmented chamber in which no party won more than a quarter of the seats.

Disputes over the Tunisian constitution were to be resolved by a constitutional court. However, seven years after the adoption of the constitution, the court has still not been formed due to disputes over the appointment of judges.

The president has been embroiled in political disputes with Mecici for over a year as the country grapples with an economic crisis, an impending financial crisis and an unsuccessful response to the pandemic.

Under the constitution, the president is only directly responsible for foreign affairs and the military, but after the government’s failure to open vaccination centers last week, he ordered the army to respond to the pandemic.

Rising infections and deaths in Tunisia heightened public discontent with the government as the country’s political parties argued.

Mecici, meanwhile, has been trying to negotiate a new loan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which was seen as crucial to avert an impending financial crisis as Tunisia struggles to fund its budget deficit and upcoming debt payments.

Debates over economic reforms, which were seen as necessary to secure the loans, but which could hurt ordinary Tunisians by ending subsidies or cutting public sector jobs, have already left the government collapsing. – Reuters

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