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Thousands rally in Tunisia to support President Saied, urge change to political system

Supporters of Tunisian President Kais Saied rally in support of his seizure of power and suspension of parliament, in Tunis, Tunisia, on October 3, 2021. (Photo by Reuters)

Thousands of people have rallied in the Tunisian capital to voice their support for President Kais Saied and his plans to change the political system and form a new government following the suspension of parliament.

At least 8,000 people gathered in central Tunis on Sunday, waving Tunisian flags and carrying placards critical of the country’s largest and powerful political party, Ennahda.

"We ask the president to dissolve parliament and hold accountable those who made the people suffer for a decade," one of the protesters said.

Another demonstrator said, "Saied is a clean president who has come to restore real democracy."

Similar protests were held in cities across the North African country in a show of support for the president.

The demonstrations in the capital came in response to protests held against Saied over the previous two weekends.

Saied, who was elected in late 2019, dismissed the prime minister, invoked emergency powers, and assumed all executive powers while suspending parliament on July 25.

In September, he suspended much of the constitution, saying he could rule by decree during an “exceptional” period with no set ending.

The move bitterly irked his opponents, who denounced it as a coup.

Following Saied's seizure of governing powers, thousands of protesters rallied in the capital, calling on him to resign and demanding the constitution be respected. 

The crisis is seen as undermining the democratic gains of the 2011 Tunisian revolution, which triggered what became known as the Arab Spring protests.

Saied has defended his controversial move, saying it was necessary to address a crisis of political paralysis, economic stagnation, and the poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He has promised to establish “a true democracy in which the people are truly sovereign.”

The Ennahda party has already called for people to stay together and defend democracy in “a tireless, peaceful struggle.” More than 100 prominent officials of the party have also resigned in protest at Saied’s performance.

Four political parties in Tunisia have also announced a coalition to oppose Saied’s move, urging him to reverse what they called his power grab.

While opinion polls show Saied's moves have widespread support, his long delay in declaring a timeline out of the crisis has started to cement opposition to him.

Most of the political elite say he must start consulting more widely if he plans to amend the constitution, as he has indicated he will.

Mohamed Ammar, an independent parliament member who attended Sunday’s rally in the capital said "Saied should appoint a government and start dialogue to reform the system and the electoral law, then go to a referendum."

Last week, Saied appointed Najla Bouden Romdhane, a top education official, as the country’s prime minister and urged her to quickly form a government, but after his assumption of wider powers, she is expected to have less influence than her predecessors in the job.

Also on Sunday, Tunisian police arrested a member of parliament and a television presenter who have been prominent critics of Saied since July, their lawyer said.

The police were not immediately available for comment.

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.

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