Backers of Tunisian president rally against 'coup' accusations

By Tarek Amara

TUNIS (Reuters) - Thousands of supporters of Tunisian President Kais Saied rallied in the capital on Sunday to show their backing for his suspension of parliament and promises to change the political system, acts his critics call a coup.

The demonstration in central Tunis was called in response to protests over the previous two weekends in the same location against Saied's actions. It is expected to far outnumber those gatherings.

Demonstrators waved Tunisian flags and carried placards railing against Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that is the biggest in parliament and has acted as Saied's main antagonist.

"We ask the president to dissolve parliament and hold accountable those who made the people suffer for a decade," Salem Ajoudi, one of the demonstrators, said.

The president plunged Tunisia into a constitutional crisis in July by suspending the elected parliament, dismissing the prime minister and assuming executive authority.

Last month he brushed aside much of the constitution to say he could pass legislation by decree, casting into doubt Tunisia's democratic gains since its 2011 revolution that triggered the "Arab spring" revolts across the Muslim world.

Saied's intervention followed years of economic stagnation and political paralysis, aggravated by an impoverishing lockdown last year, a slow-starting vaccination campaign and street protests.

Many Tunisians blame those ills on a corrupt, self-interested political elite, and they see Saied, an independent elected in 2019, as a champion for ordinary people.

Among his supporters, Saied's intervention is widely regarded as a long-overdue reset of a democratic experiment that established interests pulled off course.

"Saied is a clean president who has come to restore real democracy," said Mongi Abdullah, a teacher from Mahdia who had come to join the rally.

While opinion polls show Saied's moves have widespread support, his long delay in declaring a timeline out of the crisis has started to cement opposition to him.

Most of the political elite and the powerful labour union UGTT say he must start consulting more widely if he plans to amend the constitution, as he has indicated he will.

Tunisian police on Sunday arrested a member of parliament and a television presenter who have been prominent critics of Saied since July, their lawyer said. Neither the police nor army were immediately available for comment.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara, writing by Angus McDowall, editing by Andrew Heavens)