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Tunisia’s nascent democracy is facing its biggest crisis in a decade, after the president fired the prime minister and suspended the parliament out of anger at the surge in coronavirus cases.
Opponents of President Keith Said described the dismissal as a coup, violating the constitution of the only democratic country in the Arab world.
Thousands of people took to the streets on Sunday night to celebrate Said’s announcement that he would fire Prime Minister Hichem Mečić and suspend gatherings for 30 days. Said was seen as a populist and political outsider, and he joined the crowd on the main avenue in the center of Tunisia.
“I warn anyone who thinks of using a weapon… No matter who shoots, the army will respond with bullets,” he said. Said said that if the parliament is in “imminent danger”, the constitution allows him to suspend the parliament.
The revolution in Tunisia in 2011 triggered an uprising in the entire Arab world, ended Zein al-Abdine Ben Ali’s autocratic rule, and ushered in a new era of multi-party politics. Although Tunisia is regarded as the only democracy among Arab countries, the epidemic is testing the limits of its long-standing disputed political system.
The president’s move comes at a time when Covid-19 cases have surged and people’s anger over the government’s failure to address the deteriorating health situation is rising.
This also happened after months of political quarrels between the President, the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Parliament Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the “Muslim Democrats” party Nahda.
Ganucci accused Said of launching a coup “against the revolution and the constitution.”
Military vehicles surrounded the rally and the army prevented Ghannouchi from entering. He arrived early on Monday morning to preside over a meeting to challenge the president’s move. He called on people to take to the streets to resist the “coup.”
Said also announced a plan to deprive members of parliament from prosecution on Sunday night and said he would take over the state prosecutor’s office.
Tunisia has been ruled by a series of weak coalition governments since 2011. These governments have been trying to invigorate the country’s dying economy. These governments have been subjected to political turmoil, a series of terrorist attacks against the tourism industry, and the recent Covid-19 Comprehensive destruction.
After chaos in 29 newly opened vaccination centers, Said asked the military last week to take over the management of the country’s pandemic response.
Analysts say that successive governments have failed to resolve the deteriorating economic crisis, which has weakened public confidence in the political system. Disagreements in parliament have intensified in the past year, sometimes leading to quarrels between members on television, thereby exacerbating the situation.
The quarrel with the president further weakened the Mechichi government, who has refused to appoint 11 new ministers since January.
Said is a constitutional expert and TV commentator with no political experience. Since his election in 2019, he has made no secret of his disapproval of the party’s political system and prefers a political system in which the president has more power.
Although Tunisia’s debt is increasing and the economic situation is fragile, political differences have made it difficult to reach an agreement on the IMF’s US$4 billion loan.