Tunisia’s president insists crackdown temporary as opposition calls for talks

Ennahda party moves to ease tensions after Saied suspended parliament and sacked PM

Tunisian police barricade a road leading to the parliament in Tunis on Tuesday. Photograph:  Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images

Tunisian police barricade a road leading to the parliament in Tunis on Tuesday. Photograph: Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images

 

Tunisia’s president has lengthened the country’s curfew and banned public gatherings of more than three people, as the opposition calls for talks to end the north African nation’s political crisis.

After a weekend of protests over the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, President Kais Saied suspended parliament and sacked the prime minister on Monday.

The country’s largest opposition party, the moderate Islamists Ennahda, has accused him of staging a coup in the Arab world’s only democracy and called for dialogue.

On Tuesday, Mr Saied made it clear that the measures were temporary and denied allegations that the moves breached the constitution. “I am baffled by those who speak of a coup . . . I studied and taught the law and I know what a coup means – violating legitimacy,” he said in a meeting with civil society representatives, a video of which was posted on his Facebook page.

A former law professor and political outsider with no party affiliation, Mr Saied’s election in 2019 was seen as a rebuke to mainstream politicians that were perceived by many Tunisians as corrupt and self-interested.

Mr Saied has described his actions as overdue and necessary to save a state hijacked by vested interests.

Tunisians have seen their living standards plummet since the 2011 revolution, which sparked uprisings across the Arab world. Multiple fractious coalition governments have struggled to manage the economy.

Pandemic factor

With inflation soaring and unemployment high, the country has also been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and the government’s response has been widely criticised as chaotic and inadequate. Hospitals have been overwhelmed by the spread of the Delta variant and some have lacked oxygen supplies.

Despite allegations of a coup, Mr Saied has argued that his actions comply with the 2014 constitution drafted after the revolution. He said the charter gave him the right to take measures he considered appropriate in cases of “imminent” danger to the state. He also pointed to what he described as corruption within the political class, which he said had crippled the government and the provision of services to the Tunisian people.

“The danger is imminent, in fact it is already present,” he said. “Tunisia has turned from a single party to a single lobby. They divide up the state and its assets as if it was their own private property . . . and in this pandemic we have reached top position among Arab and African states [in Covid-19 mortality] . . . Is that not imminent danger?”

The civil society leaders in the gathering on Tuesday included representatives from four organisations that jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. The award was for their role in forging a compromise between Tunisia’s Islamists and its secular forces, which saved the country’s democratic transition from collapse.

Known as the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, the four groups were: the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the powerful trade union federation; the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, which represents the business community; the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers.

The UGTT issued a statement on Monday in which it cautiously supported Mr Saied’s moves but called for guarantees of a return to the constitutional track. The trade union slammed the spread of corrupt lobbies within the state, but insisted that “constitutional legitimacy has to be observed in every measure taken during this sensitive period”.

Hamza Meddeb, a scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said the measured tone adopted by the UGTT was “good positioning, allowing it possibly to broker a road map for a new phase and act as a go-between between Ennahda and the president”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021