Tunisia’s young democracy rocked as president sacks parliament amid mounting Covid crisis

Tunisian security officers hold back protesters outside the parliament building in the capital Tunis on July 26, 2021, following a move by the president to suspend the country’s parliament and dismiss the Prime Minister. – Tunisia was plunged deeper into crisis as President Kais Saied suspended parliament and dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi late July 25, prompting the country’s biggest political party to decry a “coup d’etat”. (Photo by FETHI BELAID / AFP) (Photo by FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images)

FETHI BELAID | AFP | Getty Images

Tunisia is facing the greatest test to its democracy since its inception roughly a decade ago, following a dramatic move by President Kais Saied to oust the country’s government and suspend parliament.

The decision, late Sunday night, triggered vastly opposing reactions — supporters of the president poured into the streets of the capital Tunis in what’s estimated to be tens of thousands, cheering and ululating at the deposition of what they viewed to be corrupt and incompetent politicians. 

Opponents of the president, meanwhile, particularly members of the Islamist Ennahda party which make up the majority in parliament, accuse Saied of orchestrating a coup.

Saied himself joined the crowds in the street, who flooded the capital’s iconic Habib Bourguiba avenue, the site of mass uprisings that sparked the Arab Spring in 2011. 

“I warn any who think of resorting to weapons … and whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets,” he said in a statement on TV. Saied said the constitution permitted him to suspend parliament in the event of “imminent danger.”

Saied sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, claiming constitutional authority to do so, and froze the activities of parliament for 30 days. He said he would continue to lead with a new prime minister. 

Both Saied and the parliament were elected in separate popular votes in 2019.

Tunisia is considered the only country to have come out of the region’s popular uprisings of a decade ago with a relatively functioning democracy. But critics outside the country and within, including millions of Tunisians themselves, have been unhappy with the pace and scope of progress. They say the North African country’s subsequent governments have failed to bring prosperity, adequate governance or economic improvement. 

A series of deadly terrorist attacks crippled Tunisia’s all-important tourism industry a few years ago, and though it has since recovered some of its losses, it’s now facing a looming fiscal crisis and mounting losses — both human and financial — from the coronavirus crisis. Anger at what has been seen as incompetent handling of the pandemic is what sparked much of the opposition toward the current government.

The World Health Organization describes Tunisia as now facing an “extremely concerning” surge in infections, despite keeping the virus relatively under control for the previous year. The warning comes as much of the world sees new waves of cases due to the fast-spreading delta variant. According to the WHO, only 7% of Tunisia’s 10 million inhabitants are vaccinated.

Tunisia has registered 569,289 confirmed cases of the virus and 18,600 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

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