TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Troops surrounded Tunisia’s parliament and blocked its speaker from entering Monday after the president suspended the legislature and fired the prime minister and other top members of government.
In the face of nationwide protests over Tunisia’s economic troubles and the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, President Kais Saied’s decided late Sunday to dismiss the officials, who also included the justice and defense ministers.
Some demonstrators cheered the firings, shouting with joy and waving Tunisian flags, but others accused the president of a power grab. Police raided the offices of broadcaster Al Jazeera and ordered it to shut down.
Tunisia, which ignited the Arab Spring in 2011 when protests led to the overthrow of its longtime autocratic leader, is often regarded as the only success story of those uprisings. But democracy did not bring prosperity: Tunisia’s economy was already flailing before the pandemic hit, with 18% unemployment, and young people demanding jobs and an end to police brutality protested in large numbers earlier this year. The government recently announced cuts to food and fuel subsidies as it sought its fourth loan from the International Monetary Fund in a decade, further fueling anger in impoverished regions.
The pandemic has only compounded those problems, and the government recently reimposed lockdowns and other virus restrictions in the face of one of Africa’s worst outbreaks.
Angry at the economic malaise and the poor handling of the pandemic, thousands of protesters defied virus restrictions and scorching heat in the capital, Tunis, and other cities Sunday to demand the dissolution of parliament. The largely young crowds shouted “Get out!” and slogans calling for early elections, and also pushed for economic reforms. Clashes erupted in many places.
The president said he had to fire the prime minister and suspend parliament because of concerns over public violence. He said he acted according to the law — but parliament speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who heads the Islamic party that dominates the legislature, said the president didn’t consult with him or the prime minister as required. The three have been in conflict.
“We have taken these decisions ... until social peace returns to Tunisia and until we save the state,” Saied said in a solemn televised address.
While the dissolution of parliament cheered some protesters, others in Tunisia were opposed to it — and the composition of each camp wasn’t entirely clear. Police intervened Monday to prevent clashes outside the parliament building between demonstrators supporting the president and lawmakers from the dominant Ennahdha party and their allies who opposed the move. Both sides shouted and some threw stones, according to an Associated Press reporter and videos circulating online.
Ghannouchi, the speaker, tried to enter parliament overnight but police and military forces guarding the site stopped him. He sat in a car outside the building for nearly 12 hours before leaving Monday afternoon — his next steps unclear.
He called the president’s move “a coup against the constitution and the (Arab Spring) revolution,” and insisted the parliament would continue to work.
Tensions between the prime minister and president have been blamed for poor management of the virus, and a bungled vaccination drive led to the sacking of the health minister earlier this month.
To date, 7% of the population has been fully vaccinated, while more than 90% of the country’s ICU beds are occupied, according to health ministry figures. Videos have circulated on social media showing dead bodies left in the middle of wards as morgues struggle to deal with growing deaths.