Tunisia's young democracy faced its worst crisis in a decade on Monday after President Kais Saied ousted the government and suspended parliament with help from the army, a move denounced as a coup by the main parties including Islamists.
His action followed months of deadlock and disputes pitting him against Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and a fragmented parliament as Tunisia descended into an economic crisis exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The move risks a destabilising confrontation between the army-backed president, who is seen as an outsider, and groups that say the step is undemocratic, including Islamists who were repressed for decades until the 2011 Tunisian revolt that sparked the "Arab Spring".
In a declaration late on Sunday, Saied invoked emergency powers under the constitution's Article 18 to dismiss Mechichi and suspend parliament for 30 days, saying he would govern alongside a new premier. He rejected accusations of a coup.
Large crowds poured into the streets in support, reflecting anger at the moderate Islamist Ennahda party - the biggest party in parliament - and the government over the economy, which shrank 8% last year after the pandemic hit the tourism sector.
Ennahda, which has been part of successive coalitions, and other main parties said Saied's actions breached the constitution.
Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, condemned it as an assault on democracy and urged Tunisians to take to the streets in opposition.
"Kais Saied is dragging the country into catastrophe," Ghannouchi told Turkey's state broadcaster, TRT Arabi.
Soldiers surrounding parliament prevented Ghannouchi entering the building on Monday morning. He had said he would call a session in defiance of Saied.
Nearby, supporters and opponents of the president threw stones at each other. Tunisia's hard-currency bonds tumbled.
The army did not comment on Saied's moves, but barred workers from the government palace in the Kasbah and blocked off the state television building.
Mechichi, also an independent, is at his home and not under arrest, one source close to him and two Tunisian security sources said.
Saied, who has not said when the new premier will be appointed, also plans to replace the defence and justice ministers.
His actions followed a day of protests against the government and Ennahda over the pandemic and the economy.
Though it has failed to deliver prosperity or good governance, Tunisia's democratic experiment since 2011 has stood in stark contrast to the fate of other countries where Arab Spring revolts ended in bloody crackdowns and civil war.
Outside parliament, supporters of Saied and Ennahda hurled insults and bottles at each other.
"We are here to protect Tunisia. We have seen all the tragedies under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood," said a young man who gave his name as Ayman.
He was referring to the Islamist movement founded in Egypt in 1928 which inspired Sunni Islamists across the Arab world, including Ennahda. In recent years, Ennahda has sought to distance itself from the Brotherhood.
Imed Ayadi, an Ennahda member, likened Saied to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who deposed the Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi in 2013.
"Saied is a new Sisi who wants to collect all authority for himself ...We will stand up to the coup against the revolution", he said.
Saied has said any violent opposition will be met with force. He swept to office in 2019 after campaigning as the scourge of a corrupt, incompetent elite.
He framed his actions as a constitutional and popular response to years of economic and political paralysis, and said Article 80 gave him power to dismiss the government, appoint a temporary administration, freeze parliament and lift the immunity of its members.
The article requires consultation with the prime minister and parliament speaker. Ghannouchi has denied being consulted. Mechichi has not spoken in public.
It also requires approval by a constitutional court that has not yet been created.
Two of the other main parties in parliament, Heart of Tunisia and Karama, joined Ennahda in accusing Saied of a coup.
The international response has been muted, but a German Foreign Office spokesperson said the suspension of parliament was based on "a rather broad interpretation of the constitution" and that Germany "did not want to call it a coup."
The European Union urged all political actors to respect the constitution and avoid violence.
Turkey's ruling, Islamist-rooted AK Party condemned Saied's actions. Qatar, which has supported Sunni Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, called on all parties to avoid escalation and move towards dialogue.
Egypt did not comment but state media coverage indicated official support for Saied's move, saying he had responded to "great popular anger".
Bahrain, an ally of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in opposing the Muslim Brotherhood, "voiced hope for brotherly Tunisia to achieve good and development and for greater stability and prosperity".