Tunis – Opponents of Tunisian President Kais Saied on Tuesday 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 evening ruled out walking back his move in the summer to sack the government, freeze the legislature and seize wide-ranging executive powers.
Speaking on television, the former constitutional law professor announced an 11-week “popular consultation” with the Tunisian people to produce “draft constitutional and other reforms” to be put to referendum on July 25 next year.
That will mark a year since his power grab, which came as the North African country wallowed 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.
The president said on Monday that parliament would remain suspended until new elections on December 17 next year, the anniversary of the start of the revolution that chased dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power.
That effectively dissolved the current assembly dominated by his nemesis, the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party which had played a central role in Tunisian politics since Ben Ali’s fall.
While many Tunisians, tired of a parliament and political parties seen as dysfunctional and corrupt, welcomed Saied’s moves, he has also faced growing opposition in the form of street demonstrations and pressure from abroad.
The envoys of the G7 democratic, developed economies plus the European Union had urged Tunisia on Friday to respect “fundamental freedoms” and set a timeline for a return to democratic institutions.
‘I am the state’
Political analyst Slaheddine Jourchi said Saied had “tried to pull the rug from under his rivals’ feet by laying out a timeline”.
But he was “determined to push through his political project to the end” despite bitter opposition from political parties and pressure from world powers, Jourchi added.
On Tuesday, opponents lashed out at Saied, accusing him of seeking to extend his one-man rule and remake the political system without involving other actors.
Former MP Hichem Ajbouni wrote on Facebook that Saied’s speech boiled down to: “I am the state, I am the president, I am the government, I am the parliament, I am the judiciary – and everyone who opposes me is either hungry for power, a liar, a traitor, a thief, an agent, or ignorant.”
Saied had announced a nationwide consultation on constitutional reforms would be launched on January 1, via electronic platforms created for the purpose.
The proposals would then be examined by a committee of experts appointed by the president, before being put to referendum.
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, neither his supporters nor his opponents,” he added in an interview with the daily Assabah.
But Jourchi said developments would depend on how the Tunisian 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 percent 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.
Saied, who seized control of the judiciary in July, has pushed judges to investigate allegations of foreign financing for parliamentary campaigns during 2019 elections.
“The big problem lies in the fact that he is continuing to rule by decree,” Jourchi said.
“His political conflict with his opponents will escalate and tensions will remain.”
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