Tunisia’s president Kais Saied fired prime minister Hichem Mechichi amid protests over the government’s failure to control the COVID-19 pandemic. The president also suspended the Tunisian parliament and revoked the immunity of members of parliament, adding that he will take over the presidency of the executive authority with assistance of a new prime minister.
Massive protests were held across Tunisia, including in the capital, Tunis, with thousands of Tunisians expressing their frustration and rage at the way the government has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. They also railed against the government and the ruling Ennahda party for not being able to stabilize and improve the country’s economy even after 10 years since the revolution against former Tunisian dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Apart from Tunis, protests were held in the cities of Monastir, Sfax, El Kef, Sousse and Tozeur, in which Ennahda party offices were attacked, with the one in Tozeur being set on fire. In Tunis, the police attacked protesters with pepper spray, who in turn pelted stones at the police, while shouting slogans and demanding the government to step down, parliament to be dissolved and early elections to be held. The police also secured the parliament to prevent protesters from entering the premises and reports said there were several blockades in the capital.
In a statement on Sunday, the president said that “many people were deceived by hypocrisy, treachery and robbery of the rights of the people,” adding that “I warn any who think of resorting to weapons … and whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets,” directed at those planning to oppose his decision with protests or violence.
The new constitution that Tunisia adopted in 2014 divides power between the president, prime minister and parliament. The president has used the new constitution’s provisions, specifically Article 80, to justify his decisions. Article 80 provides for the president to seize power in the country in case of a national emergency. Many have argued that his moves against the prime minister and parliament are unconstitutional since under Article 80, the parliament has to continue operating and constitutional courts, which are yet to be established, have to decide the course of action after it is in effect. In response to these accusations, Saied said “the constitution does not allow for the dissolution of parliament, but it does allow for its work to be suspended.”
The leftist Workers’ Party of Tunisia released a statement on Monday condemning the president’s moves and calling them a violation of the constitution. They stated that while they confirm that the government has led the country into a deep economic crisis, Saied’s actions are not a solution to the problems facing the people as they threaten the country’s young democracy and have “launched a path towards re-establishing the system of absolute autocracy again.” They state that the way out of the crisis is “the work of the Tunisian people to establish a popular democracy based on the civil state, the power in the hands of the people, with sovereignty over the country’s capacities, resources and independent political decisions, and social justice and equality among all men and women.”
Parliament speaker and the leader of the Ennahda party, the biggest in parliament, Rached Ghannouchi, reacting to the president’s actions, called it a “coup against the revolution and constitution, seizing powers that the constitution does not grant to Saeid, including suspending parliament and lifting immunity from MPs,” adding that “we consider the institutions to be still standing and supporters of Ennahda and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution.” He also condemned the protests targeting his party, particularly the violent attacks on the party offices in several cities, saying “it seems that what happened today, including the attack on Ennahda offices was planned, to create unrest to justify the decisions taken by the president.”
Days earlier, the prime minister sacked the health minister of the country due to a surge in COVID-19 cases in the country and the dismal performance of the ministry in responding to the pandemic. The country has so far recorded a little more than half a million COVID-19 cases which have resulted in more than 18,300 deaths. The vaccination rate in Tunisia stands at 8%, with only close to 1 million out of a total population of 12 million Tunisians being fully vaccinated. According to the health ministry, on Saturday Tunisia recorded the highest single-day death toll since the beginning of the pandemic with 317 deaths along with 5,624 new cases.