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Tunisia: Rivals hold rallies outside parliament after presidential power grab

Hundreds of Tunisians from across the political divide rally outside parliament following President Kais Saied's ousting of the government
Around 100 supporters of President Kais Saied rallied outside parliament on Monday (MEE/Francesca Ebel)
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Tunis

As Tunisia faces the biggest challenge to its democracy in more than a decade, crowds amassed outside the country's parliament on Monday waiting to learn what could lie in store for its political elites.

On Sunday, President Kais Saeid announced the suspension of parliament, sacked the prime minister and assumed executive authority following a day of tense anti-government protests.

The move was slammed by Rached Ghannouchi, the speaker of parliament and leader of Tunisia's moderate Islamist party Ennahda, who called it "a betrayal of every Tunisian" and urged Saied to reverse his decisions immediately.

"This is a coup against the revolution and the constitution," Ghannouchi, who also leads the largest party in parliament and is a member of the coalition government, said in a statement.

"The Tunisian people will defend the revolution."

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The veteran leader tried to enter parliament on Monday but was blocked by the army, who had set up positions around the interior and exterior of the premises.

Hundreds of anti-coup protesters had decided to hold a sit-in at the building's gates, chanting slogans about the sanctity of the constitution.

They were joined by an equal number of Saied's supporters and those who want to see parliament removed. The two sides threw rocks and empty water bottles and there were brief scuffles with police.

"I am here today because the constitution was broken. What happened is not legitimate, it is not legal. If this was a democracy, this should have gone to an early vote, not a coup d'etat," said Oum Ali, 53, one of the protestors.

"I voted for Kais Saied but I will protect the constitution against whichever party or whatever person. We fought for years for democracy, against a dictator, against Ben Ali. We will always choose the vote, not the dictator."

Among Saied's supporters was Nour Saied, 38, who said that like many other Tunisians, he was frustrated by the inaction and corruption of the country's political elite.

"We are here to get rid of all the parliamentarians, to wake up the Tunisian people," he told MEE.

"They stole the parliament. They stole from us. There isn't even enough oxygen to help the sick people. It was they who brought on this sickness of the country."

'We will resist to the end'

According to local reports, some parliamentarians held a hybrid session over zoom on Monday, with some officials in attendance unanimously opposing Saied's unconstitutional decision.

Ghannouchi, who was photographed attending the session, had been waiting outside parliament's gates throughout the night but suddenly left around noon on Monday along with his security detail, whose car window had been smashed by an opposing protestor.

By noon, the atmosphere around parliament had mellowed, with soldiers stationed around the interior of the parliament building sitting, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. 

Some police had laid down their riot shields and were sitting down and scrolling through their phones. In the 41-degree heat of the day, many protestors took shelter under the shade of sparse trees, while some slept or prayed.

'We will defend our views. We are among the people. We have worked hard and to the best of our abilities. We aren't scared and we will resist to the end'

- Rabeb Ben Letaief, MP

A circle of young female MPs for Ennahda, elected to parliament in the 2019 elections, were among those in the shade.

They had been stationed outside parliament since 5am and didn't have any plans to leave until they received word from the party. Ennahda supporters and MPs left the premises later in the afternoon.

"We will defend our views. We are among the people. We have worked hard and to the best of our abilities. We aren't scared and we will resist to the end," MP Rabeb Ben Letaief told MEE, vowing she had no plans to back down.

Asked about Saied's decision to remove political immunity from all MPs, Ben Letaief said she personally wasn't afraid.

"As long as a deputy hasn't done anything criminal, then they shouldn’t have anything to worry about."

Saied moved ahead with his plans on Monday, publishing a formal decree in which he officially dismissed not just Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi but also Tunisia’s defence and justice ministers, Brahim Bertegi and Hasna Ben Slimane.

Saied also assigned ally Khaled Yahyaoui, the director-general of the Presidential Security Unit, to supervise the interior ministry.

As Ennahda and most political parties denounced Saied's moves as a coup, Tunisia’s powerful and largest workers union, the General Union of Tunisian Workers, notably did not reject the measures, only emphasising the need to adhere to constitutional legitimacy.

'Unchecked powers'

In contrast to the scenes of jubilation on Tunisia's streets late Sunday, some political observers cautioned against celebrating Saied's moves.

"Kais Saied is certainly popular, we shouldn't blindly trust anyone with unchecked powers. The popular discontent from political parties and the dominant oligarchy is real, but it shouldn't be used to bring back old regime practices," researcher Mohamed-Dhia Hammami told MEE.

"It seems that we reached a point that many warned about, when democracy loses its popular legitimacy and its wings are broken," wrote political analyst Youssef Cherif on Twitter.

Meanwhile, there are questions about the constitutional legitimacy of Saied’s moves and his invoking of Article 80.

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According to Zaid al-Ali, a Tunis-based constitutional lawyer, Saied is only partially applying the conditions of the article. According to the constitution, a president must consult with the speaker of parliament before invoking article 80 and must ensure that parliament continues to sit in session.

Al-Ali says the problem lies in the wording of Article 80, which is very vague and open-ended.

"None of the measures Saied announced are provided for in the constitution," al-Ali told MEE in a phone interview.

Article 80, a common arrangement in constitutions around the world, provides guidance for an emergency situation when a country’s state institutions are not functioning properly.

In the Tunisian constitution, it is written that "measures necessitated by this exception situation" can be used, but that there must be a consultation with the speaker of parliament and that the constitutional court must be informed - an institution that does not yet exist in Tunisia.

"The question is – was Tunisia actually in this situation or not?" al-Ali said.

The absence of a constitutional court - one of the main, unfulfilled promises of the 2011 revolution, long-beleaguered by political obstacles - means that there is no mechanism to evaluate whether the circumstances were appropriate to invoke Article 80.

"The only way to resolve this is therefore politically, rather than legislatively or judicially," said al-Ali.