Fears of street clashes in Tunisia as opposition group calls for rallies

President Kais Saied's moves to change the constitution and expand his powers have angered activists

Riot police face demonstrators during a rally against President Kais Saied in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, in November. AFP
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Tunisia’s President Kais Saied is facing growing resistance to his plan to scrap the constitution introduced after a popular uprising that began 11 years ago this month and restored democracy to the country.

The Citizens Against the Coup group has called for countrywide protests from December 17, the date the uprising began, until January 14, the day, in 2011, on which autocratic president Zine El Abedine Ben Ali stepped down.

“Let us all mobilise from all corners of the nation and stand up in memory of the outbreak of the Revolution of Freedom and Dignity,” the group said in statement posted on their Facebook page on Saturday night.

Tunisians had previously celebrated the uprising on January 14, but Mr Saied recently changed the date to December 17, saying the revolution was not yet complete.

On Friday evening, Mr Saied reaffirmed his position rejecting the current constitution.

“We can no longer keep working with this constitution in the coming years as it does not hold any legitimacy any more,” he said, an allusion to the dissolution of Tunisia’s Higher Judicial Council, or Conseil Superieur Magistrature.

The council and Mr Saied have been locked in a bitter struggle since he issued a decree on late September that gave him judicial powers in addition to the executive and legislative powers he claimed after dismissing the government and suspending parliament on July 25.

The CSM is the first public institution to publicly defy Mr Saied, resisting pressure from the president to prosecute the political parties Ennahda and Qalb Tunisie for allegedly using foreign funding in their 2019 election campaigns.

The council plans to meet other civil society actors on Monday to formulate plans to “thwart” Mr Saied’s proposal to dissolve it and “lay his hand on the justice system”, lawyer and former judge Ahmed Souab told public radio on Saturday.

This followed a statement by the CSM’s General Assembly on Friday in which they said they would remain independent and not submit to pressure or decrees.

The council “will remain in session to ensure the proper functioning of the judiciary”, the statement said, and sounded a warning against “any violation of the independence of the judiciary”.

Jaouhar ben Mbarek, a professor of public law at the faculty of juridical sciences at the University of Tunis, told The National that Citizens against the Coup decided to demonstrate on December 17 against Mr Saied because its members see his appropriation of the uprising anniversary as “a symbolic attack”.

Mr ben Mbarek said that “despite internal and international pressures, Mr Saied continues to attack the constitution and continues to take measures that consolidate his coup d’etat and the consolidation of judicial powers into his hands to support his utopian project to change the political system”.

He was also concerned that the president may transfer the responsibility for elections to the Ministry of the Interior.

Earlier this month, Mr Saied dissolved the Ministry for Local Affairs and passed the responsibility of the democratically elected municipalities to the Ministry of the Interior.

Mr ben Mbarek said he was concerned about the safety of protesters.

“Mr Saied has created a violent situation for his political opponents ... the ‘electronic army’ has never stopped attacking us online with every type of threat against individuals and our families.”

He expressed concern that events on December 17 may take a violent turn.

Political commentator and author Amine Snoussi told The National: “We are seeing the close friend of Kais Saied – the law professor Amine Mahfoudh – speaking in the media.

“He went on Mosaique FM [Tunisian radio station] explaining that there will be a new constitution soon and there will be a new referendum coming soon.”

Mr Snoussi also believed that violent clashes were a distinct possibility at next Friday’s celebrations.

Looking beyond December 17, he said: “I think what will come next will be more uncertainty and more doubt.

“Mr Saied is losing the popular vote and he is not fit to write a constitution. He is trying to impose his ideals of local democracy and local constitutions, which is not possible in Tunisia.”

Updated: December 12, 2021, 1:39 PM