TUNISIAN CROWDS REJOICE AT DOWNFALL OF RULING ISLAMIST PARTY AS COVID CASES SURGE

A cheering crowd welcomed the decision of Tunisian president Kais Saied to suspend parliament and dismiss prime minister Hichem Mechichi. The move follows a day of protests against the ruling party and, in particular, the government’s mishandling of Covid-19.

Thousands of people had demonstrated against Ennahda, the ruling party, in Tunis and other cities, shouting “Get out!”, and calling for parliament to be dissolved.

“Our patience has run out… there are no solutions for the unemployed,” said Nourredine Selmi, 28, a jobless protester. “They cannot control the epidemic … They can’t give us vaccines.”

President Kais Saied announced he would take charge with help from a new prime minister, saying he intended to bring calm to the country.

Ennahda had been under fire from secular opposition parties who claim that Tunisia’s Arab Spring was derailed because the Islamists, in their view, were bent on setting up a theocracy.

“What is certain is that the Tunisian revolution has been an economic dud for the millions of poor people in the regions beyond the capital, Tunis. While the country is no longer officially in recession, growth is so weak that the jobless rate continues to rise,” wrote Eric Reguly, European bureau chief of the Canadian Globe and Mail.

Nationally, the unemployment rate is about 18 per cent, but it is double that in some of the regions. Mohamed Mselmi, joint secretary-general of the UGTT, the country’s biggest union, with 850,000 members, says some of the poorest regions suffer from 80-per-cent unemployment.

Earlier in the day, thousands of Tunisians marched in several cities protesting against Ennahda which they accused of economic mismanagement, corruption and failure to prevent crippling rates of coronavirus infections.

Cases have been rising sharply in recent weeks, putting pressure on the faltering economy.

Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi fired the health minister last week, but this has done little to ease people’s anger.

On state television, President Saied could be seen joining the crowds in the street as they celebrated his decision to oust the government. The celebratory mood and honking car horns recalled the 2011 revolution that brought democracy and triggered the Arab spring protests that convulsed the Middle East.

“We have been relieved of them,” said Lamia Meftahi, a woman celebrating in central Tunis after Saied’s statement, speaking of the parliament and government.

“This is the happiest moment since the revolution,” she added.

But Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahda and parliamentary speaker, said: “We consider the institutions still standing, and the supporters of the Ennahda and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution,” he added, raising the prospect of confrontations between supporters of Ennahda and Saied.