Tunisian troops blocked the head of parliament early Monday to enter the building, hours after President Kais Saied announced he had sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspended parliament for 30 days.
Saied, a political independent, said he was acting in response to the country’s economic woes and political stalemate, adding that the country’s constitution gave him the authority.
The move follows weeks of political turmoil in the country – fueled in part by public outrage over the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rached Ghannouchi, the speaker of parliament and head of the dominant Ennahdha party, called the president’s action a ‘coup’ and said the legislature would continue its work.
Two other main parties in parliament also called it a coup, which the president rejected.
A State Department spokesman said the United States was keeping a close eye on developments and that any solution to Tunisia’s political and economic problems should be based on the country’s constitution.
“Tunisia must not squander its democratic gains,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ned Price said in a statement on Monday.
U.S. Representatives Gregory Meeks, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Ted Deutch, chairman of the subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and Global Counter-Terrorism, said they were “seriously concerned” about the events in Tunisia.
“We call on all parties to respect and adhere to the rule of law,” they said in a statement on Monday.
Saied’s announcement drew crowds of protesters to the streets of the capital, Tunis and elsewhere, to celebrate it, reflecting the anger of people across parliament to address the country’s problems.
There were also protesters outside the parliament building who were against the president’s actions, and there were clashes between the opposing groups.
Tunisian authorities shut down a live broadcast of Al-Jazeera TV in Qatar, claiming that the correspondent encouraged the small crowd of protesters to sing against the government. The broadcaster reported that its office in the Tunisian capital was closed and that journalists were not allowed to enter.
Tunisia has struggled economically for years, and along with political challenges, it has dealt with an increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Political analyst Amin Mustafa told VOA that “most Tunisians have been badly hurt by the ongoing economic crisis and high unemployment, so the issue of the suspension of parliament is unlikely to provoke a strong negative reaction.”
The influential Tunisian Federation of Labor declared on Monday that it “considers all measures taken by the president legal”.
Edward Yeranian in Cairo contributed to this report. Some information for this report comes from The Associated Press, AFP and Reuters.