Troops surrounded Tunisia’s parliament and blocked its speaker from entering on Monday after the president suspended the legislature and fired the prime minister and other top members of government.
The turmoil has sparked concerns for the North African country's young democracy.
In the face of nationwide protests over Tunisia's economic troubles and the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, President Kais Saied decided on Sunday to dismiss several top officials, including the justice and defence ministers.
Some demonstrators cheered the firings, shouting with joy and waving Tunisian flags.
But others accused the president of a power grab, and the country’s overseas allies expressed concern that it might be descending again into autocracy.
In a move sure to fuel those worries, police raided the offices of broadcaster Al-Jazeera and ordered it shut down.
"According to the constitution, I have taken decisions that the situation requires in order to save Tunisia, the state and the Tunisian people," Saied said on Sunday after an emergency meeting with security officials that followed nationwide protests.
"We are going through the most delicate moments in Tunisia's history.
"It is neither a suspension of the Constitution nor a departure from constitutional legitimacy, we are working within the framework of the law," he added.
After Saied's address, people flooded the streets to celebrate.
The Islamist movement Ennahdha, the dominant force in parliament, blasted "a coup d'état against the revolution and against the Constitution" in a statement published on its Facebook page. It stressed that its "supporters (...) and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution".
Earlier on Sunday, thousands of people defied virus restrictions and scorching heat to demonstrate in Tunis and other cities.
The largely young crowds shouted “Get out!” and slogans calling for the dissolution of parliament and early elections.
The protests were called on the 64th anniversary of Tunisia's independence by a new group called the July 25 Movement.
Security forces deployed in force, especially in Tunis where police blockades blocked all streets leading to the main artery of the capital, Avenue Bourguiba.
The avenue was a key site for the Tunisian revolution a decade ago that brought down a dictatorial regime and unleashed the Arab Spring uprisings.
Police also deployed around the parliament, preventing demonstrators from accessing it.
Police used tear gas to disperse some demonstrators throwing projectiles at officers and made several arrests. Clashes also took place in several other towns, notably in Nabeul, Sousse, Kairouan, Sfax and Tozeur.
Protesters also stormed Ennahdha's offices damaging computers and other equipment inside and threw documents onto the streets.
The party denounced the attack, saying that “criminal gangs” from inside and outside Tunisia were trying to “seed chaos and destruction in the service of an agenda aimed at harming the Tunisian democratic process.”
The 2011 revolution ousted the autocrat Zine el Abidine Ben Ali from power, setting Tunisia on the path to democratisation, which it has continued to follow ever since, despite social and security challenges.
But since the arrival in power in 2019 of a fragmented assembly and a fiercely independent president, elected against a backdrop of dissatisfaction with the political class that had been in power since 2011, the country has sunk into particularly intractable political crises
Citizens' frustration is exacerbated by inter-party conflicts in Parliament, and the tug-of-war between the head of Parliament Rached Ghannouchi — also leader of Ennahdha — and President Saied, which paralyses the public authorities.
Many also blame the government for its lack of anticipation and coordination in the face of the health crisis, leaving Tunisia short of oxygen. With nearly 18,000 deaths for 12 million inhabitants, the country has one of the worst official mortality rates in the world in this pandemic.
Tunisia has reimposed lockdowns and other virus restrictions because it’s facing one of Africa’s worst virus outbreaks.
Europeans express concern
In a statement to Euronews, Nabila Massrali, EU spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, said: "We are closely following the latest developments in Tunisia.
"We call on all Tunisian actors to respect the Constitution, its institutions, and the rule of law. We also call on them to remain calm and to avoid any resort to violence in order to preserve the stability of the country."
German Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Adebahr said the government was in discussion with Tunisian authorities about the “worrisome” situation.
“We think it’s important now to return really quickly to the constitutional order,” Adebahr told reporters in Berlin. She stopped short of calling it a coup, but said the Tunisian president appeared to be relying on a “pretty broad interpretation of the constitution” to defend his actions.
France, Tunisia's former colonial ruler, said it counts on “respect for a state of law and the return, as soon as possible, to the normal functioning of institutions.” Paris called on all to avoid violence “and preserve democratic advances.”
Italy, likewise, appealed for respect of the Tunisian Constitution and the rule of law, while Turkey hoped “democratic legitimacy” is soon restored.