TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Thousands of Tunisians attended demonstrations in Tunis and other cities this weekend in a show of support for President Kais Saied’s recent consolidation of power — a move that his critics have dubbed a coup.
Thousands stood on Tunis’ central thoroughfare Sunday waving the nation’s crimson flag demanding tough action against corruption, and chanting “The people want the dissolution of parliament!” One demonstrator wore a T-shirt emblazoned with “We are Kais Saied." Another held a sign that read “You are not alone Mr. President, we are with you."
On July 25, following nationwide anti-government protests, Saied abruptly dismissed his prime minister, assumed all executive powers and froze parliament in the North African nation.
While constitutional lawyers and political opponents including the influential Islamist party say his actions are unlawful, the decision has proven widely popular with the Tunisian public. It followed a long period of political and economic crisis for Tunisia that was exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Sept. 22, Saied followed up on his "exceptional measures" with the announcement of a new constitutional order, effectively suspending part of the country’s 2014 constitution and transferring sweeping legislative powers to the president, giving him the right to rule by decree.
Thousands gathered for protests last weekend against that decision, notably from Islamist party Ennahdha, which has been sidelined by the president's moves. Human rights advocates and civil society organizations have openly condemned his actions, calling them a threat to Tunisia’s democratic transition.
On Sunday, Tunisia’s state agency TAP reported that a lawmaker and a television host had been arrested over TV remarks critical to Saied, quoting lawyer Samir Ben Amor.
But the crowd at Sunday’s demonstration was a satisfied and hopeful one.
“I came here to support the dissolution of the parliament, because we are tired of these corrupt politicians, these thieves,” demonstrator Intissar Slits, 45, told The Associated Press. “We are here to support our president, this is the will of the people. The people are tired of being poor, tired of being hungry, we are tired of everything.”
Another demonstrator said the country’s 2014 constitution was a failure and did not represent the wishes of the Tunisian people, only those of a small group of politicians.
Despite concerns about the legitimacy of Saied's moves, demonstrator Sonia Belnasser said a return to authoritarian rule is impossible for the Tunisian people.
“The Tunisian people are now on the street supporting Kais Saied, the professor Kais Saied, the president Kais Saied, because he said no to corruption. If one day he becomes part of the bad system, then all the people will turn against him” she said, adding that she was happy with Saied’s appointment of Najla Bouden as head of government last week, the Arab world’s first female prime minister.
Protests were also held in several cities, from the coastal town of Sfax to Sidi Bouzid in the impoverished interior — the birthplace of Arab Spring uprisings. Tunisia was the only country to emerge from that tumultuous time with a democratic government.
Bouazza ben Bouazza in Tunis contributed.