Tunisia on edge after president imposes curfew, suspends parliament

Troops surrounded Tunisia's parliament and blocked its Speaker from entering on Monday after the president suspended the legislature and fired the prime minister following nationwide protests over the country's economic troubles and coronavirus crisis.

Broadcaster Al Jazeera says security forces moved in on its offices in Tunis

Tunisian president ousts officials amid protests and COVID-19 crisis

2 months ago
Tunisia's young democracy is in jeopardy, after the president fired the prime minister and froze parliament. Today he imposed a curfew too. It all follows angry protests over the country's economic crisis and devastating COVID-19 outbreak that has collapsed the health-care system. 2:01

Troops surrounded Tunisia's parliament and blocked its Speaker from entering on Monday after the president suspended the legislature, fired the prime minister and other top members of government, and implemented a curfew, sparking concerns for the North African country's young democracy.

In the face of nationwide protests over Tunisia's economic troubles and the government's handling of the coronavirus crisis, President Kais Saied decided late Sunday to dismiss the officials, who also included the justice and defence ministers. 

The presidency is also prohibiting the movement of people and vehicles from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m., starting Monday and lasting until Aug. 27, with the exception of urgent health cases and night workers, according to a statement posted to Facebook on Monday.

The presidential order also prohibited the movement of people and vehicles between cities outside times of curfew, except to fulfil basic needs or for urgent health reasons. It also banned the gathering of more than three people on public roads or in public squares. 

Saied denied allegations that he was fomenting a coup d'état.

Some demonstrators cheered the government firings, shouting with joy and waving Tunisian flags, but others accused the president of a power grab, and the country's overseas allies expressed concern that Tunisia might be descending again into autocracy. In a move sure to fuel those worries, police raided the offices of broadcaster Al Jazeera and ordered it to shut down.

Demonstrators celebrate with Tunisian flags during a rally after the president suspended the legislature and fired the prime minister in Tunis on Sunday. (Hedi Azouz/The Associated Press)

Dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi said Monday that he cannot be a disruptive element and will hand the responsibility to whomever the president chooses, in a step that may ease the tough political crisis.

Tunisia, which ignited the Arab Spring in 2011, when protests led to the overthrow of its longtime autocratic leader, is often regarded as the only success story of those uprisings. But democracy did not bring prosperity.

Tunisia's economy was already flailing before the pandemic hit — with 18 per cent unemployment, and young people demanding jobs and an end to police brutality protested in large numbers earlier this year.  The government recently announced cuts to food and fuel subsidies as it sought its fourth loan from the International Monetary Fund in a decade, fuelling anger in impoverished regions.

The pandemic has only compounded those problems, and the government recently reimposed lockdowns and other virus restrictions in the face of one of Africa's worst outbreaks.

'Get out!'

Angry at the economic malaise and the poor handling of the pandemic, thousands of protesters defied virus restrictions and scorching heat in the capital, Tunis, and other cities Sunday to demand the dissolution of parliament. The largely young crowds shouted "Get out!" and slogans calling for early elections. They also pushed for economic reforms. Clashes erupted in many places.

The president said he had to fire the prime minister and suspend parliament because of concerns over public violence. He said he acted according to the law — but parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who heads the Islamist party that dominates the legislature, said the president didn't consult with him or the prime minister as required. The three have been in conflict.

"We have taken these decisions ... until social peace returns to Tunisia and until we save the state," Saied said in a solemn televised address. He warned against any breach of public order, threatening severe penalties.

Tunisian military forces guard the area around the parliament building in the capital, Tunis, on Monday following protests. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

Police intervened Monday to prevent clashes outside the parliament building between lawmakers from the dominant Ennahdha party and demonstrators supporting the president. Both sides shouted and some threw stones, according to an Associated Press reporter and videos circulating online.

Ghannouchi, the Speaker, tried to enter parliament overnight but police and military forces guarding the site stopped him. On Monday morning, he was in a car in front of the building — his next steps unclear.

He called the president's move "a coup against the constitution and the [Arab Spring] revolution," and insisted the parliament would continue to work.

A Tunisian police officer scuffles with protesters during a demonstration in Tunis. Violent demonstrations broke out on Sunday in several Tunisian cities as protesters expressed anger at the deterioration of the country's health, economic and social situation. (Hassene Dridi/The Associated Press)

COVID-19 crisis

Tensions between the prime minister and president have been blamed for poor management of the virus. A bungled vaccination drive led to the sacking of the health minister earlier this month.

To date, seven per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated, while more than 90 per cent of the country's hospital beds in intensive care units are occupied, according to health ministry figures. Videos have circulated on social media showing dead bodies left in the middle of wards as morgues struggle to deal with growing deaths.

Ennahdha has been a particular target, accused of focusing on its internal concerns instead of managing the virus.

Security forces also moved in Monday on the Tunis offices of Al Jazeera, according to a statement by the Qatar-based network on its Facebook page. The reason for the move was not immediately clear.

Al Jazeera, citing its journalists, said 10 "heavily armed police officers" entered their bureau without a warrant and asked everyone to leave. "The reporters' phones and other equipment were confiscated, and they were not allowed back into the building to retrieve their personal belongs," the organization said.

Qatar and its Al Jazeera satellite news network have been accused by some Middle East nations of promoting Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Its offices have been shut down in other countries over that, most noticeably in Egypt after the 2013 coup that brought current President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to office.

The president's move has garnered him support in some quarters, but also sparked concern here and abroad that it represented an authoritarian turn for the nascent democracy.

Criticism inside Tunisia — and beyond

Former president Moncef Marzouki called for political dialogue, saying in a Facebook video, "We made a huge leap backward tonight, we are back to dictatorship."

The United States is concerned about developments in Tunisia and urged calm in the country, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said Monday. She said the U.S. is in touch with senior Tunisian leaders.

Psaki said the White House has not made a determination on whether it was a coup, adding that it was looking to the U.S. State Department to conduct a legal analysis before making a determination. 

Tunisian police officers scuffle with demonstrators gathered outside the parliament building in Tunis on Monday. (Hedi Azouz/The Associated Press)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone with the Tunisian leader, encouraging him "to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights that are the basis of governance in Tunisia," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said. Blinken also asked that Saied "maintain open dialogue with all political actors and the Tunisian people."

United Nations officials were in touch with Tunisians "trying to see to it that all of the various parties ... do what they can to ensure that the situation does remain calm," deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq said. The already volatile region "cannot bear to have more unrest than it has presently had," he said.

German Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Adebahr said the government is "very worried" by the events in Tunisia and is in discussion with Tunisian authorities. She stopped short of calling it a coup but said that the Tunisian president appeared to be relying on a "pretty broad interpretation of the constitution" to defend the move.

The Arab League, in a phone call with Tunisia's foreign minister on Monday, called for a return to stability and calm in the country after the president's abrupt removal of the government pitched it into turmoil. An Arab League statement said the Tunisian foreign minister briefed its secretary general on the situation in Tunisia. 

The statement said the Arab League "urges Tunisia to quickly get through the current turbulent phase, restore stability and calm and the state's ability to work effectively to respond to the aspirations and requirements of the people."

The president invoked an article of Tunisia's Constitution that allows him to assume executive power and freeze parliament for an unspecified period of time in cases of "imminent danger threatening the institutions of the nation and the independence of the country and hindering the regular functioning of the public powers."

With files from Reuters