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Tunisian Islamists move to ease tensions, unions demand roadmap

Many Tunisians, tired of political paralysis and a moribund economy, took to the streets in a show of support for Saied on Sunday.
Many Tunisians, tired of political paralysis and a moribund economy, took to the streets in a show of support for Saied on Sunday.
Image: REUTERS/ Zoubeir Souissi

Tunisia's leading Islamist party moved on Tuesday to ease the country's political crisis, calling for dialogue and urging supporters not to protest after accusing President Kais Saied of launching a coup.

Tunisia faced its worst political crisis in a decade of democracy after Saied, backed by the army, sacked the prime minister and froze parliament on Sunday, sparking concern in Western capitals that have praised its transition from autocracy since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

Influential civil society groups, including the powerful labour union, warned Saied not to extend extraordinary measures he announced on Sunday beyond a month and called on him to lay out "a participatory roadmap" out of the crisis.

There was no sign of tension in the capital where supporters and opponents of Saied's moves had scuffled on Monday. The streets were calm, with no significant protests or heightened security presence.

Saied's actions followed months of deadlock and disputes pitting him against Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi - also a political independent - and a fragmented parliament as Tunisia suffered an economic crisis exacerbated by one of Africa's worst COVID-19 outbreaks.

Many Tunisians, tired of political paralysis and a moribund economy, took to the streets in a show of support for Saied on Sunday. "We have been silent for 10 years and we live in distress for 10 years and now people are sick and don't know how to treat themselves," said Halma Talbi, a woman in Tunis.

But the moderately Islamist Ennahda movement, the biggest party in parliament, and the next three largest parties have all denounced the moves as a coup.

Reversing a call on its supporters on Monday to take to the streets against Saied, Ennahda urged dialogue and efforts to avoid civil strife.

"The movement ... calls on all Tunisians to increase solidarity, synergy and unity and to confront all calls for sedition and civil strife," it said in a statement.


Ennahda had already told supporters through party branches not to resume a sit-in outside parliament and to avoid protests.

Though some senior party members wanted to retain a street presence, its leaders decided to avoid any further escalation and allow a period of calm, two Ennahda officials said.

The area outside the parliament building, the site on Monday of confrontations between hundreds of supporters of Ennahda and Saied, was empty on Tuesday morning. Ennahda's supporters left on Monday evening and have not returned.

Saied said his move was in line with a constitutional clause allowing extraordinary measures during an emergency.

He said his move aimed to save Tunisia, saying public institutions were falling apart and warning of plans to ignite civil strife. He did not say who was behind the plans.

The White House said on Monday it had not yet determined whether Saied's actions constituted a coup.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Saied late on Monday and said he had urged him "to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights".

The Tunisian civil society groups declared "the necessity of protecting all the gains of the Tunisian revolution, which were expressed as a revolution of freedom and dignity".

The signatories included the labour union which, with one million members, is one of Tunisia's most powerful forces.

A Tunisian political source said neighbouring Algeria had pushed both Saied and his opponents to step back from any confrontation to avoid further destabilisation or the intervention of any external forces.

Though it has failed to deliver prosperity or good governance, Tunisia's democratic experiment since 2011 has stood in stark contrast to the fate of other countries where Arab Spring revolts ended in bloody crackdowns and civil war.

Saied has yet to announce an interim prime minister and has said he will replace the defence and justice ministers. He has not said whether the other cabinet ministers will remain in place.

He has not spelt out how he will handle the 30-day period during which he said parliament will be frozen. The assembly remains legally in session but not able to meet according to Saied's decree, with soldiers surrounding the building, government office and the television station.