As the President of Tunisia Adjusts the One-Man Rule, the Opposition is Growing

CAIRO – In the past two months, President Kais Saied of Tunisia ride on widespread popular support at higher tops of power, culminating in a recent announcement that he would essentially rule the country by decree. But he has already begun to face growing opposition, raising uncertainty over Tunisia’s most serious political crisis in a decade as its economy worries about deterioration.

The reprimands came from fierce opponents and former allies, from political parties and from the media, and even from some of the same supporters who applauded in the streets when Mr Saied froze in Parliament, firing the prime minister. at took power on July 25. On Sunday, at least 2,000 protesters in the capital, Tunis, called on Mr Saied to end what they called a “coup,” the first major demonstration against his actions in two months.

A joint statement from four political parties, including one previously close to the president, said Mr Saied was heading towards dictatorship and called on him to end his “extraordinary steps,” which he promised to in the meantime.

“We consider that the president has lost his legitimacy by violating the Constitution,” the country’s powerful general trade union, the UGTT, said in a statement on Friday, warning Mr Saied against thinking of too much power in his hands without dialogue.

Mr. Saied discarded North African democracy, the sole originator the Arab Spring protests yan started in Tunisia and infiltrated the region a decade ago, in continuing deepening doubt.

He said in July that his actions were temporary responses in Tunisia’s economic and health emergencies. But the president has only tightened his grip on power since then, ignoring international and domestic pressure to restore Parliament.

On Wednesday, Mr. Saied’s office announced that he would set up a system whereby he would essentially govern the country by decree, which is beyond the Constitution. It said it would use the power to issue “legislative texts” by decision and elect the cabinet, even though the Constitution makes Parliament responsible for making legislation and empowers the prime minister to appoint a cabinet.

Regarding the Constitution, which was adopted by Tunisians in 2014 after years of thorough consultations and negotiations, the announcement only said that any provisions in the constitution that conflict with Mr. Saied’s new powers are no longer implemented. Only the preface of the first document and the first two chapters, which deal with the guiding principles and rights and freedoms of Tunisia, remain in place.

Mr. Saied’s office said he would oversee the drafting of political fixes and constitutional amendments with the help of a committee he would appoint.

That item specifically got alarm from UGTT, the trade union, which is part of a quartet of groups that awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for the source of national discussion that will help to keep Tunisia’s new democracy alive a political crisis in 2013.

“Amending the Constitution and the electoral law is a matter that concerns all segments of society,” the union statement read on Friday. It called on Mr. Saied to join the talks rather than monopolize the power to change the Constitution.

“There is no solution to the current crisis other than consultancy, partnership and dialogue based on national principles, Tunisian sovereignty, and service,” the union added.

The announcement on Wednesday by the president’s office also said lawmakers would lose salaries and benefits in addition to their safety from prosecution, which Mr. Saied had already removed. Tunisian authorities have arrested five members of Parliament over the past two months, including critics of the president, though one, Yassine Ayari, was released last week.

Other targets include businessmen and judges, some of whom are subject to house arrest, travel bans and asset freezing.

At first, many Tunisians were overjoyed to hear of Mr. Saied’s extraordinary steps. Pinning their hopes for Tunisia’s saving declining economy, overhauled the country’s turbulent politics and dealing with widespread corruption in a president they saw as incorruptible, they removed warnings from Mr. Saied’s political opponents and critics that his actions had been damaged by the dictatorship.

But Mr Saied failed to lay out the long-awaited road map for round the country and raised alarm by refusing to mingle with civilian groups or other politicians to determine a way forward.

After two months without results, dissatisfaction – or at least impatience – with Mr. Saied’s actions began to wane. A small gathering of protesters came out to demonstrate against him earlier this month; thousands more rallied on Sunday in Tunis.

“Emperor Kais, first in his line,” Sarra Grira, a journalist in Tunisia, wrote on Facebook immediately after the announcement that Mr. Saied would become a greater power.

But the real test of Mr. Saied’s popularity is whether he can address the economic hardship that has plagued Tunisia in turmoil. Struggling with high unemployment, declining living standards and widespread poverty that drive thousands of Tunisians to risk migrating across the Mediterranean to Europe each year, the country has no clear prospects for improvement.

Mr. Saied halted negotiations with the International Monetary Fund in a bailout without explaining his economic plans, even as he gained popularity among some Tunisians with measures to force wealthy businessmen accused of corruption. to fund development projects in more difficult regions.

“The wall that Kais is going through and can explode against is the economy,” said Monica Marks, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at New York University Abu Dhabi who studies Tunisia. “Expectations are very high, and he has everything to do with it,” he added.

“Inevitably, there will be a huge chasm between populist expectations, which are higher than they are now, and the reality of what Kais can actually deliver.”

Massinissa Benlakehal contributed reporting from Tunis.

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