Tunisian President Fires Defence Minister Amid Political Crisis

A day after firing the Prime Minister and suspending the nation’s parliament, Tunisian President Kais Saied has sacked the defence minister, further plunging the young democracy into a constitutional crisis in the midst of a pandemic

After Saied dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and ordered the parliament to close for 30 days, street clashes erupted on Monday, outside the army-barricaded parliament as citizens expressed their dissatisfaction with the President’s move. A move the biggest political party Ennahdha decried as a “coup”.

Mechichi would hand power to the man chosen by the President.

Saied declared on Sunday he had “taken the necessary decisions to save Tunisia, the state, and the Tunisian people,” following street protests in multiple cities against the government’s handling of the Covid pandemic in the North African country.

The president, who under the constitution controls the armed forces, has warned his opponents against taking up arms. President Saied says if anyone “fires a single bullet, our forces will respond with a rain of bullets”.

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On Monday afternoon, the Presidency announced the dismissals of Defence Minister Ibrahim Bartaji and Hasna Ben Slimane, the acting justice minister.

Soldiers from early Monday blockaded the assembly in Tunis while Saied backers hurled stones, bottles, and insults at supporters of the opposition Ennahdha party whose leader was barred entry to the complex.

In order to combat the coronavirus and banning gatherings of more than three people, the presidency has extended an overnight curfew even after the protests died down in the afternoon.

The powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) which played a key role in the 2011 uprising, said the president has acted “in accordance” with the constitution to “prevent imminent danger and to restore the normal functioning” of the state.

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a telephone converstaion with the Tunisian President implored him to respect democracy and “maintain an open dialogue with all political actors and the Tunisian people.”

The European Union appealed to people to respect the “rule of law” and to “avoid any resort to violence” while former colonial ruler France urged a speedy return to the “normal functioning” of the government.

The crisis follows months of deadlock between the president, the premier, and Ennahdha chief Rached Ghannouchi, which has crippled the Covid response, as deaths have surged to one of the world’s highest per-capita rates.

Since Saied was elected in 2019, he has been locked in a showdown with Mechichi and Ghannouchi, who is also house speaker.

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The rivalry has blocked ministerial appointments and diverted resources from tackling Tunisia’s many economic and social problems.

President Saied says he would assume executive power “with the help” of a government whose new chief he would appoint himself.

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