Skip to main content

Tunisia: Thousands of protesters call on president to resign as opposition deepens

Several thousand people gather in Tunis under a heavy police presence to call on Kais Saied to step down
'The people want the fall of the coup,' protesters chanted in the centre of Tunis along Habib Bourguiba Avenue (AFP)

Several thousand people gathered in Tunis on Sunday under a heavy police presence to protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied's seizure of governing powers in July and called on him to step down.

Saied this week brushed aside much of the 2014 constitution, giving himself power to rule by decree two months after he sacked the prime minister, suspended parliament and assumed executive authority.

"The people want the fall of the coup," they chanted in the centre of Tunis along Habib Bourguiba Avenue, a focal point of the demonstrations that ended the long rule of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January, 2011. "Step down."

Tunisia: More than 100 officials resign from Ennahda Party over 'failed' leadership
Read More »

The crisis has endangered the democratic gains that Tunisians won in a 2011 revolution that triggered the "Arab spring" protests and has slowed efforts to tackle an urgent threat to public finances, worrying investors.

Nadia Ben Salem told Reuters she had travelled 500km from the south of the country to express her anger in the protest.

"We will protect democracy... the constitution is a red line," she said, holding up a copy of the constitution.

Abdelfattah Saied, a teacher, said: "He is acting like he is the sun that is rising on the country, the general prosecutor, the president, the parliament, the government. Like he is everything."

Lawmaker Iyadh Loumi from the Heart of Tunisia party said: "The language of dialogue has been disrupted with Saied... He does not like dialogue.

"He [Saied] wanted to isolate everyone and he is taking all power... Saied must be sacked and put on trial."

A few dozen Saied supporters appeared at the demonstration, with police separating the two camps.

"We support Saied because he declared war against a corrupt political class," said a man who would only give his first name, Ahmed.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have all expressed support for Saied's actions.

Political analyst Slaheddine Jourchi told Reuters the protest was a clear escalation against the president and that there was a risk of further divisions among Tunisians if the doors of political dialogue remained closed.

'One-man rule'

Saied has said his actions are needed to address a crisis of political paralysis, economic stagnation and a poor response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Tunisia's influential labour union on Friday rejected key elements of Saied's seizure of near total power and warned of a threat to democracy as opposition against him widened.

On Saturday, more than 100 prominent officials of the Ennahda party, including lawmakers and former ministers, resigned in protest at the leadership's performance.

Ennahda, the largest party in parliament, has been split over its response to Saied's actions.

On Thursday, Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda's leader and speaker of parliament, had called for "peaceful struggle" against a return to "absolute one-man rule," a day after Saied had taken steps towards rule by decree.

However, those who resigned on Saturday pointedly blamed Ghannouchi for making "bad political choices" and striking "inappropriate alliances" with other movements that "undermined Ennahda's credibility".

Ghannouchi had "failed" and "refused all the advice" that was given to him, their statement added.

Four other political parties issued a joint statement condemning Saied on Wednesday, while Loumi's Heart of Tunisia has also done so.

Internal fractures

Ennahda has been the most powerful party in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution that led to the removal of Ben Ali, and has played a key role in backing successive coalition governments.

Tunisia: Ghannouchi urges 'peaceful struggle' against president's 'one-man rule'
Read More »

It is the most organised party in the deeply fragmented 217-seat legislature, but since 2014 the party's share of the vote has plummeted.

The party has also seen internal fractures in recent years as younger members have demanded changes at the top, including replacing Ghannouchi himself.

"The one positive aspect of the president’s decisions is that they will unify Ennahda with other political parties and unify Ennahda itself," Ghannouchi said on Thursday.

Asked if his party would take part in elections if Saied was to call them, he said that "we would take part, absolutely".