Supporters of Ennahda Party stage a demonstration on Saturday in the capital Tunis to strengthen national unity and for giving a message of the necessity of dialogue.

A supporter of Tunisia's biggest political party, the Ennahda, chants slogans during a rally in opposition to President Kais Saied, in Tunis, Tunisia on February 27, 2021.
A supporter of Tunisia's biggest political party, the Ennahda, chants slogans during a rally in opposition to President Kais Saied, in Tunis, Tunisia on February 27, 2021. (Reuters)

Tens of thousands of supporters of the Tunisia's biggest political party have rallied in the capital in a show of strength that could fuel a dispute between the president and prime minister that has paralysed the government. 

It is the biggest demonstration in Tunisia for years, and party faithful bussed in from across the country chanted "the people want to protect institutions" and "the people want national unity" as they marched in the centre of Tunis.

Ennahda, the biggest and most organised political party in the country, led by Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, has backed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in his standoff with President Kais Saied over a cabinet reshuffle.

The dispute has brought to a head months of wrangling between the three men in Tunisia's latest political crisis since a 2019 election delivered a fragmented parliament while propelling Saied, an independent, to the presidency.

It has played out against a grim backdrop of economic anxiety, angry protests, widespread disillusionment with democracy and competing reform demands from foreign lenders and the powerful labour union as sovereign debt repayments loom.

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'In support of democracy'

Rached Ghannouchi sent a letter to President Kais Saied last week, urging him to call a meeting between the two and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi to discuss ways to end the deadlock over the recent Cabinet reshuffle. 

Political tensions remain high in Tunisia as President Saied refuses to move ahead with the swearing in of new ministers appointed by Mechichi, despite the reshuffle having been approved by parliament in the last week of January.

Saied nominated Mechichi as prime minister last summer when the government collapsed after only five months in office, but the two men soon fell out.

Mechichi then turned for support to the two biggest parties in parliament, Ennahda and jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui's Heart of Tunisia.

Last month, Mechichi changed 11 ministers in a reshuffle seen as replacing allies of Saied with those of Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia. 

The president has refused to swear four of them in, however, saying they had conflicts of interest.

Ennahda billed Saturday's march as "in support of democracy".

Tunisia's 2021 budget forecasts borrowing needs of $7.2 billion (19.5 billion Tunisian dinars), including about $5 billion in foreign loans. 

It puts debt repayments due this year at $5.9 billion (16 billion dinars).

The country's credit rating has fallen since the coronavirus pandemic began and Tunisian credit default swaps, insurance against sovereign debt defaults, have soared in recent weeks, showing market concerns about its ability to raise funds.

However, demands by foreign lenders for long-term cuts in current spending are opposed by the powerful labour union and could lead to painful reductions in state programmes that might further destabilise the government. 

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Source: Reuters