More than 5,000 protesters across Tunisia on Sunday showed their support for President Kais Saied, whose takeover has sparked controversy at the birthplace of the Arab Spring.
With roughly 3,000 of them gathering in the capital Tunis, the pro-Saied crowd outnumbered the one that gathered a week earlier to oppose him.
“We are all Kais Saied, we are all Tunisia,” they chanted on Bourguiba Avenue, the main thoroughfare in central Tunisia, also shouting that “the people want the dissolution of parliament.”
On July 25, after months of political stalemate, Saied fired the prime minister, suspended parliament and granted himself judicial powers, a move that followed in September with measures that effectively allow the president to rule by decree.
The parliamentary suspension lifted the immunity of the deputies and on Sunday, in the last arrest of a lawmaker, a deputy and a journalist were arrested for criticizing Saied’s actions, said his lawyer Samir Ben Omar.
Saied, elected in late 2019, has said his action seeks to save Tunisia from “imminent danger” during a painful socio-economic crisis exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The public health crisis has helped drive the official unemployment rate from 15 to almost 18 percent. The economy has grown only 0.6 percent over the last decade.
The security forces were deployed with force on Sunday on Bourguiba avenue, especially in front of the municipal theater where the demonstration took place.
‘We back it up’
The protesters waved red and white Tunisian flags and carried banners that read: “The people want a revision of the constitution” and “Saied, official spokesman of the people.”
Around 1,000 Saied supporters also demonstrated in the industrial city of Sfax, and a similar number on the Susa coast, while smaller demonstrations took place elsewhere, local media reported.
“Saied wants to implement reforms and we support him,” Noura ben Fadhel, an official, told AFP at the Tunis demonstration.
“I came to support change to end the current decline. We are sick of it. It has been going on for 10 years and that is enough! ” she said.
For Elyes Ouni, 28, who campaigned for Saied in 2019, “July 25 put an end to a flawed system. Now he is in the morgue and today we are going to bury him ”.
He blamed parliament for the “deterioration of the country.”
‘Seizure of power’
Saied, a former law professor, sees the 2014 Tunisian constitution lopsided in favor of parliament. He has never hidden his hostility towards political parties, especially the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha, which had the largest number of suspended parliament seats.
The previous Sunday, a crowd of some 2,000 people gathered, also on Bourguiba avenue, to protest against what they called Saied’s “coup”.
Some shouted “Out, out,” the slogan that began in December 2010 and culminated in the resignation of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.
That sparked Arab Spring protests in several countries, but Tunisia is the only democracy to emerge from the movement.
Ben Omar, the lawyer, told AFP that Deputy Abdellatif al-Alaoui and Zitouna television host Amer Ayad had been detained on charges of “conspiring against state security.”
On the show, they both criticized the president’s September 29 appointment of Najla Bouden as Tunisia’s first female prime minister, and Ayad scoffed that she would function only as “the sultan’s servant.”
Although Saied’s July measures enjoyed significant public support, civil society groups have denounced the “seizure of power” and warned of a shift away from democracy.