Tunisian opposition grows as Kais Saied prepares for referendum on constitution

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A year after Tunisian President Kais Saied’s takeover upended the country’s fledgling democracy forged by the Arab Spring, opposition against him is growing as he prepares for a constitutional referendum to cement his one-man rule .

On July 25, exactly one year after deciding to seize near-total power in what was once the poster child for democratization in the Middle East, Saied will hold a referendum aimed at formalizing his overhaul of the country’s political institutions. The draft new constitution is expected to be unveiled on Wednesday.

The project should propose a system based on a strong president who would appoint the prime minister, according to Reuters. Saied advocated a form of “democracy from below” that empowers the president and local government while weakening parliament and political parties. Critics say such a system would create conditions conducive to authoritarianism.

Saied’s announcement on July 25 last year that he was suspending parliament and firing the prime minister was met at the time with cheers in the streets and support from those who had become disillusioned with the the country’s young democracy.

Democracy prevailed in post-Arab Spring Tunisia. But economic difficulties are fueling discontent.

Many lawmakers in the North African country have blamed failing to deliver the economic and social improvements the people demanded when they took to the streets in December 2010, toppling the dictatorship in early 2011 and sparking revolts in the region that became known as the Arab Spring.

In recent months, however, Saied’s increasingly autocratic approach has faced growing opposition. On June 16, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) staged a general strike in response to planned negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a $4 billion loan in return for implementing unpopular austerity measures. at a time when poor Tunisian families are already pinching pennies to put food on the table.

Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers took part. Flights were cancelled, public transport stopped operating and government offices were closed.

Union leaders were careful to portray the strike as motivated by economic concerns rather than opposition to the president. But it was widely interpreted as a show of force intended to convey that the union “remains a major player in the city”, said Youssef Cherif, a political analyst specializing in North Africa. “They are the only powerful opposition force to President Saied and those who can mobilize the streets to say no.”

As the president has proceeded with his slow regression of Tunisia’s democratic gains, the UGTT – one of four Tunisian civil society groups that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 – appears to be emerging as a bulwark against a return to authoritarianism.

After the Arab Spring uprisings, Tunisia overcame political turbulence and terrorist attacks to adopt a new constitution in 2014 that established a mixed presidential and parliamentary system and enshrined civil liberties. In a region where leaders have little tolerance for dissent, the country of 12 million people has become a place of free speech and political contestation.

The economy, which sparked the initial protests, never improved, however, and unemployment remained high, with many Tunisians believing that the political class – and democracy in general – had not brought a better quality of life. . Last year, a youth-led protest movement branded post-revolution elites corrupt and inept and demanded the dissolution of parliament.

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The moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which has historically won a large number of seats in parliament and is part of the ruling coalition, has been particularly at the center of the protests, but has been accused of failing to solve the country’s problems.

Ennahda leaders acknowledged that Tunisians had legitimate grievances against governance over the previous decade and that the party bore some responsibility. But they have repeatedly defended their commitment to democracy and called for a return to democratic institutions and processes.

Saied, who was elected as an outsider in 2019, escalated his war on the political system in September with the announcement that he would rule by decree.

“For us, it was the moment of a total break between Saied and civil society,” Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesperson for the influential Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights, told the Washington Post. “This decree has created a very authoritarian regime where the president manipulates all powers.”

Saied dismantled state institutions, dissolved parliament and threatened to ban organizations from receiving foreign funding – a ban that “To completely annihilate civil society, or at least the watchdogs of civil society,” said Lamine Benghazi, programs coordinator at Avocats sans frontières.

Rights groups have denounced the arbitrary arrest and detention of opponents of Saied, as well as the use of military courts to prosecute civilians. More recently, former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali was arrested last week on suspicion of money laundering, before a judge ordered his release on Monday.

Tunisia fell 21 places to 94th in the world in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index this year, with the organization warning that “the intimidation of journalists has become normal”.

The moves have raised concerns in the United States, which once applauded Tunisia’s political path. In May, Samantha Power, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the administration’s budget for next year proposed to cut aid to Tunisia because of the “disappointing turns of the current government, repression of civil society, the move away from the rule of law and democratic institutions”.

Saied also attacked the judiciary, unilaterally shutting down a watchdog meant to ensure his independence in February and sacking 57 judges in early June. These dismissals have provoked a strike by judges which has lasted for several weeks.

Yassine Azaza, a human rights lawyer and adviser to the Ministry of Economic and Social Affairs, insisted in an interview with The Post this month that Tunisia is a democracy – because of the Saied regime, not Despite him. Previous governments were corrupt and undemocratic, he alleged, blaming the problems on Islamists, whom he accused, without evidence, of trying to “bring down the state”.

Public opinion on Saied’s actions is difficult to gauge. Thousands of people joined protests organized by rival political movements in Tunis, the capital, the weekend after the strike – a sign of both discontent with Saied and the fractured nature of the opposition. But polls continue to indicate that a majority of Tunisians support the president.

For much of the population, apathy seems to have set in, and apart from the union’s general strike, there have been few mass protests against Saied or the government.

The union could help form a “civil front against the authoritarian drift we are currently experiencing”, said Benghazi of Avocats sans frontières. “There are a lot of hopes on the shoulders of the UGTT at the moment.”

Union leader Noureddine Taboubi told reporters last week that the government had no right to impose austerity measures and had left open the possibility of calling for a boycott of the constitutional referendum. The union also announced on Monday that it would organize a second strike.

“When there is a government produced by institutions and elections, it will have the legitimacy to start negotiations on reforms,” ​​he said, according to Agence France-Presse.

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