Tunisia's parliament began a heated session Tuesday to approve a major cabinet reshuffle, after the president criticized the line-up and as tensions in the country run high.
Tunisia has seen a wave of night-time clashes this month, with security forces carrying out mass arrests as the novel coronavirus and lockdown measures exacerbate the North African country's economic and political crises.
The session comes a day after protesters clashed with police in the town of Sbeitla, in Tunisia's marginalized center, after a protestor in his 20's hit by a tear gas canister during clashes last week died in hospital. The Interior Ministry said an investigation has been opened.
Lawmakers criticized a heavy police deployment around the parliament building after calls for a rally there.
"A vote of confidence under police siege," one said. "All that's missing is to vote under the threat of the baton."
Activists have held daytime protests against police repression, corruption, and poverty, 10 years after the revolution that overthrew autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
More than two dozen human rights and other groups called for a march Tuesday afternoon through central Tunis to the parliament building to demand the release of hundreds of people arrested in this month´s unrest and denounce repressive measures by police.
Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi announced the sweeping reshuffle, which affects 11 ministries including the interior, justice, and health portfolios, in mid-January.
Mechichi announced a government reshuffle last week in the midst of the unrest. He promised Tuesday that the new team would concentrate on deep reforms to create jobs and improve living conditions in the country.
But four of his 11 proposed new Cabinet members are facing investigations or suspicions of corruption, which threatens to further undermine Tunisians´ faith in a leadership accused of failing to live up to the promises of the country´s democratic revolution that unleashed the Arab Spring.
In the parliamentary debate, legislator Ali Hermassi denounced the failure of four successive governments to improve the economy, noting that unemployment has risen, as has inflation, while investment has fallen. He also deplored the handling of the recent protests.
"The country needs political and social stability to emerge from the crisis," he said.
The head of one faction, Souhair Maghzaoui, told the prime minister: "If you intend to return to police repression, you are deluding yourself," referring to heavy-handed tactics under the authoritarian regime thrown out by Tunisia´s 2010-2011 uprising.
Meanwhile, President Kais Saied said the government reshuffle is unconstitutional, because the prime minister didn´t follow the procedures for informing the president first.
"The Presidency of the Republic is not a mailbox that signs decrees and organizes oath-taking ceremonies," Saied told a security council meeting. He also questioned the wisdom of naming the four proposed ministers who are suspected of conflict of interest or embezzlement.
I-Watch, the Tunisian arm of anti-corruption group Transparency International, sent a letter to lawmakers urging them not to approve the four proposed ministers.
The president also criticized the reduction of the number of women in the new government from six to four. "Women are not cosmetic powder" but crucial players in the government, he argued.
The confidence vote is scheduled at the end of the day, with lawmakers voting on the new members of the government one-by-one.