Tunisian President Kais Saied sacked the defense minister Monday, a day after ousting the prime minister and suspending parliament, plunging the young democracy into constitutional crisis in the midst of a pandemic.
Street clashes erupted Monday outside the army-barricaded parliament, after Saied dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and ordered parliament closed for 30 days, a move the biggest political party Ennahdha decried as a “coup”.
Saied declared on Sunday that he had “taken the necessary decisions to save Tunisia, the state and the Tunisian people,” following street protests in multiple cities against the government’s handling of the Covid pandemic.
The president, who under the constitution controls the armed forces, warned his opponents against taking up arms, threatening that if anyone “fires a single bullet, our forces will respond with a rain of bullets”.
On Monday afternoon, a statement from the presidency announced the dismissals of Defense Minister Ibrahim Bartaji and acting justice minister Hasna Ben Slimane, who is also the government spokeswoman.
Soldiers from early Monday blockaded the assembly in Tunis while Saied backers hurled stones, bottles and insults at supporters of the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha, whose leader, parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, was barred entry to the complex.
Troops also surrounded the office of Mechichi, who was yet to officially react to the events rocking the North African country.
Later in the afternoon, the protests died down.
Saied’s dramatic move -- a decade on from Tunisia’s 2011 revolution -- comes even though the constitution enshrines a parliamentary democracy.
It “is a coup d’etat against the revolution and against the constitution,” said Ennahdha, the lead party in Tunisia’s fractious ruling coalition charged, warning its members “will defend the revolution”.
The crisis follows months of deadlock between the president, the premier and Ennahdha chief Ghannouchi, which has crippled the Covid response as deaths have surged to one of the world’s highest per capita rates.
Tunisia has recently been overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases which have raised the death toll to more than 18,000 in a nation of 12 million.
Police also shuttered the local bureau of Qatari-based Al Jazeera television, the network’s Tunis director Lotfi Hajji said, warning that “what is happening is very dangerous, it is proof that freedom of the press is threatened”.
The powerful Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) which played a key role in the 2011 uprising, said the president acted “in accordance” with the constitution to “prevent imminent danger and to restore the normal functioning” of the state.
Saied’s power-grab sparked jubilant rallies late Sunday by thousands of his supporters who flooded the streets of Tunis, waving the national flag and sounding their car horns as fireworks lit up the sky.
But the shock move was criticized abroad.
The United States is concerned about developments in Tunisia and urged calm in the country, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday, adding the United States is in touch at a senior level with Tunisian leaders to learn more.
Psaki said the White House has not made a determination on whether it was a coup.
Germany urged a rapid “return to constitutional order” while the foreign ministry in Turkey, where the government supports Ennahdha, called for “democratic legitimacy” to be restored.
France called for respect of the rule of law in Tunisia as quickly as possible and called on all political parties to refrain from violence.
Since Saied was elected in 2019, he has been locked in a showdown with Mechichi and Ghannouchi.
The rivalry has blocked ministerial appointments and diverted resources from tackling Tunisia’s many economic and social problems.
In the chaotic scenes outside parliament Monday, Ghannouchi admonished an army officer who was blocking access and who had declared the troops were “the protectors of the nation”.
Ghannouchi retorted that “the Tunisian people will never accept an authoritarian government, whatever your efforts”.
Saied said he would assume executive power “with the help” of a government whose new chief he would appoint himself.
The president also lifted parliamentary immunity for lawmakers.
In the 10 years since Tunisia’s popular revolution toppled long-time leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has had nine governments.
Some of them have lasted only a few months, hindering the reforms needed to revamp the country’s struggling economy and poor public services.
Sunday’s political drama began with mass protests against the government for its failures in tackling the pandemic.
“The people want the dissolution of parliament,” the crowd chanted outside parliament in Tunis. Protests were also reported in several other cities.
A senior Ennahdha official, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, alleged that the protests and subsequent celebrations, had all been choreographed by the president.
After Saied’s announcement, one jubilant supporter, Nahla, brandished a Tunisian flag and hailed the president’s “courageous decisions”.
“This is the president we love!” she said.
But one man, aged in his forties, watched on without enthusiasm and said: “These fools are celebrating the birth of a new dictator.”