Tunisia has lurched further into political uncertainty after President Kais Saied dismissed more officials, just days after he sacked the prime minister, froze Parliament and assumed executive powers.
After suspending Parliament and sacking Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi on Sunday, and firing the defence and justice ministers a day later, Saied ordered the dismissal of several top officials late on Tuesday.
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The 63-year-old president, a former law lecturer and political newcomer who won a landslide 2019 presidential election victory, issued decrees sacking a long list of senior government officials, including the army’s chief prosecutor.
On Wednesday, he dismissed the CEO of national television channel Wataniya.
In addition, he has lifted the parliamentary immunity of lawmakers and assumed judicial powers. He has also ordered an investigation into three political parties suspected of receiving foreign funds before the elections in 2019.
Key civil society groups warned in a joint statement against any “illegitimate” extension of Saied’s 30-day suspension of Parliament, and demanded a timeline for political action.
Sam Kimball, a journalist in Tunis, told Al Jazeera Saied claims that close to $5bn have been looted from the country by various means.
“He says he’s got a list of several hundred people who are accused of looting the country’s wealth – those largely being politicians and members of parliament whose immunity he removed on Sunday night,” Kimball said.
“He [Saied] said the country is not a beggar country and deserves a better future.”
Kimball said the president’s actions seem to be a move to “reassure those who may have doubts over the extreme measures” he has taken over the last several days.
The president said his actions were justified under the constitution, which allows the head of state to take unspecified exceptional measures in the event of an “imminent threat”.
On top of its political turmoil, the North African nation is beset by a crippling economic crisis, including soaring inflation and high unemployment, as well as surging COVID-19 infections.
The Ennahdha Party, which was the largest faction in the coalition government, initially labelled the power grab a “coup d’etat”, while the US, EU and other powers have voiced strong concern.
Ramping up tension, the Tunisian prosecutor’s office announced on Wednesday the judiciary has opened an investigation into allegations that Ennahdha and two other political parties received illegal funding ahead of the 2019 elections.
The financial arm of the judiciary opened the probe on July 14, focusing on “the foreign financing and acceptance of funds of unknown origin”, prosecution spokesman Mohsen Dali said.
Saied, an academic who has said he is determined to revolutionise the political system through changes to the law, said he would assume executive power with the help of a government whose new chief he would appoint himself.
“President Saied will be very careful in choosing the future head of government because he wants a trustworthy and loyal person who would adopt the same policies as him,” said political scientist Slaheddine Jourchi.
The young democracy had often been cited as the sole success story of the Arab Spring – the uprisings that swept the region that started in Tunisia in late 2010.
A decade on, many in the nation of 12 million say they have seen little improvement in living standards, and have grown infuriated by protracted political deadlock with infighting among the elite.
The ousted government had also been criticised for its handling of the COVID pandemic which has seen almost 579,000 reported cases and more than 19,000 deaths in the country.