Troops surrounded the Tunisian parliament and blocked the entry of its president on Monday after the president suspended the legislature and sacked the prime minister and other senior members of the government, raising concerns for the country’s fledgling democracy. North Africa at home and abroad.
Faced with nationwide protests against Tunisia’s economic turmoil and the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, President Kais Saied decided on Sunday evening to sack those responsible, including justice and justice ministers. defense.
He announced a series of other measures on Monday, including a nationwide curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. for a month and a ban on gatherings of more than three people in public places. He denied allegations that he was plotting a coup.
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Some protesters cheered the gunfire, shouting for joy and waving Tunisian flags.
But others have accused the president of a takeover, and the country’s allies abroad have expressed fear that he will fall back into autocracy. In a move sure to fuel those concerns, police raided the offices of broadcaster Al-Jazeera and ordered it shut down.
Tunisia, which sparked the Arab Spring in 2011 when protests led to the overthrow of its longtime autocratic leader, is often seen as the only success of these uprisings.
But democracy has not brought prosperity. The Tunisian economy was already struggling 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 energy subsidies as it requested its fourth loan from the International Monetary Fund in a decade, further fueling anger in poor regions.
The pandemic has only made these problems worse, and the government recently reimposed lockdowns and other virus restrictions in the face of one of Africa’s worst epidemics.
Angry at the economic malaise and mismanagement of the pandemic, thousands of protesters defied virus restrictions and scorching heat in the capital, Tunis, and other cities on Sunday to demand the dissolution of parliament. The largely young crowds shouted “Get out!” and slogans calling for early elections and economic reform. Clashes erupted in many places.
“I have to take responsibility and I did. I chose to be with the people,” the president said in a solemn televised address.
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Saied said he had to sack the prime minister and suspend parliament over concerns about public violence. He said he acted according to the law – but Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who heads the Islamist party that dominates the legislature, said the president had not consulted him and the prime minister as required. The three are in conflict.
“We made these decisions … until social peace returned to Tunisia and until we saved the state,” Saied said.
While the dissolution of parliament encouraged some protesters, others in Tunisia opposed it. Police intervened on Monday to prevent clashes outside the parliament building between protesters supporting the president and lawmakers from the ruling Ennahdha party and their allies who opposed the move. Both sides shouted and some threw stones, according to an Associated Press reporter.
Ghannouchi, the president, attempted to enter parliament overnight, but police and military forces guarding the site arrested him. He sat in a car outside the building for nearly 12 hours before leaving on Monday afternoon. His next steps were unclear.
He called the president’s decision a “coup against the constitution and the (Arab Spring) revolution,” and insisted that parliament would continue to work.
Saifeddine Makhlouf, founder and legislator of a coalition of die-hard Islamists, also denounced the president’s decision as a coup, declaring: “We will not let it go.”
However, the president, a former constitutional law professor elected in 2019, dismissed the allegations in a meeting Monday with representatives of several national organizations that he was engaged in a coup.
“I ask how some can talk about a coup,” Saied told Radio Mosaic. “I studied and taught law. I applied the constitution respecting its provisions.
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The president invoked a constitutional article which allows him to assume the executive power for an indefinite period in the event of “imminent danger threatening the institutions of the nation and the independence of the country and hindering the regular functioning of the public powers”.
Tensions between the prime minister and the president have been blamed on mismanagement of the virus, while a failed vaccination campaign led to the health minister’s sacking this month.
To date, 7% of the population has been fully immunized, while more than 90% of the country’s intensive care unit beds are occupied, according to figures from the Ministry of Health. Videos have circulated on social media showing bodies left in the middle of services as mortuaries struggle to cope with the growing number of deaths.
Ennahdha has been a particular target, accused of focusing on her internal concerns instead of dealing with the virus.
Security forces also visited Al-Jazeera’s offices in Tunis on Monday, the Qatar-based satellite information network said on its Facebook page. The reason for the move was not immediately clear.
Al-Jazeera, quoting reporters, said 10 “heavily armed policemen” entered their office without a warrant and asked everyone to leave. “The journalists’ phones and other equipment were confiscated and they were not allowed to return to the building to collect their belongings,” the network said.
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Qatar and its Al-Jazeera have been seen by some Middle Eastern countries as promoting Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Its offices have been closed in other countries because of this, notably in Egypt after the 2013 coup that brought current President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to power.
Qatar’s foreign ministry said it hopes “the voice of wisdom” will prevail amid the turmoil and the rule of law will be restored.
Inside and outside Tunisia, from the UN to the United States, the European Union and beyond, concerns have been raised that the nascent democracy is not taking an authoritarian turn. .
Former President Moncef Marzouki called for political dialogue, saying in a video on Facebook: “We have taken a huge leap back tonight, we are back to dictatorship.”
Potential violence and respect for Tunisian institutions were at the forefront of Allied concerns.
The already unstable region “cannot bear to have more turmoil than it currently has,” said UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq.
US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke by telephone with the Tunisian leader, encouraging him “to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights which are the basis of governance in Tunisia,” said the Minister. State Department spokesman Ned Price. Blinken also asked Saied to “maintain an open dialogue with all political actors and the Tunisian people”.
While German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr did not call the presidential actions a coup, she said the Tunisian president appeared to be relying on a “fairly broad interpretation of the constitution. “.
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France, the former colonial ruler of Tunisia, declared that it was counting on “respect for the rule of law and the return, as soon as possible, to the normal functioning of institutions”.
Italy, likewise, called for respect for the Tunisian constitution while Turkey hoped that “democratic legitimacy” would soon be restored.
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