© Reuters. A man reacts as police arrest a protester during an anti-government protest in Tunis, Tunisia, on July 25, 2021. REUTERS / Zoubeir Souissi
By Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall
TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia's President sacked the government and froze parliament on Sunday.
President Kais Saied said he would take executive power, with the support of a new prime minister, in the biggest challenge yet to a 2014 democratic constitution that divides powers between the president, prime minister and parliament.
Crowds of people quickly flooded the streets of the capital, cheering and honking their horns in scenes reminiscent of the 2011 revolution that brought democracy and sparked the Arab Spring protests that shook the Middle East.
However, the level of support for Saied's moves against a fragile government and a divided parliament was not clear and he warned against any violent reaction.
"I warn anyone who thinks to take up arms … and whoever fires a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets," he said in a televised statement.
Years of paralysis, corruption, declining government services and growing unemployment had piqued many Tunisians with their political system before the global pandemic hit the economy last year and coronavirus infection rates soared this summer.
Protests, called by social media activists but not supported by any of the major political parties, took place on Sunday, with much of the anger centered on the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, the largest in parliament.
"We have been freed from them," said Lamia Meftahi, a woman who celebrated in central universities after Saied's declaration, about parliament and the government.
"This is the happiest moment since the revolution," she added.
The Ennahda, which was banned before the revolution, has been the most successful party since 2011 and a member of several coalition governments.
Their leader Rached Ghannouchi, who is also speaker of parliament, immediately described Saied's decision in a telephone conversation with Reuters as "a coup against the revolution and the constitution".
"We believe the institutions are still standing, and the Ennahda supporters and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution," he added, holding out the prospect of confrontations between Ennahda and Saied supporters.
Saied said in his statement that his actions are in accordance with Article 80 of the Constitution and also cited the article on the lifting of immunity from members of parliament.
"Many people have been deceived by hypocrisy, betrayal and the robbery of the rights of the people," he said.
The president and parliament were elected in separate referendums in 2019, while Mechichi took office last summer, replacing another short-lived government.
Saied, an independent with no party behind him, vowed to overhaul a complex, corruption-ridden political system. Meanwhile, the general election left a fragmented chamber with no party holding more than a quarter of the seats.
Disputes over the constitution of Tunisia should be settled by a constitutional court. However, seven years after the constitution was passed, the court is yet to be set up after disputes over the appointment of judges.
The president has been mired in political disputes with Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi for over a year as the country grapples with an economic crisis, an impending financial crisis and a hesitant response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under the constitution, the president only has direct responsibility for foreign policy and the military, but after a government debacle with walk-in vaccination centers last week, he told the army to take responsibility for responding to the pandemic.
Rising infection and death rates in Tunisia have fueled public anger against the government as the country's political parties squabbled.
Meanwhile, Mechichi attempted to negotiate a new loan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which was seen as crucial to averting an impending financial crisis as Tunisia struggles to finance its budget deficit and upcoming debt payments.
Disputes over the economic reforms considered necessary to secure the loan, which could harm ordinary Tunisians by cutting subsidies or job cuts in the public sector, had brought the government shortly before the collapse.