Tunisia’s main party holds street protest, escalating government row

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Tunisia’s biggest political party rallied tens of thousands of supporters in the capital on Saturday in a show of strength that could fuel a dispute between the president and prime minister that has paralyzed the government.

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It is the biggest demonstration in Tunisia for years, and party faithful bussed in from across the country chanted “the people want to protect institutions” and “the people want national unity” as they marched in the center of Tunis.

The moderate Islamist party Ennahda, led by Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, has backed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in his standoff with President Kais Saied over a cabinet reshuffle.

The dispute has brought to a head months of wrangling between the three men in Tunisia’s latest political crisis since a 2019 election delivered a fragmented parliament while propelling Saied, an independent, to the presidency.

It has played out against a grim backdrop of economic anxiety, angry protests, widespread disillusionment with democracy and competing reform demands from foreign lenders and the powerful labor union as sovereign debt repayments loom.

Saied nominated Mechichi as prime minister last summer when the government collapsed after only five months in office, but the two men soon fell out.

Demonstrators attend a protest to mark the anniversary of a prominent activist's death and against allegations of police abuse, in Tunis, Tunisia February 6, 2021. (Reuters/Zoubeir Souissi)
Demonstrators attend a protest to mark the anniversary of a prominent activist's death and against allegations of police abuse, in Tunis, Tunisia February 6, 2021. (Reuters/Zoubeir Souissi)

Mechichi then turned for support to the two biggest parties in parliament - Ennahda and jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui’s Heart of Tunisia.

Last month, Mechichi changed 11 ministers in a reshuffle seen as replacing allies of Saied with those of Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia. The president has refused to swear four of them in, however, saying they had conflicts of interest.

Meanwhile, during protests last month over inequality and police abuses, demonstrators focused most of their anger against Mechichi and Ennahda.

Ennahda billed Saturday’s march as “in support of democracy”, but it was widely seen as an effort to mobilize popular backing against Saied - raising the specter of competing protest movements that could lead to polarization or violence.

Tunisia’s 2021 budget forecasts borrowing needs of 19.5 billion Tunisian dinars ($7.2 billion), including about $5 billion in foreign loans. It puts debt repayments due this year at 16 billion dinars.

The country’s credit rating has fallen since the coronavirus pandemic began and Tunisian credit default swaps - insurance against sovereign debt defaults - have soared in recent weeks, showing market concerns about its ability to raise funds.

However, demands by foreign lenders for long-term cuts in current spending are opposed by the powerful labor union and could lead to painful reductions in state programs that might further destabilize the government.

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