Tunisia on Edge as President Suspends Parliament, Fires PM

TUNIS, Tunisia (Reuters) -
Tunisian soldiers guard the main entrance of the parliament as demonstrators gather outside in Tunis, Tunisia, Monday. (AP Photo/Hedi Azouz)

Troops surrounded Tunisia’s parliament and blocked its Speaker from entering Monday after the president suspended the legislature and fired the prime minister and other top members of government, sparking concerns for the North African country’s young democracy at home and abroad.

In the face of nationwide protests over Tunisia’s economic troubles and the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, President Kais Saied decided late Sunday to dismiss the officials, including the justice and defense ministers.

He announced a series of other measures Monday, including a nationwide curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. for one month and a ban on gatherings of more than three people in public places. He denied allegations that he was fomenting a coup d’étàt.

Some demonstrators cheered the firings, shouting with joy and waving Tunisian flags.

But others accused the president of a power grab, and the country’s overseas allies expressed concern that it might be descending again into autocracy. In a move sure to fuel those worries, police raided the offices of broadcaster Al-Jazeera and ordered it shut down.

Tunisia, which ignited the Arab Spring in 2011 when protests led to the overthrow of its longtime autocratic leader, is often regarded as the only success story of those uprisings.

Security forces also moved in Monday on the Tunis offices of Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite news network said on its social media page. The reason for the move was not immediately clear.

Al-Jazeera, citing its journalists, said 10 “heavily armed police officers” entered their bureau without a warrant and asked everyone to leave. “The reporters’ phones and other equipment were confiscated, and they were not allowed back into the building to retrieve their personal belongs,” the network said.

Qatar and its Al-Jazeera have been viewed by some Middle Eastern nations as promoting Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Its offices have been shut down in other countries over that, most noticeably in Egypt after the 2013 coup that brought current President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to office.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke by phone with the Tunisian leader, encouraging him “to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights that are the basis of governance in Tunisia,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said. Blinken also asked that Saied “maintain open dialogue with all political actors and the Tunisian people.”