Tunisian president takeover sparks fears for freedoms

Tunisian president takeover sparks fears for freedoms
With the deadline on his month-long suspension of parliament looming, President Kais Saied is expected to address the nation in the coming days to announce his future moves.
4 min read
Tunisian President Kais Saied sacked his government and suspended parliament in recent weeks [Getty]

Concern is mounting over freedoms in Tunisia as President Kais Saied presses ahead with a "purge" that has seen politicians, judges and businessmen arrested or banned from travel, activists say.

On 25 July, Saied sacked the government and suspended parliament for one month citing powers he says were granted by the constitution, but he has yet to reveal a "roadmap" for his decisions despite repeated demands by political parties.

Saied's shock move has sparked uncertainties for Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began a decade ago, setting in motion pro-democracy revolts across the region that unseated autocratic leaders.

Tunisia, hailed as a rare democratic success story in the Middle East and North Africa, is mired in a political crisis compounded by dire economic woes and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Several politicians, businessmen and judges, as well as members of parliament – who lost their immunity after Saied suspended the legislature – have said they were banned from travelling abroad or put under house arrest without prior warning.

Their claims have sparked a chorus of condemnation, with critics denouncing "arbitrary" and "unjustified" measures.

But Saied offered a stiff response to his critics during a recent visit to the Tunis-Carthage International Airport.

"The freedom to travel is a constitutional right which I promise to guarantee," he said.

"But some people will have to answer to the judicial authorities before being able to travel".

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'Constitution violated'

Saied insists that his actions are guaranteed by Article 80 of the constitution, which stipulates that the head of state can take "exceptional measures" in case of an "imminent danger" to national security.

Constitutional law professor Salsabil Klibi believes the terms of the controversial article "are more dangerous for rights and freedoms than a state of emergency".

"It implies the suspension of rights and freedoms and other guarantees linked to them," she said.

Sana Ben Achour, a professor specialising in public law, was among many Saied critics who had accused the president of staging a "coup".

The president's measures "violate the constitution", she said.

"He holds power and, as far as he is concerned, he is the only one capable of interpreting the constitution," she said.

By doing so, he is effectively holding all power in his hands, Ben Achour told local media outlets.

Saied was a political newcomer before he won a landslide election victory in 2019.

He was propelled to power amid growing frustrations at the failure of the political elite since the 2011 revolt.

A legal academic who lectured at the Tunis faculty of judicial and political sciences, Saied had from the onset declared his determination to revamp the political system through his views of the law.

'Authoritarian drift'

A group of 45 judges have penned a joint statement in recent days, denouncing Saied's travel bans as "authoritarian drift".

They also condemned what they called "the awful and unprecedented" moves by the president to bar judges from travelling in and out of the country.

Saied's nemesis, the Islamist-inspired Ennahda party – the largest bloc in parliament – said one of their leaders, Anouar Maarouf, was among those held under house arrest.

The opposition Democratic Current party also accused authorities of barring one of its deputies from travelling to France.

Like Ennahda, the party said the move was arbitrary and did not rest on any "judicial decision".

On Friday night, the former head of Tunisia's anti-corruption body, Chawki Tabib, said he had been ordered under house arrest.

A former head of Tunisia's bar association, Tabib said in a Facebook post that the move was "a flagrant violation" of his rights as guaranteed by the constitution.

30-day deadline looms

I Watch, a Tunisian non-government group that battles corruption, said at least 14 members of parliament face legal proceedings or have been sentenced over a range of crimes.

Among the MPs is Yassine Ayari, who was found guilty by a military court in 2018 of criticising the army, and Faycal Tebbini, sentenced in a libel case.

Media outlets have also been targeted since Saied's shock July measures, including Al Jazeera television.

The Qatari broadcaster was shut by police in the Tunisian capital and the keys to the premises confiscated. No reason was given for the closure.

With the deadline on his month-long suspension of parliament looming, Saied is expected to address the nation in the coming days to announce his future moves.

According to Ben Achour, he is expected to extend the suspension of parliament which is tantamount to suspending the constitution.

"And this can go on for years," she said.