Opponents of Tunisian President Kais Saied have slammed the decision to extend a months-long suspension of parliament, accusing him of dealing another blow to the country’s nascent democracy.
On Monday evening, President Saied said parliament would remain suspended until new elections on December 17 next year, the anniversary of the start of the revolution that chased President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power.
He promised to press on with reforms to Tunisia’s political system after he sacked the government, froze the legislature and seized wide-ranging executive powers in July.
The former constitutional law professor announced an 11-week “popular consultation” to produce “draft constitutional and other reforms” before a referendum on July 25 next year.
That will mark a year since his power grab, which came as the North African country wallowed in political and economic crises compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.
In October, Saied had moved to rule by decree, escalating fears for the only democracy to have emerged from the 2011 Arab uprisings.
Monday’s announcement effectively dissolved the current assembly dominated by his nemesis, the Ennahdha party, which has played a central role in Tunisian politics since Ben Ali’s fall.
While many Tunisians welcomed Saied’s moves, he has also faced growing opposition in the form of mass demonstrations at home and pressure from abroad.
On Friday, envoys of the G7 powers plus the European Union had urged Tunisia to set a timeline for a return to democratic institutions.
‘I am the state’
Opponents accused Saied of seeking to extend his one-man rule and unilaterally remake the political system.
Former MP Hichem Ajbouni wrote on Facebook that Saied’s speech boiled down to: “I am the state, I am the president, I am the government, I am the parliament, I am the judiciary – and everyone who opposes me is either hungry for power, a liar, a traitor, a thief, an agent, or ignorant.”
Yet, some in Tunis welcomed Saied’s latest move.
Nizar ben Ahmida, a 37-year-old teacher, stressed the importance of announcing a timeline. But he said the speech lacked details on “employment, poverty, marginalisation and prosecution of those who have committed crimes against this country”.
Tunis resident Nidhal said the election date was too far away.
“[Saied] is playing for time. He wants to implement his ideas,” the 35-year-old said.
Saied said a consultation on constitutional reforms would be launched on January 1 via custom-built electronic platforms.
These proposals would then be examined by a committee of experts appointed by the president, before being put to a referendum.
But former Ennahdha MP Samir Dilou said the idea would “make Tunisia an object of ridicule”.
“Saied’s speech reflects the state of denial in which he lives and his refusal to listen to anyone, neither his supporters nor his opponents,” he told the daily Assabah.
Tunisia faces mounting public debt, inflation, 18 percent unemployment and stalled negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for its fourth bailout since the revolution.
But the 63-year-old president’s focus has remained firmly on remaking the political system and tackling opponents – primarily Ennahdha – whom he accuses of corruption.
After seizing control of the judiciary in July, he has pushed judges to investigate alleged foreign financing for campaigns during the 2019 parliamentary elections.