Thousands of Tunisians protest against Saied's suspension of constitution

Sunday marked the first major demonstrations against the president since he suspended Parliament in July

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Thousands of Tunisians gathered on Habib Bourguiba avenue in the capital Tunis on Sunday afternoon to protest against President Kais Saied, days after he suspended much of the constitution to further consolidate power.

Shouts of “degage” – “get out” in French – rose from the crowd. This was the cry used by protesters when former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was pushed from power in 2011.

Other revolutionary slogans were retrofitted for the moment. “Work, freedom and national dignity” a common demand at protests since 2010, was transformed to “constitution, freedom and national dignity”.

Mr Saied's move to suspend Parliament in July was welcomed by many Tunisians who were tired of corruption and a lack of economic stability. But in the two months since, he has yet to install a government, reveal a roadmap or make headway on corruption charges he promised to bring before the judiciary.

Sunday's protest, which was the first major action against Mr Saied since his consolidation of power, marked a major shift in public sentiment towards the president.

Protester Meriem, 23, said she had been enthusiastic about Mr Saied when he ran for office in 2019, but his recent moves had left her worried about the future of democracy.

“Since day one, the only thing he wanted was to change the regime in Tunisia – and I’m not against that – but he should do it through the conventional ways of changing laws and changing the regime,” she said. “His way threatens our democracy and threatens our transition in Tunisia.”

Police in riot gear blocked off the street early, but crowds streamed through back alleyways to join the 3,500-strong demonstrators. Savvy salesmen hawked Tunisian and Palestinian flags, and men passed through the crowd handing out dates to protesters wilting in the heat and humidity.

Moez Baklouti, 55, a sports management instructor from the working-class neighbourhood of Bab Souika, said he had come to voice his opposition to Mr Saied’s suspension of the constitution.

“It takes time to achieve the long-term goals of democracy and we cannot discount the work we've already done,” he said.

He believed people were largely satisfied with the constitution, but what they really wanted was economic solvency.

“Political independence means nothing if we don’t have economic independence,” Mr Baklouti said.

Tunisia's economy has long suffered from high levels of unemployment and poverty – a trend exacerbated by the pandemic. The government must repay a $2 billion loan to foreign backers in November or risk default, but since Mr Saied assumed sole power, talks with the International Monetary Fund for a loan package to help repay the debt have stalled.

Ayed Kamira, 53, said the country needed political reforms, but he did not trust Mr Saied to change the constitution for the better.

“He broke his oath to defend the constitution and to be the president for all people,” Mr Kamira said.

“The 2014 constitution was made by consensus, with the input of so many parts of the society.”

Since the week following his consolidation of power, Mr Saied has refused to meet political parties, civil society organisations or the country's powerful unions to discuss a way out of the political crisis. In past statements, he has called for the dissolution of both civil society organisations and political parties.

I cannot tolerate one person taking ultimate control
Protestor Moufida Rakhmani

Sunday's protest was the first for Moufida Rakhmani, 48. She said as a law student in the years under Ben Ali, she “could have never imagined a political system with a separation of powers”, and came to the protest to defend that system.

“I cannot tolerate one person taking ultimate control – even the Prophet had the Shura [consultative] council,” she said.

A small group of Mr Saied's supporters attended the demonstration and police separated the two camps.

“We support Saied because he declared war against a corrupt political class,” a man who only gave his name as Ahmed told Reuters.

On Saturday, another group of around 50 pro-Saied demonstrators met on the steps of the national theatre to voice their support for the president's recent moves. They burnt copies of the 2014 constitution, which passed the constituent assembly with near-unanimous support.

At Sunday's protest, engineer Mohamed Amine Ben Yahia, 43, said the Tunisian people did not have a problem with the constitution.

“They’re worried whether they’ll get paid at the end of the month. A new constitution won’t solve that problem,” he said.

“We are attached to the democratic process and want it to continue.”

Updated: September 26, 2021, 8:02 PM