Tunisia’s president wants more powers

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Tunisian President Kais Saied unveiled a proposed new constitution this week that, if approved, could bring the country closer than ever to a dictatorship led by Saied himself. The text of the constitution will be voted on next July 24 and is expected to pass, also because Saeed has taken control of the electoral authorities and there is no minimum quorum for the draft to be approved.

The proposed constitution grants enormous powers to the office of the president and drastically reduces them to other institutions, such as the government, parliament, and judiciary. Indeed, some analysts have suggested that the new constitution will re-propose a balance of power similar to what existed in Tunisia prior to the 2011 Arab Spring, when protests led to the resignation of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled the country. Since 1987.

Tunisia was the only country affected by the Arab Spring that emerged from that great period of turmoil and protests with a democratic political system. In 2014, after two years of heated debate, political forces reached an agreement to approve a new constitution, which reduced the powers of the president (who was Ben Ali) and increased them to parliament and the judiciary. The 2014 constitution also guarantees the rights of expression, demonstration, and others.

But Tunisian politics was almost immediately very chaotic. At the end of 2019, Saeed, a very conservative jurist and university professor, won the elections promising that he would eradicate corruption and restore serenity to the country, and carry out the necessary reforms to revive the economy.

But from that moment on, Said began to gradually and continuously eliminate the liberties obtained after the Arab Spring. Last year, Said dismissed the prime minister, suspended parliament and sent the army to fortify key government buildings in the capital, Tunis, and imposed a curfew in the city. Large protests had begun, however they were quelled.

In the following months, and again recently, Saied limited the independence of the judiciary by dissolving the Supreme Judicial Council. Several months after the prime minister was dismissed last year, Saeed finally appointed Najla Boden Ramadan, the first woman to hold the position, but in reality she continued to rule alone by decree. In recent months, he has imprisoned several political opponents and dismissed dozens of judges who criticize him.

Protests in Tunis against Said’s constitution proposal on June 18 (EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA)

The proposal for the new constitution was drafted by a group of experts appointed by Saeed personally. Among other things, it gives the president the power to appoint the government and propose laws. The president has the power to sign international treaties, write budget law, and appoint or dismiss ministers and key positions in the judiciary. The president can also dissolve parliament, but there are no accountability mechanisms to impeach him. He could remain in office for two five-year terms, but that could be longer if the country is in imminent danger.

How he don Said Benarbia, regional director for the Middle East at the International Commission of Jurists, a non-governmental organization, the proposed constitution provides for an “all-powerful president, a parliament without powers and an ineffective judiciary.” The main opposition parties, including those who helped write the 2014 constitution, have announced that they will boycott the referendum, and in recent weeks have called for large protests.

Said’s growing authoritarianism has not even helped with economic reforms: Tunisia is in the midst of a very serious crisis, with the government struggling to pay public salaries, and strikes by various classes of workers very frequent. The war in Ukraine, which led to a sharp rise in food prices, made matters even worse. Saeed is trying to get a loan from the International Monetary Fund, but the massive cuts in welfare he will have to make to get a loan is making him less popular.

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