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Will Tunisia return to democracy?
Tunisia’s President, Kais Saied in September brushed aside most of the 2014 democratic constitution to say he could rule by decree during a period of exceptional measures, and promised a dialogue on further changes.
Critics denounced Saied’s takeover as a coup but the president has consistently defended the move as the only way to end governmental paralysis after years of political squabbling and economic stagnation, compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.
In September, he named Najla Bouden Romdhane, a little-known university engineer who worked with the World Bank, as the country’s first female prime minister, nearly two months after dismissing Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi.
Saied, who has been a sharp critic of the north African country’s 2014 constitution, said that a nationwide public consultation would take place from January 1 until March 20 to gather suggestions for constitutional and other reforms.
Tunisia has effectively left the club of democratic countries after the country’s President assumed executive authority earlier this year, precipitating in a complicated political crisis, a former senior official said on Friday, Anadolu News Agency reports.
In an interview with Anadolu Agency, former Minister of Culture, Mehdi Mabrouk, said that the crisis has escalated and undermined the experience of the democratic transition in the North African country, touted as the only nation that succeeded in doing so after the popular Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.
Since President Kais Saied ousted the government, suspended parliament and assumed executive authority on 25 July, the country has been in the grips of social a rift, said Mabrouk, who is also the Director of the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Tunisia.
“The decline in the level of freedoms in Tunisia,” he argued, citing an “increase in the number of arrests, the trial of civilians before military courts, the suspension of the Constitution by the President, the harassment of the Supreme Judicial Council, the disruption of a number of national bodies, including the Anti-Corruption Authority and the restrictions on demonstrations.”
Opposition of the people
Tunisia’s powerful UGTT union called for early elections on Saturday, saying it was concerned for the country’s democratic gains because of the president’s reluctance to announce a roadmap for political reforms.
UGTT leader Noureddine Taboubi’s comments, in a speech to thousands of his supporters, put more pressure on President Kais Saied, more than four months after he seized all political powers.
“We supported July 25 because it was an opportunity to save the country and implement reforms … but we have become afraid for Tunisians’ democratic gains because of the excessive reluctance to announce a roadmap,” Taboubi said.
He added that the president should call for a dialogue with political parties and national organizations that includes reviewing the electoral law and agreeing on early and transparent elections.
The UGTT union, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 for helping build democracy in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, is a key political player in Tunisia.
Many Tunisians at first embraced Mr. Saied’s actions, and he was hailed as a savior. Yet as the president consolidated greater power over the summer and fall, suspending much of the existing Constitution and granting himself the right to rule by decree, more Tunisians grew disenchanted with his leadership, or at least skeptical of it.
Regular protests against Mr. Saied’s one-man rule sprang up in Tunis, the capital, as the president stayed largely silent on a political road map, failed to deliver much-anticipated economic reforms, arrested political opponents and shut down critical media outlets.
Will democracy return?
Tunisia’s President Kais Saied on Monday extended his months-long suspension of parliament until new elections in December 2022, while calling for a July referendum on constitutional reforms.
In a speech on national television, Saied announced a three-month “popular consultation” with the Tunisian people after which “draft constitutional and other reforms will be put forward to referendum on July 25”.
That will mark a year since he sacked the government, suspended parliament and seized a string of powers, as the North African country wallowed in political and economic crises compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.
Saied later moved to rule by decree, sparking fears for the only democracy to have emerged from the Arab uprisings a decade ago.
On Monday he said that “parliament will remain suspended until new elections… on the basis of a new electoral law” on December 17 next year, the anniversary of the start of the 2011 revolution that chased dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power.
That effectively dissolves the current assembly dominated by his nemesis, the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party which had played a central role in Tunisian politics since Ben Ali’s fall.
Saied’s July 25 moves were initially welcomed by many Tunisians sick of a political elite seen as corrupt and ineffective in dealing with the country’s deep social and political woes.
But he has also faced growing opposition from critics who fear he is seeking to install a new autocracy in Tunisia, the birthplace of the 2011 Arab uprisings.
Saied, a former legal academic elected in 2019, has been a sharp critic of the North African country’s 2014 constitution and frequently hinted in recent weeks that he wants to change it.
The document, which put in place a hybrid presidential and parliamentary system, was seen as a compromise between Ennahdha and its secular rivals.
But many Tunisians see the political system it created as having failed, creating corruption and endless blockages without resolving deep social and economic problems.
Saied, who has faced domestic and international pressure to lay out a roadmap for restoring democratic institutions, on Monday announced a nationwide public consultation from January 1 until March 20.
Wearing a dark suit beside the Tunisian flag, he said “electronic platforms” and direct meetings would be used to gather suggestions for constitutional and other reforms.
A committee will then examine them until June, ahead of a referendum on July 25 — the anniversary the Tunisian republic was declared in 1957, the year after independence from France.
Although the plan by Saied to hold a referendum could be considered as a shift towards democracy, it’s implementation will tell the full story.