A rally of tens of thousands of people in the Tunisian capital raises the specter of competing protest movements.
Tunisia’s largest political party has rallied tens of thousands of supporters in the capital, exacerbating a dispute within the government.
Saturday’s protest was the biggest protest in Tunisia in years, and party supporters from across the country chanted “the people want to protect the institutions” and “the people want national unity” as they walked in the center of Tunis.
The party, Ennahdha, led by Speaker of Parliament Rached Ghannouchi, supported Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in his standoff with President Kais Saied over a cabinet reshuffle.
The dispute ended months of bickering between the three men in Tunisia’s latest political crisis since the 2019 elections which delivered a fragmented parliament while propelling Saied, an independent, to the presidency.
It took place amid a grim backdrop of economic anxiety, protests of anger, widespread disillusionment with democracy, and competing reform demands from foreign lenders and the powerful union as sovereign debt repayments looming.
Saied appointed Mechichi as prime minister last year when the government collapsed after just five months in power, but the two quickly fell out.
Mechichi then turned to support for the two largest parties in parliament – Ennahdha and jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui’s Heart of Tunisia.
Last month, Mechichi changed 11 ministers in a reshuffle seen as replacing Saied’s allies with those of Ennahdha and Heart of Tunisia.
The president, however, refused to swear an oath to four of them, saying they had conflicts of interest.
Meanwhile, during last month’s protests against inequality and police abuse, protesters focused most of their anger on Mechichi and Ennahdha.
Ennahdha presented Saturday’s march as “pro democracy,” but it was widely seen as an effort to mobilize popular support against Saied – raising the specter of competing protest movements that could lead to polarization or violence.
Tunisia’s 2021 budget forecasts borrowing needs of 19.5 billion Tunisian dinars ($ 7.2 billion), including about $ 5 billion in foreign loans. He estimates the debt repayments due this year at 16 billion dinars.
The country’s credit rating has fallen since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and Tunisian credit default swaps – an insurance against sovereign debt defaults – have skyrocketed in recent weeks, showing market concerns as to its ability to raise funds.
However, demands by foreign lenders for long-term cuts in current spending are opposed by the powerful union and could lead to painful cuts to state programs that could further destabilize the government.