Tunisian president hits back at constitution critics as allies abandon ship

Core members of the constitutional drafting committee have criticised the president for 'dangerous' changes made to draft

Former allies of the president have criticised his proposed version of the constitution. Erin Clare Brown / The National
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A conflict between Tunisia's President Kais Saied and those who helped draft his proposed constitution is brewing before Tunisian citizens choose to adopt or reject the new laws in a referendum on July 25.

Mr Saied rebuffed criticism of the constitution in a statement published early on Tuesday on the presidency's Facebook page.

One of the critics, Sadok Belaid, had been the president's primary support and close ally for months. The octogenarian legal scholar was charged by Mr Saied with steering the drafting of the constitution.

In media interviews, he spoke of the project and the president in glowing terms — even as prominent members of Tunisian civil society, including the largest labour union, refused invitations to participate in dialogue sessions that would inform the drafting.

He derided detractors who questioned whether the committee was independent or meant to rubber stamp the president's dictates.

On June 20, the presidency released photos of Mr Belaid presenting to the president the draft of the constitution, which he and a close circle of four other legal scholars had composed after dialogue and advisory sessions had concluded.

Ten days later, Mr Saied published a draft of the proposed constitution in the Official Gazette. It was a far cry from what had been handed over, Mr Belaid said, with presidential power unchecked and rights diminished.

Now he and others on the drafting committee are disavowing the document and distancing themselves from the president. They are calling on their fellow Tunisians to reject the constitution in the upcoming referendum, while Mr Saied has labelled them “traitors”.

Sadok Belaid, head of Tunisia’s constitution committee, left, submitting a draft of the new constitution to President Kais Saied at Carthage Palace in Tunis. AFP

In an interview with French newspaper Le Monde, Mr Belaid said Mr Saied was “out of touch” with critical issues in the country.

He said Mr Saied “does not understand anything about current affairs, or the current disease of the country, which is economic, social, cultural and ecological. It is not a political disease.”

Large sections of the committee's draft, which Mr Belaid published in full in the Assabeh newspaper on Sunday, dealt with the country's socioeconomic problems, something many in Tunisia felt the 2014 constitution lacked. Mr Saied's version omitted them.

Ibrahim Bouderbela, another of the men who composed the draft alongside Mr Belaid, told The National that “while there were intersections with our draft, the socioeconomic component isn't there”.

Mr Belaid and others say Mr Saied augmented some sections to benefit the executive branch. Checks on the presidency, including from the legislative and judicial branches of government, were eliminated, and an article similar to the one Mr Saied used to justify his own takeover last July would allow the president to rule indefinitely if a state of emergency were declared.

'Big blow' to guarantees of freedoms

Mr Belaid told Assabeh the alterations were “dangerous” and could lead to “a disgraceful dictatorial regime”.

Gains made after the 2011 revolution, particularly regarding human rights and guaranteed freedoms, are also vulnerable, said Amine Mahfoudh, a third member of the core group of five drafters denouncing the new version of the document.

“He maintained 90 per cent of what we suggested for the rights and freedoms section, but that's only in terms of quantity,” Mr Mahfoudh told local radio Shems FM. “But there was a big blow to the guarantees for these freedoms,” he said, referring to a clause that enables the curtailing of rights if they offend “public morals”.

“That will target every free breath in the country.”

Mr Saied hit out at the criticism in his Facebook post on Tuesday.

“The draft proposed to you is the soul of the revolution and soul of the correction path,” he said.

“Those who persist with slander and allege that the constitution draft paves the way for the return to authoritarianism, do so without making the effort to look at all its articles — neither at the composition of the constitutional court nor the right of the council to question the government or the right to run for presidency only once.”

He said his proposed constitution “does not target in any ways rights and freedoms,” and that creating a national council for regions and districts “will allow everybody to participate in the decision-making process”.

The sharp reversal from the drafting committee has cooled some Tunisians' enthusiasm for Mr Saied's project.

Samir, who voted for Mr Saied in 2019 and was cautiously optimistic after his takeover last summer, said the lack of support concerned him.

“Hearing from the drafting committee like this is absolutely impacting public opinion,” he said. “You couldn't find a copy of Assabeh on news stands yesterday — everyone had bought them out to see what Mr Belaid had said and to see his version of the constitution.”

Hamdi, who had also previously supported the president, pointed out that Mr Belaid and the others — whom many saw as respected, trustworthy scholars — had lent legitimacy to the drafting process.

“Their decision to participate was influential in getting people to support the process,” he said. “And now, their rejection of it matters.”

Updated: July 05, 2022, 9:20 AM