Tunisian President Kais Saied late on Wednesday issued a decree dissolving parliament, which has been suspended since last year, after it defied him by voting to repeal decrees that he used to assume near total power.
Speaking after an online session of more than half the parliament members, their first since he suspended the chamber in July, Saied accused them of a failed coup and a conspiracy against state security and ordered investigations into them.
The parliament session and Saied’s response intensified Tunisia’s political crisis though it was not clear if they will prompt any immediate change in his grip on power.
Any move to arrest parliament members who took part in Wednesday’s session, as Saied’s threat of investigations may imply, would represent a major escalation in the confrontation between Saied and his opponents.
“We must protect the state from division... We will not allow the abusers to continue their aggression against the state,” Saied said in a video posted online.
Saied’s opponents accuse him of a coup when he suspended the chamber last summer, brushed aside most of the 2014 constitution and moved to rule by decree as he set about remaking the political system.
“We are not afraid to defend a legitimate institution,” said Yamina Zoglami, a parliament member from the Islamist Ennahda.
“The people did not withdraw confidence from us. The president closed parliament with a tank.”
Saied, a former law professor, says his actions were constitutional and necessary to save Tunisia from years of political paralysis and economic stagnation at the hands of a corrupt, self-serving elite.
He says he will form a committee to rewrite the constitution, put it to a referendum in July then hold parliamentary elections in December.
Tunisia’s 2014 constitution says the parliament must remain in session during any exceptional period of the kind announced by Saied last summer and that dissolving the chamber should trigger a new election, though he has not yet announced one.
The Free Constitutional Party, a main opposition party that polls project would be the biggest in parliament if elections were held, urged Saied to call early elections following the dissolution of parliament.
Abir Moussi, the party head and a supporter of the late President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, said that Saied has no choice, according to the constitution, and should call elections within three months.
Major Western donors have urged Saied to return to the democratic path and normal constitutional rule.
Wednesday’s parliament session was delayed when the online meeting platforms Zoom and Teams stopped working in Tunisia shortly before it was due to begin.
Speaking on radio, independent MP Iyadh Loumi accused the government of disabling the applications to disrupt the session but the communications technology minister denied that.
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