Tunisia's President 'Granted Himself Royal Powers,' Critics Charge After New Constitution Plan

A year after seizing control and reshaping the country's democracy, the Tunisian president announced he will put a new constitution to a referendum in July

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Tunisian protesters shout slogans against their president during a protest in Tunis, in May.
Tunisian protesters shout slogans against their president during a protest in Tunis, in May.Credit: FETHI BELAID / AFP

President Kais Saied is trashing Tunisia's democracy with a draft constitution that he announced overnight and will put to a referendum next month, his critics warned on Friday, accusing him of assuming "royal powers."

Saied is reshaping the political system after seizing near total executive control last summer, dismissing the parliament and moving to rule by decree in a move his critics call a coup.

He says the changes are needed to save Tunisia from a prolonged political and economic crisis, and that the new constitution will respect individual freedoms and mark a new Tunisian republic.

Abid Briki, the head of a small party that backs Saied, said his draft constitution would allow people "to breathe and establish a new Tunisia".

However, it gives the president near absolute powers while removing almost all checks on his rule and diluting the roles of the parliament and judiciary, prompting accusations he is undoing the democratic gains that Tunisians won in a 2011 revolution.

The referendum on July 25 does not set a minimum participation level and voters have less than four weeks to decide on a system that will govern their lives.

"The president granted himself royal powers ... the powers of a king," said Mohab Karoui, a director of iWatch, a prominent Tunisian civil society organization that monitors corruption and government abuses.

Imed Khemiri, a senior official from the Islamist Ennahda party that is the largest in parliament and has been most vocal in opposing Saied's moves, described the draft constitution as a "farce."

"It is another strong blow to the path of the revolution and a return to what there was before 2011," he said.

While most main Tunisian political parties, including Ennahda, have already rejected Saied's plans to hold a referendum on a new constitution and have urged a boycott, none of them have yet issued a formal response to the draft.

Sami Tahri, a spokesman for Tunisia's powerful UGTT labor union, said its executive office would meet constitutional law experts, lawyers and formal judges on Saturday to weigh its response.

It has previously indicated it opposes Saied's decision to remake the political system alone and put it to a referendum.

In Tunis' Ibn Khaldoun district, more people seemed concerned about an economic crisis that threatens to bankrupt the state than about Saied's constitution.

Tunisia's President Kais Saied during a visit to France, in June.Credit: Charles Platiau/ REUTERS

When he suddenly seized power last year, the move appeared very popular among Tunisians tired of endless political squabbles while the economy festered.

"Yes, Tunisians want a presidential system ... but first we want to improve the economic conditions," said Salma Aouini, who was shopping in a second-hand clothes market. "I fear the constitution will do nothing for us."

Fayez, a vegetable seller who asked not to disclose his last name, said Saied had used democracy to become a dictator. "No surprise he would tighten his grip on all power," he said.

Even the draft that was originally presented to Saied by lawyers he designated to rewrite the constitution was heavily reworded before its publication last night, said one of them, Ibrahim Bouderbala.

"This is not the constitution we submitted to the president ... the preamble had focused on the economic issues as well as political ones," he said, though adding that other sections remained the same.

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