TUNIS: Tunisian demonstrators scuffle with security forces as they protest in front of the parliament yesterday against President Kais Saied’s seizure of powers. – AFP

TUNIS: Thousands of Tunisians gathered near the country’s parliament yesterday to protest a presidential power grab they have deemed a “coup”. It was the latest rally opposing President Kais Saied’s July 25 decision to sack the government, suspend parliament and seize an array of powers, citing an “imminent threat” to the country – the birthplace of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings against autocracy.

More than 3,000 protesters gathered, shouting “The people want to bring down the coup d’etat” and “Kais’ project is a civil war” and branding the president an “agent of colonialism”, AFP correspondents reported. Some demonstrators carried signs reading “No to the intimidation of the media” and demanding “an independent judicial authority”.

The protesters “shut down all the streets, the avenues, the motorways”, said Jawhar Ben Mbarek, a figure of the Tunisian left. “After shutting down the state, Saied has shut down the institutions, the constitution. He has shut down the country,” he charged. Social media users shared images of police using cars and minivans to block protesters from reaching the suburb of Bardo, where the parliament building is located.

Activist Said Jendoubi said that Tunisia, 10 years after its revolution, was experiencing “a real military and police coup d’etat. A police state has returned.” Several members of the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party, a key force in the dissolved parliament, were at the forefront of the procession alongside left-wing representatives, holding signs reading: “MPs against the coup”. Other protesters gathered near parliament, Tunisian flags in hand, and shouted their opposition to military trials for civilians.

On Wednesday, Amnesty International warned that “military courts in Tunisia are increasingly targeting civilians, in some cases for publicly criticizing President Kais Saied”. It said that within the past three months, at least 10 civilians have been investigated by military courts. On Sept 22, Saied suspended parts of the constitution and installed rule by decree, maintaining full control of the judiciary as well as powers to sack ministers and issue laws.

He appointed a new government in October, with Najla Bouden as the North African country’s first female prime minister. But he has significantly pared back the powers of her office and will technically head the administration himself. Saied, who was elected in late 2019, made his shock move amid a socio-economic crisis aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of his opponents have accused him of seeking a new dictatorship, a decade after Tunisia’s 2011 revolt that overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

But the president’s supporters say his moves were needed after years of deadlock among political parties seen as corrupt and self-serving. Youssef Cherif of the Columbia Global Centers for North Africa said Saied’s plans were unclear. “The tendency is to go towards a presidential regime, but we don’t know if this will be within a democratic framework or not,” he said. – AFP