Tunisians protest amid political standoff

Tunisia’s main parliamentary bloc Ennahdha rallied thousands of people Saturday in a demonstration of support for the government amid a tug-of-war with President Kais Saied.

The Islamist-inspired Ennahdha and liberal Qalb Tounes parties pushed for a reshuffling of the government by Prime minister Hichem Mechichi in mid-January, introducing 11 new ministers.

Saied has strongly criticised the reshuffle — which was confirmed by parliament — saying he had not been consulted and charged that some ministers were suspected of corruption and conflicts of interest.

He also refused to confirm the new ministers, including interior, justice and health, leaving the government paralysed, in a country already reeling from economic hardship and the coronavirus pandemic.

Saturday’s protest in the capital Tunis was called for by Ennahdha, and several protesters said they rallied in support of the moderate Islamist party as well as for unity and democracy.

“We have a parliamentary system and it is not up to the president to decide who will govern,” said protester Mohamed Khlif, who travelled from the coastal city of Sfax to take part in the rally.

“Democracy and the constitution must be respected,” he added.

Around him protesters, who came to the capital from across the country, chanted “the people want national unity”.

The political standoff comes as Tunisia has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and its social and economic repercussions.

This “weakening governance” led international ratings agency Moody’s this week to downgrade Tunisia’s sovereign debt rating, complicating the country’s borrowing power while it has not finalised its 2021 budget.

The International Monetary Fund too warned in a report published Friday that the “Covid-19 crisis is exacerbating Tunisia’s socio-economic fragilities” and “led to an unprecedented economic downturn”.

The IMF called for urgent reforms to reduce the fiscal deficit, which it said was estimated to have reached 11.5 percent of GDP in 2020.

It also made a series of recommendations, including for limits on energy subsidies and lowering the wage bill.

  • ‘Strengthened by visible support’ –
    Ennahdha head Rached Ghannouchi addressed the protesters Saturday, calling for dialogue and unity among political forces.

His party dominated the political scene after the 2011 uprising that toppled long-time leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali but has seen its base erode, now only controlling a quarter of the parliament.

But the protest showed that Ennahdha “could still mobilise in large numbers” and this “allows (Ennahdha) to come to the negotiating table strengthened by this visible support”, said analyst Youssef Cherif.

The mobilisation, however, risks complicating talks as Ennahdha leaders have “gained confidence” in the face of a president hostile to any compromise, he added.

Saied called the protest “a waste of money”.

“We are not reacting according to their calculations and arrangements, but according to our principles and commitments to the people,” Saied said on Saturday.

Saied, an independent academic and constitutional law expert, has castigated the procedure for naming the new ministers, saying it was unconstitutional.

Tunisia’s constitution does not require parliamentary approval for regular reshuffles.

But in the absence of a constitutional court in Tunisia, the political crisis has dragged on for six weeks with no solution in sight to ease tensions between the president, parliament and the government.