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Kais Saied is taking Tunisia back to one-man rule

A photo taken from Tunisia's national television screen shows President Kais Saied announcing the formation of a new government at the Carthage Palace on October 11, 2021 on the outskirts of the capital Tunis [AFP via Getty Images]
A photo taken from Tunisia's national television screen shows President Kais Saied announcing the formation of a new government at the Carthage Palace on October 11, 2021 on the outskirts of the capital Tunis [AFP via Getty Images]

Tunisia's President Kais Saied announced the dissolution of his country's parliament last week, eight months after freezing the institution, when he "stabbed the Jasmine Revolution in its back" and grabbed the power of most state institutions.

"Today, at this historic moment," said Saied last Wednesday, "I announce the dissolution of the Assembly of Representatives of the People [parliament], to preserve the state and its institutions."

He took this step hours after the parliament held an online plenary session and approved a bill abolishing the president's "exceptional measures". Saied denounced MPs for attempting a "coup" and said that those responsible had "betrayed" the nation.

"This parliament [meeting] was held, and no one knows how it was held while it was frozen," he told the National Security Council in Tunis. "I tell the Tunisian people: feel safe and be assured that the state's institutions are active and there is a nation ready to protect them from those who work as a group, not as a state."

Justice Minister Leila Jeffal asked the Public Prosecutor to open an investigation into the MPs' meeting amidst allegations of "conspiring against state security". The Speaker of Parliament, Rached Ghannouchi, was summoned by the anti-terrorism police on Friday. Dozens of other MPs faced the same humiliation.

This ridiculous drama in Tunisia began on 25 July 2021, when Saied ousted the prime minister and government, froze parliament and stripped MPs of their parliamentarian immunity. Two months later, he declared that he would rule by decree and ignored two chapters of the 2014 Constitution, in preparation for "changing" the political system.

On 29 September, he asked Najla Bouden, a professor of geophysics, to form a government. Tunisian analyst Salah Ad-din Al-Jourshi said that she was chosen by Saied because she had no previous political experience and was thus distanced from his main rival, Ennahda Movement, which has a parliamentary majority.

READ: Tunisian democracy must survive!

Ten days later, Saied abolished the democratically-agreed Constitution, saying that it lacked legitimacy and was invalid. He called for a constitutional referendum to take place in July this year and said that he would appoint a panel of experts to draft a new constitution based on a public online consultation process. The new document, he claimed, will be ready by June. A parliamentary election is supposed to be held by the end of 2022.

In February, he dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council over claims that it had delayed corruption and terrorism rulings. Saied said repeatedly that he would not allow judges to act as if they are a state, instead of being a functional institution of the state. The Supreme Judicial Council is actually an independent and constitutional institution, formed in 2016 with the power to ensure the independence of the judiciary, disciplining judges and granting them professional promotions.

Commenting on the move to close the Council, the president said: "Positions and appointments are sold according to loyalties. Their place is not the place where they sit now, but where the accused stand."

That is the context within which MPs held their online meeting last week. Saied has been criticised by his political opponents, as well as ordinary Tunisians. The US, several Western countries, the UN and international rights groups have called repeatedly for him to return the country to the democratic path, but he insists that he is redeeming Tunisia from the "corrupt" people and "terrorists" who "destroyed" it. In order to preserve democracy, it seems, he first has to destroy it.

Between the overthrow of the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali dictatorship in 2011 and the freezing of parliament in 2021, Ennahda held the majority of parliamentary seats and formed several governments. Due to internal and external pressure aimed at removing it from the political process, though, it could not solve Tunisia's economic and social problems. Saied is very obviously taking Tunisia back to one-man rule.

"All of his measures have concentrated executive power in his hands," explained Izzuddin Abdul Mawla, from Al Jazeera Centre for Studies. "Freezing the parliament, stripping MPs of their immunity, taking up the executive institutions of the state and ruling the country through a government whose head he appointed are enough proof that he is taking the country back to the dark ages."

The Tunisian unions and political factions are against Saied's measures, but are reluctant to stand against him because there is nobody waiting in the wings to replace him, apart from Islamists. In fact, they are the most popular among the Tunisian people and the most organised with the fewest political mistakes.

Tunisia president Kais Saied dissolves top judicial council - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Tunisia president Kais Saied dissolves top judicial council – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

The head of the Free Constitutional Party, Abeer Moussa, was an MP in the dissolved parliament and spared no effort in trying to spoil every parliamentary session because of her hostility to Ennahda, whose leader was the Speaker. Since criticising the dissolution of parliament somewhat coyly, she has gone back into hibernation.

The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the largest union in Tunisia, criticised Saied's measures, but also gave what can be seen as its consent. It ended the hypocrisy and exposed its real stance when Secretary-General Noureddine Taboubi called for Saied to dissolve the parliament and then hailed him when he did so.

With Saied at the helm, the media is under attack, the judiciary is under attack, freedoms are under attack, poverty is increasing, the economy is failing, the healthcare system is breaking down, parliament has been dissolved, state institutions are being destroyed and Tunisia's social fabric is damaged, perhaps beyond repair. And yet Saied claims that he introduced his measures to "preserve" the country and its institutions.

Issam Bargougi MP told Al Jazeera that Saied's measures are a coup against the rule of law. Before the dissolution of the parliament, a military court sentenced Bargougi in absentia for his opposition to the president's measures. "Parliament," he insisted, "is the primary legislative body and has authority over the president, who has abolished the Constitution."

READ: The judiciary in Tunisia is between reform and subjugation

Ghannouchi called Saied's measures "a coup against the constitution and the revolution, as well as public and private liberties in the country." The veteran politician reiterated his movement's position regarding political change and preserving the state, pointing to the power of the people. "The Tunisian people will not accept individual rule again, no matter how hard they try, and will not accept a return to tyranny."

Abdul Mawla said that Saied does not have a political programme. One month before the dissolution of parliament, former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki said that Saied was not part of the revolution, so is not interested in preserving it and its achievements. If he is not from the revolution, how and why did the revolutionaries help to elect him?

According to Abdul Mawla, Saied came from an "ambiguous place." He told Al Jazeera last month that Saied's brother, the head of his electoral campaign, and the people who run the social media groups which promoted him are all connected to France and other foreign powers. "Some of them live in France, the UAE and Asian countries," he pointed out. These people could deceive the Tunisians and even Ennahda when it asked its supporters to vote for him in the second round of the presidential election that brought Saied to power.

He may have been a professor of constitutional law, but Saied is lying to the Tunisians by claiming that chapter 80 of the Constitution gives him the power to dissolve parliament. According to Abdul Mawla, it does not give him any power to oust the government, freeze or dissolve the parliament or oust the Supreme Judicial Council. With less than 10 per cent of the public participating in his online "consultation" process, and ignoring all state institutions to concentrate power in his own hands, Kais Saied is clearly taking Tunisia back to the era of one-man rule. A new dictatorship looms.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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