Euphoria of revolution’s early days has simmered with officials cracking down on freedom of expression.
Tunisia’s biggest political party has rallied tens of thousands of supporters in the capital, escalating a dispute within the government.
Saturday’s protest was the biggest demonstration in Tunisia for years, and party faithful bussed in from across the country chanted “the people want to protect institutions” and “the people want national unity” as they marched in the centre of Tunis.
The party, Ennahdha, led by Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, has backed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in his standoff with President Kais Saied over a cabinet reshuffle.
The dispute has brought to a head, months of wrangling between the three men in Tunisia’s latest political crisis since a 2019 election delivered a fragmented Parliament while propelling Saied, an independent, to the presidency.
It has played out against a grim backdrop of economic anxiety, angry protests, widespread disillusionment with democracy and competing reform demands from foreign lenders and the powerful labour union as sovereign debt repayments loom.
Saied nominated Mechichi as prime minister last year when the government collapsed after only five months in office, but the two men soon fell out.
Mechichi then turned for support to the two biggest parties in Parliament – Ennahdha and jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui’s Heart of Tunisia.
Last month, Mechichi changed 11 ministers in a reshuffle seen as replacing allies of Saied with those of Ennahdha and Heart of Tunisia.
The president has refused to swear four of them in, however, saying they had conflicts of interest.
“We have a parliamentary system and it is not up to the president to decide who will govern,” said protester Mohamed Khlif, who travelled from the coastal city of Sfax to take part in the rally.
“Democracy and the constitution must be respected,” he added.
Meanwhile, during protests last month over inequality and police abuses, demonstrators focused most of their anger against Mechichi and Ennahdha.
Ennahdha billed Saturday’s march as “in support of democracy”, but it was widely seen as an effort to mobilise popular backing against Saied – raising the spectre of competing protest movements that could lead to polarisation or violence.
Tunisia’s 2021 budget forecasts borrowing needs of 19.5 billion Tunisian dinars ($7.2bn), including about $5bn in foreign loans. It puts debt repayments due this year at 16 billion dinars.
The country’s credit rating has fallen since the coronavirus pandemic began and Tunisian credit default swaps – insurance against sovereign debt defaults – have soared in recent weeks, showing market concerns about its ability to raise funds.
However, demands by foreign lenders for long-term cuts in current spending are opposed by the powerful labour union and could lead to painful reductions in state programmes that might further destabilise the government.