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Tunisia president denies coup, vows not to turn into 'dictator'

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
File photo of Tunisian President Kais Saied

The Tunisian president has denied allegations of staging a coup and insisted he would not turn into a dictator after ousting the nation’s premier and suspending the parliament and subsequent arrest of two lawmakers after the lifting of their immunity.

"I know the constitutional texts very well, respect them and taught them and after all this time I will not turn into a dictator as some have said," said President Kais Saied in a statement issued by his office on Friday.

However, the former law professor has yet to carry out steps that critics insist are needed to reassure Tunisians, namely the appointment of an interim prime minister as well as a roadmap to remove the imposed emergency measures.

The statement was issued just days after the North African country was thrust into a political crisis by Saied's sudden dismissal of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspension of the legislature for 30 days on Sunday, leading major political parties to accuse him of engineering a coup amid rival protest rallies and clashes by supporters and opponents of the president. 

Concerns over rights and freedoms in Tunisia that toppled former Western-backed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 aggravated on Friday following the arrest of legislator and influential blogger Yassin Ayari as well as the unveiling of a probe into alleged violence by people protesting Saied's actions during a rally on Monday.

The country’s military judiciary then claimed that Ayari had been imprisoned by a judicial ruling issued three years ago for defaming the army after Saied removed the immunity of lawmakers, leaving any with cases against them vulnerable to arrest.

Another legislator, Maher Zid of the Muslim Karama party, was also arrested late on Friday, his lawyer unveiled, after being sentenced to two years in prison in 2018 for “offending people on social media” and “insulting” the then president.

Also on Monday, the largest party in Tunisia’s parliament, the Ennahda, held a sit-in protest outside the legislative building after it was surrounded by military forces, with hundreds of its supporters clashing with pro-Saied demonstrators using stones or bottles.

The country’s judiciary then declared that it had opened investigations into four people linked to Ennahda for "attempting to commit acts of violence" during the protest, including a member of a party council and two members with connections to its leader.

The development came a day after Saied appointed his former national security adviser Ridha Garsalaoui as the new interior minister and vowed to implement the constitution and safeguard people’s rights and freedoms.

"I tell you and the whole world that I am keen to implement the constitutional text and keen more than them on rights and freedoms," Saied declared. "No one has been arrested. No one has been deprived of his rights, but the law is fully applied.”

Also on Tuesday, the Tunisian president dismissed more officials amid the political crisis, including Defense Minister Ibrahim Bartaji and Hasna Ben Slimane, the acting justice minister.

The move came after he imposed a night curfew for a month after clashes between the supporters and opponents of his dismissals left several people injured.

Years of paralysis, corruption, declining state services and growing unemployment had agitated many Tunisians on their political system before the COVID-19 pandemic smashed the economy last year and infection rates surged this summer.

The Tunisian president and parliament were both elected in separate popular votes in 2019 while the prime minister took office last summer, with Saied swearing to overhaul a complex political system plagued by corruption.

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