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Is Kais Saied a popular dictator or a misunderstood reformist? 

Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia on 21 July 2022 [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]
Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia on 21 July 2022 [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]

It is not unusual for presidents in the third world to write their own constitutions, once in power. They commonly do so to extend their presidency or make way for their preferred successors to take over after they are gone. How do they do it? Simple – once in power, usually through a military coup, the president and his cronies ask specialists to draft a new constitution to replace the existing one. Over the last decade, this has happened in half a dozen countries including Algeria, Egypt, Mali and Tunisia, of course.

The "new Constitution for new republic", as Mr. Saied calls it, went into effect on 16 August, or the day the election commission announced the final results—it became the benchmark for everything to come afterwards.

However, what happened in Tunisia remains to be a unique case of constitutional "reform" for two reasons: one, the President who changed the Constitution was elected with 70 per cent of the votes in 2019 and still popular even today, however diminished that popularity is. And, two, Kais Saied indeed asked experts to draft a new Constitution, but did not like it so he edited the draft himself. He is, after all, a Constitutional Law professor. The irony here is that he was one of the experts who drafted the 2014 Constitution, which he has replaced now.

Despite all efforts and attempts to disrupt Mr. Saied's agenda, the man is marching on while enjoying a unique case of popular support that Tunisia has not seen for decades, if at all. Most politicians and political parties did their utmost to stop the President since he announced his taking over the government on 25 July, 2021. When he dissolved the elected Parliament last March, opposition efforts intensified but their failure is a resounding victory for him, as proved by the latest referendum results.

Spectacularly, the President almost lost the only legal serious challenge to his authority. In mid-June he dismissed 57 judges, accusing them of corruption and support of terrorism by not taking action over terrorism cases. However, on 10 August, the administrative court revoked his decision, effectively reinstating the majority of the dismissed judges. Observers were anxiously waiting for this decision and its potential wider impact, vis-à-vis the President's self proclaimed powers. The case took a new turn when the Ministry of Justice rejected the court decision, meaning the concerned judges will not be allowed to go back to work. The Ministry said the 47 judges reinstated by the administrative court still have to face investigations for other offences.

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Notably, though, the public support for the dismissed judges has been muted, which could mean ordinary Tunisians are siding with their President. But the entire legal fight will not have any effect on the wider issue of democracy in the country. Saied's opponents have been accusing him of orchestrating a coup and that his actions are ushering in a new dictatorship, a decade after the previous president was chased out. Yet, they have failed to score in terms of public support.

For the time being, President Saied marches on with elections on his agenda. A new parliament will be elected on 17 December, along with a new chamber of "regions and districts". This new kind of Lower House is meant to transfer power to the local authorities on certain issues, such as services and municipal authorities. As one way of fighting corruption, Mr. Saied believes that having a stronger local government will make accountability easier and helps control government waste.

Clearly Mr. Saied never believed in the multi-party parliamentarian republic with a ceremonial president. Ever since coming to power in 2019, he has been blaming the bickering among elected officials for much of Tunisia's problems—a fact most ordinary Tunisians experience every day.

Mr. Saied has always believed Tunisia needs a stronger president, accountable almost to nobody. This has been reflected in the new Constitution, which does not provide for any mechanisms to when and how the president can be removed from office. His supporters defend this by saying that he is an honest man, standing to gain nothing from the constitutional "reform". But they seem to ignore the question: what will happen when someone else comes to power?

The President, who is more of secularist, also wants to end Islamists' dominated politics since the 2014 elections. Ennahda Movement, a moderate Islamist party, won most seats in the 2019 elections, making it the biggest party in the now dissolved parliament. The Movement has been accused of serious violations, including having its own secret militia and harbouring of intentions to make Tunisia more of an Islamic state instead of the secularist state it has always been. Ennahda has been scrutinised, and its top leaders are facing a number of legal investigations ranging from money laundering to supporting terrorism. Officially, the Movement itself is yet to be implicated in any court cases. Changing the Constitution might help get rid of it, but it will not be easy.

It all depends on the new election law being drafted by the government and how it would influence the country's different political parties—more than 70 parties were formed after the 2011 revolution. The big question remains to be how the new political game is being shaped, and what role political groups will be playing is yet unclear. Also a Constitution as a legal document, while binding in its interpretation, is more critical in shaping the political landscape in any country, and Tunisia is no exception. President Saied's own interpretation of certain 2014 Constitutional Articles, not the Constitution itself, is the subject of disagreements with his opponents.

In any case, Mr. Saied came to power in the name of the majority in fair elections. Everything he did afterwards has been popular, so far. Accusations against him remain unsubstantiated, but his powers are clear as his popular base has been. The jury is still out on the question: is President Saied paving the way for a new dictatorial regime in the birth place of the "Arab Spring", or is he an honest down- to-earth President, listening to the voices of the majority and tries to do what the majority of people want—by the people for the people? By the December legislative elections, we might know.

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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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