Opposition grows as Kais Saied further consolidates power in Tunisia

Political parties come out against president's suspension of much of the constitution

Many crucial players in Tunisia's political class say Kais Saied, centre, is headed down the path of Tunisia's former dictator, Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, bottom left. Reuters
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Tunisia's political class and civil society reacted with alarm to President Kais Saied's stunning presidential order published on Wednesday that suspends much of the country's constitution and further consolidates power in the president's hands.

The presidential order, which strips parliamentarians of their salaries and protections, essentially sacking the country's legislators, instead empowers Mr Saied to issue “legislative texts” by decree and direct the policy of the nation alone.

Nearly a dozen of Tunisia's political parties from across the political spectrum have come out against the sweeping new measures.

In a joint statement, four centrist parties – Attayar, Al Joumhouri, Ettakatol and Afek Tounes – said the president had "lost his legitimacy" with such a step, and that his new powers effectively “pave the way for a dictatorship that takes us back decades”, but stressed that the country could return neither to the political chaos before Mr Saied's consolidation on July 25, nor to the dictatorship of the Ben Ali era.

Rejecting calls for inclusive dialogue from within Tunisia and from foreign allies, Mr Saied will instead personally oversee the creation of draft amendments to the constitution “in collaboration with a committee that will be established by a presidential decree”.

Qalb Tounes MP Oussama Khlifi criticised the approach. "Saied lost his legitimacy and changed the rules of the game," he told local media on Thursday. "The constitution is clear: there is a constitutional process for amending its provisions. No one has the right to make amendments alone."

The leader of the Tahya Tounes party, Mustapha Ben Ahmed, expressed grave concerns about the future of some of Tunisia's most prized and hard-won rights under such consolidated power in a Facebook post on Thursday.

"If society succumbs to yesterday's earthquake and accepts what has been imposed on it, then education, women, modernity, independence, organisations, parties, associations, rights and freedoms ... have become a mirage.”

The country's largest political party, Ennahda, issued a statement decrying the president's actions as a coup d'etat, a sentiment shared in statements by both Qalb Tounes and the Worker's Party. In its statement, Ennahda warned that "this unilateral course of action by the president will not succeed in solving the economic and social problems facing the country".

Tunisia's economy has struggled for decades and the Covid-19 pandemic thrust it into even more uncertainty. Mr Saied has less than two months to find nearly $4 billion to repay several foreign loans or risk sending the country into default.

Concerns have also been raised by one of the parties that has consistently backed Mr Saied's course of action. Haykel Mekki of the Echaab party declared his trust in Mr Saied but urged him to form a new parliament.

Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, head of the moderate Islamist Ennahda, has spoken out against Mr Saied. Reuters

"There is no democracy without parliament," he said on Express FM.

The country's most powerful civil society organisation, the General Tunisian Worker's Union, or UGTT, issued a statement warning against the "accumulation of powers in the hands of the head of state".

The UGTT said it considered the July 25 move "a historic opportunity to break with a decade that was dominated by failure and stumbling", but that such failure could not be used "as a pretext for bartering between freedom and monopoly of power".

The labour union, which was part of a quartet that won the Nobel Peace Prize for its role in resolving the 2013-2014 political crisis in Tunisia, has called repeatedly for national dialogue in the past year, a proposal the president rejected.

In their statement, they once again invited the president to the table:

"There is no solution to the current crisis other than consultation, partnership and dialogue."

Updated: September 24, 2021, 2:01 PM