Turmoil in Tunisia as president sacks prime minister

Kais Saied’s removal of Hichem Mechichi described as a ‘coup’ by opponents

Tunisian security officers hold back supporters of President Kais Saied  in front of the parliament in Tunis. Photograph:  Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images

Tunisian security officers hold back supporters of President Kais Saied in front of the parliament in Tunis. Photograph: Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images

 

Tunisia’s nascent democracy is facing its biggest crisis in a decade after the president sacked the prime minister and suspended parliament amid anger over a surge in coronavirus cases.

President Kais Saied’s opponents described the sackings as a coup and a breach of the constitution in the Arab world’s only democracy.

Tens of thousands of people poured on to the streets on Sunday night to celebrate Mr Saied’s announcement that he was sacking Hichem Mechichi, the prime minister, and suspending the assembly for 30 days. Mr Saied, seen as a populist and political outsider, joined the crowds on the main boulevard in central Tunis.

“I warn any who think of resorting to weapons . . . and whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets,” he said. Mr Saied said the constitution allowed him to suspend parliament if it was in “imminent danger”.

Tunisian president Kais Saied. File photograph: Mohamed Messara/EPA
Tunisian president Kais Saied. File photograph: Mohamed Messara/EPA

Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, which sparked uprisings across the Arab world, ended the autocratic rule of Zein al-Abdine Ben Ali and ushered in a new era of fractious multi-party politics. While Tunisia is seen as the only democracy among Arab countries, the pandemic is testing the limits of its political system, which has long been riven by disputes.

The president’s move comes amid a surge in Covid-19 case and rising anger at what is seen as the government’s failure to address the deteriorating health situation.

It also comes after months of political squabbling between the president, the prime minister and Rached Ghannouchi, the speaker of parliament and leader of Nahda, a party of “Muslim democrats”.

Mr Ghannouchi has accused Mr Saied of staging a coup “against the revolution and the constitution”.

Military intervention

Military vehicles surrounded the assembly and the army blocked Mr Ghannouchi from entering when he arrived in the early hours of Monday to head a session to challenge the move by the president. He has appealed to people to take to the streets to resist “the coup”.

Mr Saied also announced plans on Sunday night to strip members of parliament of their immunity to prosecution and said he was taking over the office of the state prosecution.

Tunisia has been governed since 2011 by a succession of weak coalition governments that have struggled to energise the country’s moribund economy, damaged by a combination of political upheaval, a series of terrorist attacks targeting tourism and more recently Covid-19.

Mr Saied asked the army last week to take over management of the country’s pandemic response after scenes of chaos at 29 newly opened vaccination centres.

The failure of successive governments to address a worsening economic crisis has weakened public confidence in the political system, analysts say. This has been exacerbated by growing discord in parliament in the past year that at times resulted in televised brawls between members.

The Mechichi government has been further undermined by the squabbling with the president, who has been refusing since January to swear in 11 new ministers.

Mr Saied, a constitutional expert and TV commentator with no previous political experience, has since his election in 2019 made no secret of the fact that he does not favour the party political system and prefers one in which the president has more powers.

Despite Tunisia’s mounting debt and its fragile economic situation, political divisions have made it difficult to reach agreement on a $4 billion loan from the IMF. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021