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2,000 Tunisians rally against president’s ‘coup’ after power grab

Protest in the cradle of the Arab Spring is the largest since Kais Saied fired PM, suspended parliament and gave himself judicial powers in July

Demonstrators chant slogans during a protest in Tunisia's capital Tunis, on September 26, 2021, against President Kais Saied's recent steps to tighten his grip on power. (Fethi Belaid/AFP)
Demonstrators chant slogans during a protest in Tunisia's capital Tunis, on September 26, 2021, against President Kais Saied's recent steps to tighten his grip on power. (Fethi Belaid/AFP)

TUNIS, Tunisia (AFP) — About 2,000 Tunisians rallied in their capital on Sunday to protest President Kais Saied’s steps to tighten his grip on power which they labelled “a coup d’etat.”

It was the largest demonstration since Saied on July 25 fired prime minister Hichem Mechichi, suspended parliament and granted himself judicial powers, a move he followed up on Wednesday by announcing “exceptional measures” that allow him to rule by decree.

Protesters waving the red and white Tunisian flag gathered outside the municipal theatre in Tunis, well before the demonstration’s start, and shouted slogans in defense of the 2014 national charter.

“Constitution, freedom and national dignity,” chanted the demonstrators. They also demanded “national unity against populism” and called for the “end of the Kais Saied regime.”

Security forces were deployed in large numbers along Bourguiba Avenue, which runs through the heart of the capital, with armored cars, police vans and metal barriers set up to control access to different areas.

The president made his power grab after months of political stalemate and during the COVID-19 pandemic, which further aggravated the country’s economic and social difficulties.

Large crowds cheered his move all over the country at the time, but the mood was hostile at the smaller demonstration in Tunis on Sunday.

Demonstrators chant slogans during a protest in Tunisia’s capital Tunis, on September 26, 2021, against President Kais Saied’s recent steps to tighten his grip on power. (Fethi Belaid/AFP)

Some shouted “Get out, get out,” repeating the slogan of protests that started in December 2010 and culminated in the resignation of Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011 after 23 years in power.

Ben Ali’s fall marked the start of the Arab Spring revolts around the region, in which Tunisia emerged as the only democracy.

“Things are going back to the Ben Ali period, to a dictatorship,” said Nade, 27, a woman attending the protest with her mother.

Nade, who works as an administrator, said that she is worried because it was thanks to the 2011 revolution that Tunisians “finally had rights,” which they don’t want to lose.

Yet Saied has placed “all the power in the hands of only one man,” himself, she said.

Nearby, a protester in his 60s said that he had come “to defend the constitution,” fearful that the country could fall back into “dictatorship.”

Demonstrators chant slogans during a protest in Tunisia’s capital Tunis, on September 26, 2021, against President Kais Saied’s recent steps to tighten his grip on power. (Fethi Belaid/AFP)

According to him, the demonstration brought together more than just followers of Moncef Marzouki, one of its organizers, who was Tunisia’s first president after elections following Ben Ali’s fall.

There were also supporters of the ultraconservative Islamist-nationalist party Al-Karama, many leftists, and “ordinary citizens,” the man said.

Another protester, Ibrahim, 59, said that he had voted for Saied in the 2019 presidential election. “And he betrayed us.”

The protest came after around 20 global and Tunisian human rights groups on Saturday condemned Saied’s “power grab” and labeled it “a first step towards authoritarianism.”

Signatories to the statement included Amnesty International’s Tunisia section, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists, and the Tunisian Network for Transitional Justice.

It was the latest warning from civil society groups of a drift away from democracy.

The speaker of Tunisia’s parliament Rached Ghannouchi on Thursday called for “peaceful struggle” against a return to “absolute one-man rule.”

A day later the country’s powerful UGTT trade union confederation warned of threats to the country’s democracy.

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