After Saied suspends parts of the constitution, Tunisians worry what comes next

'If you remove Parliament, you remove the authority of the people'

Tunisians are worried for the future of their hard-won democracy. Erin Clare Brown / The National
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On the night of July 25, Chaima Jebali and Yosra Bedhyef felt a rush of excitement when Tunisia's President Kais Saied took the bold step to sack the country's ineffective government and freeze Parliament, effectively pumping the breaks on a political crisis more than a year in the making.

The law students said their initial response was hope that Mr Saied would steer the country in a brighter direction. But when he failed to appoint a new government or present a plan, doubt began to set in.

“There were things we were happy about in the beginning,” said Ms Jebali, 26, “but we also had our reservations. Now those doubts and hesitancies have been realised".

On Wednesday, Mr Saied issued a presidential decree that suspended much of the country's constitution, effectively sacked Parliament and placed even more power in his own hands.

“I was shocked,” said Ms Jebali who studied under Mr Saied when he was an assistant constitutional law professor at the distinguished University of Carthage Law School before his election in 2019.

“He often talked about revamping the electoral law,” said Ms Bedhyef, who took two terms of constitutional law with Mr Saied, “but he never suggested suspending the constitution. What he's doing now has nothing to do with the law".

Ms Bedhyef and Ms Jebali are part of a growing chorus of Tunisians expressing their concern over Mr Saied's objectives and about what may lay ahead for them and their country.

"We cannot go back to the broken system we had before July 25," said Ms Bedhyef, "but we have to maintain citizens' rights."

The president has taken every occasion to insist that his actions on July 25 and afterward are within the bounds of the constitution.

With his latest move, the question of constitutionality has been made moot: under the new presidential order, any part of the constitution that conflicts with Mr Saied's emergency measures is suspended. The order also eliminates any legal route to challenge presidential decrees going forward.

“What gives him the right to suspend the constitution?” asked Sarhan, who works at the Ministry of Justice and only gave his first name as he was not authorised to speak to the press.

“If you remove the Parliament, you remove the authority of the people.”

Sarhan said Mr Saied's actions placed many public sector workers in a precarious situation. “After the 25th of July, everything ground to a halt. Without a government it isn't clear who is making decisions, or how the ministries will function. We can't do our jobs.”

More than the struggles at work, Sarhan said it was the economy he is worried about.

“Our concern as Tunisians isn't politics — it is where our next paycheck will come from. We need to change the economic model.”

Many Tunisians backed Mr Saied's consolidation of power in July for precisely those economic reasons — high unemployment, inequality, poverty — that drove many to the streets during the January 2011 revolution.

Most trusted the president would deliver solutions for those struggling to stay afloat in an economy in free fall.

“The people who were ruling us for the past 10 years were just starving us,” said Shedly, 71, who said he supports a family of 8 on his 180 dinar ($64) pension each month. “We needed a decision to fix things.”

Mr Saied has yet to put forward an economic plan that could tackle the country's colossal public debt and avoid an impending default this autumn.

Pressure from allies, including the G7 group of industrialised nations and the US has increased and a deal for a nearly $5 billion loan from the IMF has stalled.

In recent weeks, Chris Murphy, a US senator, floated the possibility of cutting aid if Mr Saied refused to return to a democratic path.

“Saied is a God-fearing man,” Shedly said, and added that he still expects the president can deliver for the working poor.

Others are less optimistic. Jawher, 28, was among the president's supporters celebrating on the streets the night of July 25, hopeful that Mr Saied would steer the country back on course and put his life back on track in the process.

But in the seven weeks since July 25, Jawher's enthusiasm has soured as little has changed in his life.

He had hoped to receive government funding for those in poor social conditions, a 300 dinar ($107) stipend that he said “would make all the difference in how I live”. But the registration website hasn’t worked, he said, and he hadn't been able to collect his payment.

“Everything is just as broken as it was before,” he said.

Updated: September 23, 2021, 10:08 PM