Tunisia's Saied issues decree strengthening presidential powers

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Tunisia's President Kais Saied has strengthened the power of his office almost two months after an initial power grab (AFP/Fethi Belaid)
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Tunisian President Kais Saied took exceptional measures on Wednesday that strengthen the powers of his office at the expense of the government and parliament, which he will effectively replace with rule by decree.

The provisions, laid out in a series of articles published in the official gazette, come almost two months after his initial power grab.

Under the current system most of the executive power was in the hands of the government, and the measures announced by Saied clearly tip the balance in favour of the presidency.

"Legislative texts will be promulgated in the form of decrees signed by the President of the Republic," one of the articles stipulates.

A second article says that "the President shall exercise executive power with the help of a Council of Ministers chaired by a Head of Government".

"The President of the Republic presides over the Council of Ministers and may mandate the Head of Government to replace him/her," says another.

Saied, a political outsider, came to power in 2019 on a wave of public outrage against political parties widely seen as corrupt and self-serving.

An austere legal academic, the 63-year-old president has shown little inclination to negotiation or compromise, even in the midst of the country's social and health crises.

On July 25, Saied sacked the government, suspended parliament, removed lawmakers' immunity and put himself in charge of the prosecution.

Saied has since renewed the measures, and has not responded to calls for a roadmap for lifting them.

- 'Exceptional measures' -

While many Tunisians have welcomed his moves to strip MPs of their immunity, some worry his powers could easily go too far, with a suspended parliament unable to rein him in.

Saied has repeatedly insisted his actions are in line with the North African country's post-revolution constitution, under which the head of state can take "exceptional measures" in case of an "imminent danger" to national security.

Street protests in early 2011 toppled longtime Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, sparking a string of "Arab Spring" revolts across the region, and setting in motion a Tunisian transition to a parliamentary democracy solidified by a 2014 constitution.

Tunisia has won praise for that transition but, more recently, many citizens feel their quality of life has worsened in the face of grinding economic, social and political crises, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

On Tuesday, before his latest move, Tunisia's Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party said that Saied's measures to extend his powers risked setting in motion the "dismantling" of the state.

Ennahdha formed the largest bloc in parliament before the president's shock actions.

Several hundred protesters, many of them Ennahdha supporters, marched through central Tunis on Saturday to demand a return to parliamentary democracy.

The uncertainty is weighing on an economy already in tatters following a decade of political unrest and stalemate, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic which has brought the health system to the edge of collapse and dealt a severe blow to the vital tourism sector.

It also comes as Tunisia negotiates with the International Monetary Fund for a fourth bailout loan in 10 years, likely to be conditioned on biting austerity measures that would inflict further pain on ordinary Tunisians.

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