Tunisians rise up against ongoing state of exception two months since President Kais Saied seized governing powers amidst mounting frustration at the absence of a new government and worries over authoritarian ruling.
TUNIS -- Tunisian President Kais Saied named today Najla Bouden Romdhane as prime minister and tasked her with forming a government in a move to lead the country out of its political crisis.
But her role as head of government will be marginal since she will be restricted from exercising powers while Saied will keep emergency executive powers.
One week ago, the president said he would rule by decree, which triggered large protests during the week-end.
Some 2-3,000 people rallied in the centre of Tunis on September 26 in protest against Kais Saied’s power grab on July 25 when he sacked the prime minister, suspended the parliament, and assumed executive authority in the country.
Demonstrators gathered in front of the National Theatre, under heavy police presence, waving the Tunisian flag, holding copies of the 2014 constitution and calling on the president to step down.
The crowd chanted slogans like "Constitution, Freedom, National Dignity", “The People Demand the President be Removed". Some of the signs raised read “Fall of the Coup”, “Save our Democracy” and “We are Against Dictatorship”.
“The president made this dangerous decision to stop the constitution”, said Chihab Bargaoui in the midst of the loud multitude and the scorching heat, “we cannot let one person decide and go against the will of the people”.
Speaking to TRT World, Bargaui, who was among the protesters, urged the return to the constitutional order and “national dialogue” with the participation of all organisations and political parties to get the country off the current impasse.
“Saied betrayed us. He deviated from the constitution and went off the right path”, uttered Najet, a woman who only gave her first name. She joined the protest along with her family, insisting that a democratic system must stay in place in order to ensure the balance of power, and allow discussion between all parties in seeking solutions to problems of national interest.
Mohammed Gaidi travelled from the Beja governorate with a group of protesters to show his opposition to Saied’s moves.
“This president rejects dialogue within Tunisia as much as with foreign partners. He doesn’t listen and doesn’t talk”, he criticised, “we are clearly against the situation we were in before 25 July, but we can’t move on in this state of exception”.
“Saied is isolated internally and externally, he’s finished”, Gaidi told TRT World. “Kais Saied, out! out!”, he voiced his anger.
“A coup against the constitution”
Sunday’s demonstration was the second since the Tunisian president stepped in after using a highly contentious reading of the constitution that enabled him to implement a 30-day exceptional period in the face of national emergency. Opponents condemned his move as a “coup”.
Last Monday, President Saied delivered a televised speech during his surprise visit to Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of Tunisian’s 2011 revolution revolt that toppled the Ben Ali regime. He vowed to appoint a new head of government however said the emergency measures he had decreed in July will remain in place.
"There is no question of going back on the decisions of 25 July," the president said in his national address assuring that these measures "have come to save the country from an imminent danger."
He also announced that new transitional rules had been introduced to govern for the current period, and that he would draw up a new electoral law which signalled possible preparations for elections to replace the now frozen parliament.
The TV address seemingly generated more questions than answers, with growing unease in the Tunisian public since the head of state extended his full authority indefinitely a month ago.
If that was an anticipation of new rulings arguably aimed at turning the balance of power in favour of Saied, new measures laid out in a presidential decree last Wednesday served to cement his accumulation of power, essentially giving him almost unlimited power.
The provisions, which were released via a communique published on the Presidency’s Facebook page allow him to continue suspending the parliament’s activities with the immunity of its members still lifted, and also to freeze their salaries.
In the parliament’s absence, he grants himself the power to rule by decree, appoint the cabinet and set its policy direction.
The order partially suspends the 2014 Constitution whereby the clauses of the existing charter that are not in conflict with the extraordinary measures are still in force whilst all the other articles will be ignored.
Also, the president would draft amendments on political reforms to the constitution with the assistance of a committee that he will set up. The commission to review the constitutionality of laws was abolished, instead, meaning no oversight.
Long-ruling Muslim Ennahdha, the largest party in parliament promptly rejected Saied’s announcements. Its leader Rached Ghannouchi stated that the chief of state has effectively “cancelled the constitution”.
The next day, Attayar, Afek, Al Jomhouri and Ettakatol parties said in a joint statement that the decree is a “coup against the constitution” and the president “has lost his legitimacy by breaching the constitution”.
Earlier this month, one of Saied’s advisers told the media that he was planning to suspend the constitution and put up a new one for public referendum, drawing criticism from Tunisia’s powerful labour union (UGTT) and political parties.
Yet, Saied insists his actions have been constitutional and has promised to uphold the rights of Tunisians.
“Kais Saied is still quite popular and is viewed as a figure with great integrity, so many Tunisians would take his pronouncements of support for democratic values seriously”, Nate Grubman, a teaching fellow in Civic, Liberal and Global Education at Stanford University, said to TRT World. “But as of now a lot of powers are in one man’s hands, and that should be concerning for democracy”, he continued.
Grubman noted that one cannot discount the possibility that the president could be using these (supposedly) temporary measures to create a new non-democratic regime subsequently.
“It’s not okay for him to announce a bunch of measures without telling us what he plans to do and how. As citizens, we have the right to examine and debate”, Nadia Chabaane, a member of the political bureau of the centre-left Al Massar party told TRT World, “there has to be a dialogue with all parts of the Tunisian society”.
”It’s everyone’s business, not one man’s business”, the Tunisian politician said adamantly. She believes the head of state envisages to pursue his own project of changing the political system while taking advantage of the exceptional period. “We need to see a transparent, participatory process”, she demanded.
Chabaane also maintained that the 2014 Constitution, which many Tunisians fought hard to achieve with near unanimous support, should not be the discussion topic as if amending the code would resolve the country’s problems.
“Let’s take on core questions like fighting corruption and changing the economic system”, she pointed out, “people are growing worried about how the socio-economic woes are going to be addressed”.
Saied’s broadly popular intervention in July came in the midst of years-long economic decline and political paralysis, compounded by a severe public health crisis since the Covid-19 outbreak.
But with the passing of the weeks, an increasing number of Tunisians have turned frustrated at the lack of clarity on Saied’s plans and the absence of a prime minister amid growing pressure from Tunisian political and civil society figures as well as from western donors to withdraw his exceptional measures.
Two months on, the president has yet to name a new government or offer a long-term plan of action. Nor has he put any time limit on his seizure of power.