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Fending off 'coup' claims, Tunisian president announces anti-corruption drive

Tunisian President Kais Saied has overwhelming public support after ousting the government, but critics warn against a return to authoritarianism.
Tunisian military forces guard the area around the parliament building, following protests in reaction to a move by the president last night to suspend the parliament and dismiss the prime minister, Tunis, Tunisia, July 26, 2021.

TUNIS - Tunisian President Kais Saied has pledged he will not become a dictator as he shores up support after ousting the government and takes aim at "corrupt" politicians.

"I know the constitutional texts very well, respect them and taught them and after all this time I will not turn into a dictator as some have said," Saied stated. 

On July 25, the 63-year old former law professor fired the premier, suspended the legislature for 30 days and stripped parliamentarians of their immunity, in a move slammed by his rivals as a "coup" and denounced by many legal experts as unconstitutional.

The president later moved to dismiss other top officials, including the acting justice minister and military prosecutor, while assuming executive and judicial powers. On July 29, Saied tapped Ridha Garsalaoui, a former national security adviser, as interim interior minister, but he has yet to name a new prime minister or fill other high-level positions. 

On Friday, independent MP Yassine Ayari was jailed on a three-year old judicial ruling for “defaming the military high command,” while Maher Zid of the far-right Karama party was arrested on similar charges from the same time. More than a dozen other lawmakers also have pending charges against them and could be pursued by Tunisian courts. 

Much of the country has sided with Saied, a political outsider with no party backing, in what they feel is a needed overhaul of the system. They are incensed by years of political wrangling and alleged corrupt dealings by established elites, and feel he is the man to put them in check. Deepening economic strife amid one of the worst pandemic outbreaks in the region has only reinforced this conviction.

"Ruling elites all share the responsibility for the crisis,” Aymen Bessalah, an advocacy and policy analyst for independent democracy watchdog Al Bawsala, told Al-Monitor. “It is the result of years and years of successive government choices and policies that did not serve the public.”

According to a poll released by North African research firm Emrhod Consulting, a staggering 87% of Tunisians support the president's recent actions, while only 3% oppose.

Asked about the poll, Ahmed Nasri, a 27-year old sales associate, told Al-Monitor that Saied had may have won a majority of the people’s trust “because he's an honest man with a clean background who has always shown love and commitment for the country."

Nouha Hamdi, a 25-year old teacher, told Al-Monitor she agrees with his actions because she was "sick of all the politicians and the circus in parliament,” singling out the moderate Islamist Ennahda party as the main culprit due to their “greed” and mismanagement of the country's affairs.  

Ennahda, which commands the largest role in parliament and was the target of angry protests on July 25, is one of three parties under investigation for allegedly receiving foreign funding in the 2019 elections. It has also been the most vocal critic of Saied's power grab, warning that it threatens to take Tunisia back into the throes of authoritarianism.

On Thursday, Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi said the group would counter Saied's coup through "all peaceful means — dialogue, negotiations, street pressure, pressure from organizations ... internal and external pressure." 

He added, "If there is no agreement on the return of parliament, on the formation of a government and its presentation to parliament, the Tunisian street will undoubtedly mobilize and we will invite the Tunisian people to defend their democracy."

Bolstered by popular support, Saied claims to be using his newfound power to crack down on corruption and ease the country's health and economic crises. On July 29, he put forward an anti-graft plan that would allow 460 businessmen suspected of embezzlement to avoid criminal charges by paying back $4.9 billion in “stolen money,” which would be used to fund public renovation and development projects in poor areas. He has also established a COVID-19 task force overseen by a high-ranking military official to aid in the coronavirus pandemic response and urged for production to resume in the crucial phosphate sector to boost the economy.

But there are concerns that Saied’s steady consolidation of power is unconstitutional and could inflict lasting damage to Tunisia’s democracy. 

"The matter is very complex," Bessalah said. "Article 80 of Tunisia’s constitution does give the president the power to take exceptional measures to protect national security, but we believe his specific decision to freeze parliament does not fit under that umbrella." 

He added, "We are also concerned about the concentrations of powers at the hands of the president and we believe the judiciary should be safeguarded from political influence."

Compounding the problem is the lack of a constitutional court that should have been formed long ago to check the power of government institutions and resolve constitutional disputes. 

Bessalah said politicians have not put forward viable judicial candidates to establish this body due to their "fears over the authority and prerogatives" it will hold over them. 

Prominent Tunisian institutions and rights advocates within Tunisia that understand Saied’s vision but are wary of a potential backslide to authoritarianism have urged him to lay out a clear blueprint for resolving the crisis while respecting democratic norms.

The influential Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), which has cautiously supported Saied’s moves, said July 28 that it was developing a road map to guide the country back to stability that it would pose to Saied. 

Bessalah agreed that civil society should play a prominent role in the crisis and keep the pressure on Saied to respect the provisional nature of his measures. 

"Tunisian society as a whole and civil society specifically have reached a point of no return,” he concluded. “We cannot return to dictatorship and authoritarianism."

Update: July 31, 2021. This article has ben updated.

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