Tunisia’s president has suspended parliament and dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in a move condemned as an attack on democracy by his rivals but which others greeted with celebrations on the streets.
President Kais Saied said on Sunday he would assume executive authority with the assistance of a new prime minister after violent protests broke out in several Tunisian cities over the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy.
It is the biggest challenge yet to a 2014 constitution that split powers between the president, prime minister and parliament.
“Many people were deceived by hypocrisy, treachery and robbery of the rights of the people,” he said in a statement carried on state media.
“I warn any who think of resorting to weapons … and whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets,” he added.
He also suspended the immunity of members of parliament, insisting his actions were in line with the constitution.
The statement followed an emergency meeting at his palace after thousands of Tunisians marched in several cities, with much of the anger focused on the Ennahdha party, the biggest in parliament.
Tunisian Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi accused President Saied of launching “a coup against the revolution and constitution” after the move.
“We consider the institutions to be still standing and supporters of Ennahdha and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution,” Ghannouchi, who heads Ennahdha, told the Reuters news agency by phone.
The party also condemned the president’s move as a “state coup against the revolution”.
“What Kais Saied is doing is a state coup against the revolution and against the constitution, and the members of Ennahdha and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution,” Ennahdha wrote in a statement on its Facebook page.
Saied has been enmeshed in political disputes with Prime Minister Mechichi for more than a year, as the country grapples with an economic crisis, and a flailing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Saied and the parliament were elected in separate popular votes in 2019, while Mechichi took office last year, replacing another short-lived government.
Tunis-based journalist Rabeb Aloui told Al Jazeera that Saied’s move did not come as a surprise, as he had threatened to dissolve parliament and sack the prime minister.
“Since last September we (have) lived under a political crisis,” Aloui said.
She said many young Tunisians, particularly those who were protesting on Sunday, have expressed joy at the announcement.
The demonstrators had also called for social and economic reforms, however, and those issues still need to be addressed, Aloui added.
“We are really living under an economic crisis, with the health crisis too [from] the coronavirus pandemic,” she said.
Tunisia has been overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases, with more than 18,000 people dying from the disease in the country of about 12 million.
“There’s a failure of governance and the president himself is offering no leadership,” William Lawrence, a professor at the American University in Washington DC and an expert on Tunisia, told Al Jazeera. “His solution is to fire people, a bit like the former president of the United States. Despite the jubilation in certain corners of Tunisia, there is not widespread jubilation I don’t think. So far, we don’t see a president who has the authority or the ability to solve the problems (Tunisia faces).”
Thousands of people had defied virus restrictions and the scorching heat to demonstrate earlier on Sunday in Tunis, the capital, and other cities. The crowds of mostly young people shouted “Get out!” and slogans calling for the dissolution of parliament and early elections.
The protests were called on the 64th anniversary of Tunisia’s independence by a new group called the July 25 Movement.
There was heavy security presence, especially in Tunis where police blockades blocked all streets leading to the capital’s main road, Avenue Bourguiba. The avenue was a key site for the Tunisian revolution 10 years ago that brought down a dictatorial government and unleashed the Arab Spring uprisings.
Police were also deployed around the parliament, preventing demonstrators from accessing it.
In Tunis on Sunday, police used pepper spray against protesters who threw stones and shouted slogans demanding that Prime Minister Mechichi quit and parliament be dissolved.
Witnesses said protesters stormed or tried to storm the offices of Ennahdha in Monastir, Sfax, El Kef and Sousse, while in Tozeur they set fire to the party’s local headquarters.
Ennahdha, banned before the revolution, has been the most consistently successful party since 2011 and a member of successive coalition governments.