Tunisia's constitution can be changed, says president

Kais Saied announces he will form a new government 'as soon as possible' but gives no timeline

President Kais Saied has said he will press ahead with changing Tunisia's constitution, despite growing discontent from powerful unions and opposition parties.

Seven weeks after he dismissed the government and froze parliament on July 25, he told Sky News Arabia as he walked through central Tunis that he would form a new government “as soon as possible” by selecting “the people with the most integrity".

In a short statement from Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the city's main thoroughfare, the president confirmed he was not deviating from his plans to change the political system and deliver the “will of the people".

“I will continue on the same path,” he said. “I respect the constitution but it can be changed.”

He said the charter was “not eternal” and that “the Tunisian people rejected the constitution”.

Hours before Mr Saied’s walk along Avenue Habib Bourguiba, a man set himself on fire outside the Interior Ministry, later dying of his burns — the second such incident in recent days.

The act recalled street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation on December 17, 2010, which sparked the Tunisian revolution and the Arab uprisings.

Last week one of Mr Saied's advisers, Walid Hajjem, said that the president was planning to suspend the 2014 constitution and offer his own version via a referendum.

The president, a former law professor elected in late 2019, has billed himself as a constitutional expert. But Mr Said is facing growing opposition, with both the powerful General Tunisian Worker's Union (UGTT) and the Parliament's largest political party, Ennahda, issuing statements signalling opposition to any attempt to suspend or amend the constitution.

While the UGTT backed the idea of reforms, it implicitly rejected the president’s suggestions and called for legislative elections to allow a new parliament to debate the constitution and change the political system “with political sensitivity and in the context of legitimacy".

UGTT Secretary General Noureddine Taboubi told TAP news “there will be no room for the pre-July 25 landscape.” He affirmed his million-member organisation's support for reforms, but stressed that Tunisia needed a government in place to deal with both internal and external affairs. This is something Mr Saied has yet to achieve seven weeks after assuming sole power.

Ennahda also rejected the idea of a referendum. It said in a statement that such a move “will inevitably lead the regime to a loss of legitimacy, a return to individual rule, a retreat from all democratic gains, guarantees of freedoms and human rights".

A number of smaller parties, some of which initially supported Mr Saied's move, have also come out against a potential referendum. As well as opposition at home, Mr Saied faces pressure from external allies, many of whom are key donors supporting Tunisia's troubled finances, to reveal his plans and name a prime minister.

After a recent visit for talks with Mr Saied, US Senator Chris Murphy floated the possibility of cutting aid to Tunisia if the president does not swiftly form a government.

“I made it clear to the president that it’s much harder for the United States Congress to continue to deliver aid to Tunisia if this crisis continues,” Mr Murphy said on a press call following the visit.

EU High Representative of Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, who met Mr Saied on Thursday, conveyed the EU's “apprehensions regarding the preservation of the democratic experience in Tunisia,” according to a statement. He urged Mr Saied to “lead the country towards the restoration of institutional stability while preserving [its] democratic foundations”.

Updated: September 12th 2021, 10:18 AM
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