Tunisian president Kais Saied has suspended parliament and dismissed prime minister Hichem Mechichi after a day of protests against the ruling party brought the country’s political crisis to a head.
Cheering crowds quickly flooded the streets of the capital Tunis after Saied’s announcement on Sunday, celebrating and honking car horns in scenes that recalled the 2011 revolution that brought democracy and triggered the Arab spring protests that convulsed the Middle East.
“We have been relieved of them,” said Lamia Meftahi, a woman celebrating in central Tunis after Saied’s statement, speaking of the parliament and government.
“This is the happiest moment since the revolution,” she added.
State television showed pictures of Saied joining the crowds in the street in central Tunis early on Monday that was celebrating his decision to oust the government.
People cheered as military vehicles surrounded the parliament building late on Sunday, according to Reuters, with witnesses reporting that parliamentary speaker Rached Ghannouchi was prevented from entering the building.
Ghannouchi, leader of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, earlier accused Saied of staging a coup and called for supporters to take to the streets “like on January 14 2011”, referring to the beginning of the revolution that introduced democracy and triggered the Arab spring.
“We consider the institutions still standing, and the supporters of the Ennahda and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution,” he said, raising the prospect of confrontations between supporters of Ennahda and Saied.
The extent of support for the Saied’s moves against Mechichi’s fragile government and divided parliament was not clear. Saied warned against any violent response.
“I warn any who think of resorting to weapons… and whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets,” he said in a statement carried on television.
Earlier, thousands of Tunisians had marched in several cities protesting against the ruling party which they accused of economic mismanagement, corruption and failure to prevent crippling rates of coronavirus infections.
Hundreds of protesters had gathered in front of parliament in Tunis, shouting slogans against the Islamist-inspired ruling Ennahdha party and the premier Hichem Mechichi.
Protests were also reported in the towns of Gafsa, Kairouan, Monastir, Sousse and Tozeur.
“The people want the dissolution of parliament,” the crowd chanted.
Several protesters were arrested and a journalist was injured when the crowd hurled stones and police fired tear gas canisters.
Saied said in his statement that his actions were in line with the constitution, and cited article 80 to suspend the immunity of members of parliament.
“The constitution does not allow for the dissolution of parliament, but it does allow for its work to be suspended,” the president said, citing Article 80 which permits such a measure in case of “imminent danger”.
“Many people were deceived by hypocrisy, treachery and robbery of the rights of the people,” he said.
Saied said he would take over executive power “with the help” of a government headed by a new chief appointed by the president himself.
Saied, an independent without a party behind him, swore to overhaul a complex political system plagued by corruption. The most recent election delivered a fragmented chamber in which no party held more than a quarter of seats.
Ennahda, banned before the revolution, has been the most consistently successful party since 2011 and a member of successive coalition governments.
Tunisia has been overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases, including more than 18,000 people who have died in a country of around 12 million.
Despite a decade passing since the 2011 revolution which overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia remains prone to chronic political turmoil that has stymied efforts to revive crumbling public services.
The country’s fractious political class has been unable to form lasting, effective governments.
Since Saied was elected president in 2019, he has been locked in a showdown with Mechichi and Ghannouchi.
Their rivalry has blocked ministerial appointments and diverted resources away from tackling Tunisia’s many economic and social problems