Tunisia's president has dismissed the government and frozen parliament, with crowds filling the capital in support but his opponents calling it a coup.
President Kais Saied said he would assume executive authority with the assistance of a new prime minister, in the biggest challenge yet to a 2014 democratic constitution that split powers between president, prime minister and parliament.
Crowds of people quickly flooded the capital's streets, cheering and honking car horns in scenes that recalled the 2011 revolution that brought democracy and triggered the Arab spring protests that convulsed the Middle East.
However, the extent of support for Saied's moves against a fragile government and divided parliament was not clear and he warned against any violent response.
"I warn any who think of resorting to weapons ... and whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets," he said in a statement carried on television.
Years of paralysis, corruption, declining state services and growing unemployment had already soured many Tunisians on their political system before the global pandemic hammered the economy last year and coronavirus infection rates shot up this summer.
Protests, called by social media activists but not backed by any of the big political parties, took place on Sunday with much of the anger focused on the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, the biggest in parliament.
"We have been relieved of them," said Lamia Meftahi, a woman celebrating in central Tunis after Saied's statement, speaking of the parliament and government.
"This is the happiest moment since the revolution."
Ennahda, banned before the revolution, has been the most consistently successful party since 2011 and a member of successive coalition governments.
Its leader Rached Ghannouchi, who is also parliament speaker, immediately labelled Saied's decision "a coup against the revolution and constitution" in a phone call to Reuters.
"We consider the institutions still standing, and the supporters of the Ennahda and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution," he said, raising the prospect of confrontations between supporters of Ennahda and Saied.
Saied said in his statement that his actions were in line with Article 80 of the constitution, and also cited the article to suspend the immunity of members of parliament.
"Many people were deceived by hypocrisy, treachery and robbery of the rights of the people," he said.
The president and the parliament were both elected in separate popular votes in 2019, while Mechichi took office last summer, replacing another short-lived government.
Saied, an independent without a party behind him, swore to overhaul a complex political system plagued by corruption. Meanwhile the parliamentary election delivered a fragmented chamber in which no party held more than a quarter of seats.
Disputes over Tunisia's constitution were intended to be settled by a constitutional court. However, seven years after the constitution was approved, the court has yet to be installed after disputes over the appointment of judges.
The president has been enmeshed in political disputes with Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi for over a year, as the country grapples with an economic crisis, a looming fiscal crunch and a flailing response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Under the constitution, the president has direct responsibility only for foreign affairs and the military, but after a government debacle with walk-in vaccination centres last week, he told the army to take charge of the pandemic response.
Tunisia's soaring infection and death rates have added to public anger at the government as the country's political parties bickered.
Meanwhile, Mechichi was attempting to negotiate a new loan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that was seen as crucial to averting a looming fiscal crisis as Tunisia struggles to finance its budget deficit and coming debt repayments.
Disputes over the economic reforms seen as needed to secure the loan, but which could hurt ordinary Tunisians by ending subsidies or cutting public sector jobs, had already brought the government close to collapse.
Timeline of Tunisia's bumpy decade of democracy
- December 2010 - Vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi sets himself on fire after police confiscate his cart. His death and funeral spark protests over unemployment, corruption and repression.
- January 2011 - Autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali flees to Saudi Arabia, as TunisiaG��s revolution triggers uprisings across the Arab world.
- October 2011 - Moderate Islamist party Ennahda, banned under Ben Ali, wins most seats and forms a coalition with secular parties to plan a new constitution.
- March 2012 - Growing polarisation emerges between Islamists and secularists, particularly over womenG��s rights, as Ennahda pledges to keep Islamic law out of the new constitution.
- February 2013 - Secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid is assassinated, prompting street protests and the resignation of the prime minister. Jihadists mount attacks on police.
- December 2013 - Ennahdha cedes power after mass protests and a national dialogue, to be replaced by a technocratic government.
- January 2014 - Parliament approves a new constitution guaranteeing personal freedoms and rights for minorities, and splitting power between the president and prime minister.
- December 2014 - Beji Caid Essebsi wins TunisiaG��s first free presidential election. Ennahda joins the ruling coalition.
- March 2015 - Islamic State attacks on the Bardo Museum in Tunis kill 22 people. In June a gunman kills 38 at a beach resort in Sousse. The attacks devastate the vital tourism sector and are followed by a suicide bombing in November that kills 12 soldiers.
- March 2016 - The army turns the tide against the jihadist threat by defeating dozens of Islamic State fighters who rampage into a southern town from across the Libyan border.
- December 2017 - The economy approaches crisis point as the trade deficit soars and the currency slides.
- October 2019 - Voters show dissatisfaction with the major parties, first electing a deeply fractured parliament and then political outsider Kais Saied as president.
- January 2020 - After months of failed attempts to form a government, Elyes Fakhfakh becomes prime minister but is forced out within months over a corruption scandal.
- August 2020 - Saied designates Hichem Mechichi as prime minister. He quickly falls out with the president and his fragile government lurches from crisis to crisis as it struggles to deal with the pandemic and the need for urgent reforms.
- January 2021 - A decade on from the revolution, new protests engulf Tunisian cities in response to accusations of police violence and after the pandemic devastates an already weak economy.
- July 2021 - Saied dismisses the government, freezes parliament and says he will rule alongside the new prime minister citing an emergency section of the constitution that is dismissed by Ennahda and others in parliament as a coup.