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Tunisia’s President Oust Government, Freezes Parliament

Tunisia’s President, Kais Saied, drew large crowds to the streets on Sunday night after firing the government and freezing parliament, a move denounced by his opponents as a coup.

Tunisia’s President, Kais Saied, drew large crowds to the streets on Sunday night after firing the government and freezing parliament, a move denounced by his opponents as a coup.

He has sidelined both the prime minister and parliament speaker, some two years after his victory and a separate vote that formed a bitterly split parliament, in what many regard as an unlawful power grab.

Saied appeared to be riding a tide of popular rage against a political class that has failed to deliver the promised rewards of democracy for years as tens of thousands of people packed the streets of major towns to celebrate. While Rached Ghannouchi, the parliament speaker, has been soiled by the muddy compromises of a decade of democratic politics since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, Saied is a relative novice to the scene.

Presenting himself in his campaign as an ordinary man taking on a corrupt system, he fought the election without spending money and with a bare-bones team of advisers and volunteers – winning the backing of leftists, Islamists and youths alike.

His supporters said he spent so little on the election that it cost only the price of the coffee and cigarettes he consumed meeting Tunisians and presented him as a paragon of personal integrity. Once elected, he appeared for a while shackled by a constitution that gives the president direct power over only the military and foreign affairs while daily administration is left to a government that is more answerable to parliament.

Saied has made no secret of his desire for a new constitution that puts the president at centre stage – prompting critics to accuse him of wanting to emulate Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in stripping his foes of power.

As president, Saied quickly feuded with the two prime ministers who eventually emerged from the complex process of coalition-building – first Elyes Fakhfakh and then Hichem Mechichi. However, the biggest dispute has been with the moderate Islamist Ennahda party and its veteran leader Ghannouchi, a former political prisoner and exile who returned to Tunisia in 2011.

Over the past year, Saied and Mechichi, backed by Ghannouchi, have squabbled over Cabinet reshuffles and control over the security forces, complicating efforts to handle the pandemic and address a looming fiscal crisis.

As protests erupted in January, however, it was the government and the old parties of parliament who faced the public’s wrath – a wave of anger that finally broke last week as COVID-19 cases spiked. A failed effort to set up walk-in vaccination centres led Saied to announce last week that the army would take over the pandemic response – a move seen by his critics as the latest step in his power struggle with the government.

It prepared the scenario for his statement on Sunday, which came after anti-Ennahda protests in towns around the country. He used to roam the small alleyways of Tunis’s old city and the vast colonial boulevards downtown late at night, debating politics with his students, according to his students and friends, during the 2011 revolution.

Saied was one of the legal consultants who helped develop Tunisia’s democratic constitution in 2014, yet he quickly criticized parts of it. Now, some of Tunisia’s most powerful political heirs are painting him as the revolution’s executioner, claiming that his dismissal of the cabinet and freezing of parliament is an attack on democracy.

 

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Ogbonna Ugorji

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