A supporter of Kais Saied raises a sign that reads in Arabic, Long live Tunisia, dissolve parliament, as another raises another sign that reads in Arabic, it’s a blow if you will, dissolve parliament, during a demonstration held in front of the Tunisian parliament building in Bardo, in the capital Tunis, Tunisia, on July 26, 2021.
Chedly Ben Ibrahim | NurPhoto | NurPhoto | Getty Images
Thousands of supporters of Tunisian President Kais Saied gathered in the capital and other cities on Sunday to support his suspension of parliament and his pledge to change the political system, acts his critics call a coup.
The protest of at least 8,000 people in central Tunis was by far the largest since Saied took over executive power in July – a protest of support from his supporters that overshadowed two protests over the previous two weekends against his actions.
Thousands of other Saied supporters gathered in Sfax, according to witnesses and local media, while others gathered in Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa and Monastir.
Opposition to his decisions has also grown in recent weeks as most of the political establishment, the powerful union and foreign donors spoke out against his suspension of parts of the constitution.
Saied has frequently cited public support for his actions against the political elite and a system of power sharing between the president and parliament that he says has thwarted popular will.
Protesters waved Tunisian flags and held up placards denouncing Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party which is most prominent in parliament and which has been Saied’s main antagonist.
A chant called Ennahda leader and parliament speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who urged the suspended chamber to resume its work, as an “assassin”.
“We demand that Saied dissolve Ennahda and the political parties involved in the corruption,” said Noura Bensalah, one of the demonstrators.
The president plunged Tunisia into a constitutional crisis in July by suspending the elected parliament, sacking the prime minister and assuming executive power.
Last month he dismissed much of the constitution to say he could pass legislation by decree, questioning Tunisia’s democratic gains since its 2011 revolution that sparked the “Arab Spring” uprisings in across the Muslim world.
Saied’s intervention follows years of economic stagnation and political paralysis, made worse by depleting lockdown last year, a slow start-up vaccination campaign and street protests.
Many Tunisians attribute these evils to a corrupt and self-serving political elite, and they see Saied, an independent elected in 2019, as a champion of the common people.
Among his supporters, Saied’s intervention is widely seen as a long-awaited reset of a democratic experiment that derailed vested interests.
“Saied is a clean president who has come to restore true democracy,” said Mongi Abdullah, a teacher from Mahdia who came to join the rally.
While opinion polls show Saied’s measures enjoy broad support, his long delay in declaring a crisis exit timeline has started to cement opposition to him.
Most of the political elite and the powerful UGTT union say he must start consulting more widely if he is considering amending the constitution, as he has indicated he will.
Although Sunday’s rally was organized by activists on social media, three small parties in parliament, including Achaab, backed it, saying the paralysis of the political system forced Saied to intervene.
“Saied should appoint a government and start a dialogue to reform the electoral system and law, then hold a referendum,” said Mohamed Ammar, an independent parliamentarian participating in the protest.
Last week, Saied appointed a prime minister and urged her to form a government quickly, but after gaining wider powers, she is expected to have less influence than her predecessors in that post.
Tunisian police on Sunday arrested an MP and a TV presenter who have criticized Saied since his move in July, their lawyer said. Police were not immediately available for comment.