Tunisia’s austere president ruling by decree

Published September 24, 2021
In this Sept 20 photo, Tunisian President Kais Saied delivers a speech during his visit to Sidi Bouzid. — AP
In this Sept 20 photo, Tunisian President Kais Saied delivers a speech during his visit to Sidi Bouzid. — AP

TUNIS: Kais Saied, a political newcomer when he won Tunisia’s 2019 presidential election, rules by decree in a break with the country’s post-revolution political elite.

Elected on a slogan borrowed from the Arab Spring uprisings — “the people want” — Saied has used similar discourse in recent weeks to justify a string of moves that fundamentally alter Tunisia’s post-revolutionary political regime.

An austere legal academic, Saied this week announced measures that effectively allow him to rule by decree, weeks after a power grab which opponents labelled a coup.

The former law professor had on July 25 sacked the government of Hichem Mechichi and suspended parliament, presenting himself as the ultimate interpreter of the constitution.

Saied in 2019 rode a wave of popular support to power, capitalising on anger at the failings of a corrupt and often deadlocked political system since the 2011 revolution that ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Slender, white-haired and usually dressed in a sombre and sharp-cut business suit, the 63-year-old has shown little inclination to negotiate or compromise, despite the country’s economic and health crises.

Difficult to politically classify, he is conservative on social issues, including being opposed to equality between men and women in matters of inheritance, or to the abolition of the death penalty.

Yet he bitterly opposes the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party, which was the strongest group in the coalition government, and which termed his July 25 moves a “coup d’etat”.

Saied, who was at the Tunis faculty of judicial and political sciences for nearly two decades, has demanded a complete overhaul of the government system — in strict compliance with his views of the law.

Since Wednesday’s announcement, he rules by decree, passing laws without the need for a vote in parliament, which remains suspended.

The president “exercises executive power with the help of a Council of Ministers” with a head of government — yet to be named — acting as his deputy.

In January, he refused to receive the oath of ministers, believing corruption allegations they faced prevented him from doing so.

Before his 2019 election — in which he took nearly three-quarters of the vote — he was mainly known for his legal analysis as a television commentator during the drafting of a new constitution.

Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2021

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