Ennahda, the biggest party in Tunisia’s parliament, was quick to denounce President Saied’s ousting of the government as a “coup”, along with two of the other main parties in parliament, Heart of Tunisia and Karama.
Tunisia is facing its biggest crisis in a decade of democracy after President Kais Saied ousted the government and froze the activities of parliament, a move his foes labelled a coup that should be opposed on the street.
In a statement late on Sunday, Saied invoked the constitution to dismiss Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and decree a freeze of the parliament for a period of 30 days, saying he would govern alongside a new premier.
The move came after a day of protests against the government and the biggest party in parliament, Ennahda, following a spike in Covid-19 cases and growing anger over chronic political dysfunction and economic malaise.
In the hours after Saied's announcement, huge crowds gathered in his support in Tunis and other cities, cheering, dancing and ululating while the military blocked off the parliament and state television station.
Accusations of 'coup'
"What Kais Saied is doing is a coup d'etat against the revolution and against the constitution, and the members of Ennahdha and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution," Ennahdha said in a statement on Facebook.
The premier's office had not responded to his sacking on Sunday night.
Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, which has played a role in successive coalition governments, decried the moves as a coup and an assault on democracy.
In the early hours of Monday, Ghannouchi arrived at the parliament where he said he would call a session in defiance of Saied, but the army stationed outside the building stopped the 80-year-old former political exile from entering.
"I am against gathering all powers in the hands of one person," he said outside the parliament building. He earlier called Tunisians to come onto the streets, as they had done on the day of the revolution in 2011, to oppose the move.
Speaker of the People’s Assembly R.Ghannouchi just arrived at the Assembly but has been prevented by National Army forces from entering the building. He called all MPs to join him there & called all freedom-loving Tunisians to join him there to defend the revolution & democracy https://t.co/5V2hgFOsOb— Rached Ghannouchi (@R_Ghannouchi) July 26, 2021
Dozens of Ennahda supporters faced off against Saied supporters near the parliament building, exchanging insults as the police held them apart, televised pictures afterwards showed.
Two of the other main parties in parliament, Heart of Tunisia and Karama, joined Ennahda in accusing Saied of a coup. Former president Moncef Marzouki who helped oversee the transition to democracy after the revolution said it could represent the start of a slope "into an even worse situation".
Saied, in his statement announcing the dismissal of Mechichi and the freezing of parliament, said he had also suspended the legal immunity of parliament members and that he was taking control of the general prosecutor's office.
He warned against any armed response to his actions. "Whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets," said Saied, who has support from a wide array of Tunisians including both Islamists and leftists.
So it seems #Tunisia's President Said - the constitutional law professor - has finally launched a long anticipated coup, sacking the PM and freezing parliament— Tarek Megerisi (@Tmegrisi) July 25, 2021
This as Tunis is reeling from a terrible Covid wave and approaching default. Dark times for the regions only democracy
Crowds show support for Saied
Crowds numbering in the tens of thousands backing the president stayed on the streets of Tunis and other cities, with some people setting off fireworks, for hours after his announcement as helicopters circled overhead.
"We have been relieved of them," said Lamia Meftahi, a woman celebrating in central Tunis after Saied's statement, speaking of the parliament and government.
"This is the happiest moment since the revolution."
After Saied's announcement, Tunis Farhat, a 49-year-old in Gafsa, told AFP that the president had understood what people wanted.
"He has shown himself to be a true statesman," he said.
"Our patience has reached its limit, there's no room for losers. That's it, game is over!" said 24-year-old Ibrahim, echoing an old slogan from the massive demonstrations which toppled former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's regime in 2011 .
But one man in his forties watched on without enthusiasm.
"These fools are celebrating the birth of a new dictator," he said.
Earlier Sunday in Tunis, hundreds rallied in front of parliament, shouting slogans against Ennahdha and premier Mechichi.
Demonstrations were also reported in the towns of Gafsa, Kairouan, Monastir, Sousse and Tozeur.
"The people want the dissolution of parliament," the crowd chanted.
A senior Ennahdha official, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said the protests and subsequent celebrations had been orchestrated by Saied.
"We are also capable of organising large demonstrations to show the number of Tunisians who are opposed to these decisions," they said.
This is going to be the ultimate test for #Tunisia’s military.— Tahar (@laseptiemewilay) July 26, 2021
Since Ben Ali’s departure, the military has been singing the apolitical pro-democracy/pro-revolution institution song. Let’s see if they truly believe in that. https://t.co/hxOgfEc1Y3
Saied, a political independent who swept to office in 2019 after campaigning as the scourge of a corrupt, incompetent elite, rejected accusations that he had conducted a coup.
He said his actions were based on Article 80 of the constitution and framed them as a popular response to the economic and political paralysis that have mired Tunisia for years.
However, a special court required by the 2014 constitution to adjudicate such disputes between Tunisia's branches of state has never been established after years of wrangling over which judges to include, allowing rival interpretations of law.
"We are navigating the most delicate moments in the history of Tunisia," Saied said on Sunday.
He said the constitution did not allow for the dissolution of parliament, but did allow him to suspend it, citing Article 80 which permits it in case of "imminent danger".
In a later Facebook post, he clarified that the suspension would be for 30 days.
Saied said he would take over executive power "with the help" of a government, whose new chief will be appointed by the president himself.
He also said that parliamentary immunity would be lifted for deputies.