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Tunisia on edge as president suspends parliament and fires prime minister

Protesters, facing a line of police officers, raise their arms in the air.
Protesters face Tunisian police officers during a demonstration in Tunis, Tunisia, on July 25.
(Hassene Dridi / Associated Press)

Troops surrounded Tunisia’s parliament and blocked its speaker from entering Monday after the president suspended the legislature and fired the prime minister and other top members of government, sparking concerns at home and abroad for the North African country’s young democracy.

In the face of nationwide protests over Tunisia’s economic troubles and the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, President Kais Saied decided late Sunday to dismiss the officials, including the justice and defense ministers.

He announced a series of other measures Monday, including a nationwide curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. for one month and a ban on gatherings of more than three people in public places. He denied allegations that he was fomenting a coup d’etat.

Some demonstrators cheered the firings, shouting with joy and waving Tunisian flags.

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But others accused the president of a power grab, and the country’s overseas allies expressed concern that it might be descending again into autocracy. In a move sure to fuel those worries, police raided the offices of broadcaster Al Jazeera and ordered it shut down.

Tunisia, which ignited the Arab Spring in 2011 when protests led to the overthrow of its longtime autocratic leader, is often regarded as the only success story of those uprisings.

But democracy didn’t bring prosperity. Tunisia’s economy was already flailing before the pandemic hit, with 18% unemployment, and young people demanding jobs and an end to police brutality protested in large numbers earlier this year.

The government recently announced cuts to food and fuel subsidies as it sought its fourth loan from the International Monetary Fund in a decade, further fueling anger in impoverished regions.

The pandemic has only compounded those problems, and the government recently reimposed lockdowns and other virus restrictions in the face of one of Africa’s worst outbreaks.

Angry at the economic malaise and the poor handling of the pandemic, thousands of protesters defied virus restrictions and scorching heat in the capital, Tunis, and other cities Sunday to demand the dissolution of parliament. The largely young crowds shouted “Get out!” and slogans calling for an early election and economic reforms. Clashes erupted in many places.

“I must shoulder the responsibility and I have done so. I have chosen to stand by the people,” the president said in a solemn televised address.

Saied said he had to fire the prime minister and suspend parliament because of concerns over public violence. He said he acted according to the law — but parliamentary Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who heads the Islamist party that dominates the legislature, said the president didn’t consult with him or the prime minister as required. The three have been in conflict.

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“We have taken these decisions ... until social peace returns to Tunisia and until we save the state,” Saied said.

While the dissolution of parliament cheered some protesters, others in Tunisia were opposed. Police intervened Monday to prevent clashes outside the parliament building between demonstrators supporting the president and lawmakers from the dominant Ennahda party and their allies who opposed the move. Both sides shouted and some threw stones, according to an Associated Press reporter.

Ghannouchi, the speaker, tried to enter parliament overnight, but police and military forces guarding the site stopped him. He sat in a car outside the building for nearly 12 hours before leaving Monday afternoon.

He called the president’s move “a coup against the constitution and the (Arab Spring) revolution,” and insisted the parliament would continue to work.

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Seifeddine Makhlouf, founder of and lawmaker in a coalition of hard-line Islamists, also denounced the president’s move as a coup, saying, “We will not let it pass.”

However, the president, a former constitutional law professor elected in 2019, rejected allegations during a meeting Monday with representatives of several national organizations that he was engaging in a coup.

“I ask how some can talk of a coup d’etat,” Radio Mosaique quoted Saied as saying. “I studied and taught law. I applied the constitution, respecting its dispositions.”

The president invoked a constitutional article that allows him to assume executive power for an unspecified period of time in cases of “imminent danger threatening the institutions of the nation and the independence of the country and hindering the regular functioning of the public powers.”

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Tensions between the prime minister and president have been blamed for poor management of the virus, while a bungled vaccination drive led to the dismissal of the health minister this month.

To date, 7% of the population has been fully vaccinated, while more than 90% of the country’s intensive care unit beds are occupied, according to Health Ministry figures. Videos have circulated on social media showing bodies left in the middle of wards as morgues struggle to deal with growing numbers.

Ennahda has been a particular target, accused of focusing on its internal concerns instead of managing the virus.

Security forces also moved in Monday on the Tunis offices of Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite news network said on its Facebook page. The reason for the move was not immediately clear.

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Al Jazeera, citing its journalists, said 10 “heavily armed police officers” entered their bureau without a warrant and asked everyone to leave. “The reporters’ phones and other equipment were confiscated, and they were not allowed back into the building to retrieve their personal belongs,” the network said.

Qatar and Al Jazeera have been viewed by some Middle Eastern nations as promoting Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Its offices have been shut down in other countries over that, most noticeably in Egypt after the 2013 coup that brought current President Abdel Fattah Sisi to office.

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Associated Press journalists Mehdi El Arem in Tunis; Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Geir Moulson in Berlin; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Matthew Lee in Washington; Lorne Cook in Brussels; Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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