Opponents of Tunisian President Kais Saied on Tuesday (14 December) slammed his decision to extend a months-long suspension of parliament, accusing him of dealing another blow to the country’s nascent democracy.
Saied had on Monday vowed to press on with reforms to Tunisia’s political system, months after he sacked the government, froze the legislature and assumed wide-ranging executive powers.
The former law professor announced an 11-week “popular consultation” to produce “draft constitutional and other reforms” ahead of a referendum next 25 July.
That will mark one year since his power grab, which came as the North African country was mired in political and economic crises compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.
Saied had in October moved to rule by decree, escalating fears for the only democracy to have emerged from the 2011 Arab uprisings.
He said on Monday that parliament would remain suspended until new elections on 17 December next year, the anniversary of the start of the revolution that chased dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power.
That further isolated his nemesis, the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party, which has played a central role in Tunisian politics since Ben Ali’s fall.
Many Tunisians, tired of a system seen as dysfunctional and corrupt, welcomed Saied’s moves, but he has also faced growing opposition in the form of demonstrations at home and pressure from abroad.
Tunisia: Opposition leader denounces Kais Saied's 'destructive' policies
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Washington, however, gave a positive response to Saied’s announcement.
“We welcome President Saied’s announcement of a timeline outlining a path for political reform and parliamentary elections and look forward to a reform process that is transparent and inclusive of diverse political and civil society voices,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
The envoys of the G7 powers plus the European Union had urged Tunisia on Friday to set a timetable for a return to democratic institutions.
‘I am the state’
On Tuesday, political analyst Slaheddine Jourchi said Saied was “determined to push through his political project to the end”.
Opponents have accused Saied of seeking to extend his one-man rule and unilaterally rebuild the political system.
Noureddine Taboubi, head of the powerful UGTT trade union, criticised the lack of a vision for tackling the country’s pressing social and economic woes.
“Until when are we going to discuss the constitution? People today have empty stomachs and are getting poorer,” he told journalists in the industrial hub of Sfax.
In a speech to union members, he said the union had supported Saied’s 25 July moves but “we didn’t give (him) a blank cheque”.
Yet some in Tunis welcomed Saied’s latest move.
Nizar ben Ahmida, a 37-year-old teacher, stressed the importance of announcing a timeline.
But he said the president’s speech lacked details on “employment, poverty, marginalisation and prosecution of those who have committed crimes against this country”.
Tunis resident Nidhal said the election date was too far away.
“(Saied) is playing for time. He wants to implement his ideas,” the 35-year-old said.
‘Object of ridicule’
Saied said a consultation on constitutional reforms would be launched on 1 January. These proposals would then be examined by a committee of experts appointed by the president, before being put to referendum.
But former Ennahdha MP Samir Dilou said the idea would “make Tunisia an object of ridicule”.
“Saied’s speech reflects the state of denial in which he lives and his refusal to listen to anyone,” Dilou told the daily Assabah.
Analyst Jourchi said developments would depend on how the public reacts.
“The street isn’t reassured. The economic situation is what concerns the Tunisian public,” he said.
Tunisia faces mounting public debt, inflation, 18% unemployment and stalled negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for its fourth bailout since the revolution.
But the 63-year-old president’s focus has remained firmly on remaking the political system and tackling opponents — primarily Ennahdha — whom he accuses of corruption.
After seizing control of the judiciary in July, he has pushed judges to investigate alleged foreign financing for campaigns during 2019 parliamentary elections.
In Tunisia today, Jourchi said, “the big problem lies in the fact that he is continuing to rule by decree. His political conflict with his opponents will escalate and tensions will remain.”