Troops have surrounded Tunisia’s parliament and blocked its speaker from entering after the president suspended the legislature and fired the prime minister and other senior members of government, sparking concerns for the North African country’s young democracy.
In the face of nationwide protests over Tunisia’s economic troubles and the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, President Kais Saied decided late on Sunday to dismiss officials, including the justice and defence ministers.
Some demonstrators cheered the firings, shouting with joy and waving Tunisian flags.
But others accused the president of a power grab, and the country’s overseas allies expressed concern that it might be descending again into autocracy. In a move sure to fuel those worries, police raided the offices of broadcaster Al-Jazeera and ordered it to be shut down.
Tunisia, which ignited the Arab Spring in 2011 when protests led to the overthrow of its long-time 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 fuelling 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.
Thousands of protesters defied virus restrictions and scorching heat in the capital Tunis and other cities on Sunday to demand the dissolution of parliament. The largely young crowds shouted “Get out!” and slogans calling for an early election and economic reforms. Clashes erupted in many places.
“I must shoulder the responsibility and I have done so. I have chosen to stand by the people,” the president said in a solemn televised address.
He 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 parliamentary speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who heads the Islamist party that dominates the legislature, said the president did not consult him or the prime minister as required.
“We have taken these decisions… until social peace returns to Tunisia and until we save the state,” Mr Saied said.
Police intervened on Monday to prevent clashes outside the parliament building between demonstrators supporting the president and legislators from the dominant Ennahdha party and their allies who opposed the move.