Tunisia’s president expands power grab with announcement he will ‘rule by decree’
Tunisia’s president has expanded what critics have described as an audacious power grab that damages the country’s democratic strivings, continuing a months-long series of moves that some worry could unravel gains won in the country’s 2011 revolution.
In a series of "exceptional measures" published in Tunisia’s official gazette late Wednesday, President Kais Saied widened his powers, extended his suspension of the country’s elected parliament and, in an ominous sign of a potentially imminent crackdown, lifted the immunity of speaker Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the moderate Islamist opposition, and other members of parliament.
The measures grant Mr Saied the authority to rule by decree in what critics say amounts to a suspension of the country’s constitution. “Kais Saied is the one, the only one...in charge,’ said a headline in Tunisia’s Business News.
— Tunisian Presidency - الرئاسة التونسية (@TnPresidency) September 22, 2021
Following his announcement, four Tunisian parties said on Thursday President Saied has lost his legitimacy and called for an end to what they called a “coup”
Tunisia’s 2011 revolution was the first in a wave of Arab uprisings against authoritarian rule that swept across the Middle East and North Africa. A decade later, it is the only one considered a relative success. But persistent economic malaise has threatened to unravel any democratic gains.
Mr Saeid, a retired constitutional scholar, was elected president in 2019 as a political outsider independent of the country’s political parties. He suspended Tunisia’s parliament 25 July amid persistent political deadlock and ongoing anti-government protests.
Mr Saied claims he will restore democratic norms once the country gets through its current political impasse. But ominous signs have already emerged. A military court has ordered the arrests of two lawmakers from the Islamist Karama party in part for insulting a military judge.
Mr Saied’s government has also arrested another lawmaker, Lotfi Ali, on corruption charges as part of what appears to be a concerted effort to tie elected officials opposed to Mr Saied to various types of malfeasance.
In a speech on Monday, Mr Saied vigorously defended his moves as a “correctional revolution” to safeguard the gains of the 2011 uprising. “The parliament to which they want to go back became a battleground—an arena for insults, foul language and violence,” he said. “It had been transformed into a market where votes were bought and sold.”
Earlier this month the United Kingdom and United States joined in a statement issued by other developed nations calling on Tunisia to quickly return to “constitutional order, in which an elected parliament plays a significant role.”
Though constitutional scholars and democracy advocates have grown increasingly alarmed over Mr Saied’s moves, they are popular among some Tunisians, especially coastal elites worried about the power of Islamists. Pan-Arab television stations funded by wealthy Arabian Peninsula monarchies have for months cast the country’s elected institutions in a negative light and heightened fears of an Islamist takeover.
None of Mr Saeid’s dramatic measures appear to address Tunisia’s core problems of youth unemployment, lack of foreign investment and staggering public debt.