Tunisians protest authoritarian moves by President Kais Saied

Demands have been raised for the president to resign and the government to immediately hold legislative and presidential elections in the country

March 22, 2022 by Peoples Dispatch
Protest in Tunisia
(Photo: Twitter/ TAP)

This past weekend, protests calling for the resignation of President Kais Saied were organized in Tunisia’s capital Tunis. Protesters also rejected the online consultation poll started by the current interim government in January to invite public suggestions and amendments after the president announced the holding of a referendum in July to replace the current constitution with a new one. General elections governed by the new constitution are scheduled later in December.

On Saturday March 19, a major left opposition party, the Workers’ Party of Tunisia organized a rally on Habib Bourguiba street in central Tunis in defiance of the decision of the governor to ban protest actions on the street. They also condemned President Saied’s moves to consolidate authoritarian, individual rule.

In front of the Municipal Theater, the leader of the Workers’ Party Hamma Hammami, held a press conference and spoke to his party supporters, and denounced the electronic national consultation, which he said was “a failure by all standards” and added that this consultation “used the capabilities of the state at a time when the country is on the verge of bankruptcy”.

On Sunday March 20, over 2,000 people marched near the Tunisian parliament in the center of the city of Tunis. They raised slogans like “the people want to bring down the coup”, “down with the coup d’etat!”, “no to consultations” and “the people want to depose the president”. People from all walks of life and across the political spectrum participated in the protests that were jointly organized by the Ennahda party, the biggest party in the currently suspended parliament, and the group Citizens Against The Coup which was formed after the president undertook extraordinary measures in July last year to usurp almost all executive and legislative power in the country.

The president’s measures were denounced by the opposition as well as civil society and human rights groups as ‘unconstitutional’ and ‘anti-democratic’. Commentators have expressed concern about the risk of Tunisia regressing back to the era of authoritarian one-man rule, like under former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who was deposed after the Tunisian revolution of 2011 and had to flee the country. The protest held on Sunday also coincided with the 66th anniversary of Tunisia’s independence day.

Protesters on Sunday also mocked the current government and offered sarcastic “condolences” to the president following the abysmally low voter turnout for the online consultations poll. Reports stated that only 508,000 people, around 7% of the seven million eligible voters, took part in the online poll. 

Demands were made to hold presidential and legislative elections immediately and to return to democratic and constitutional rule in the country.

A heavy security presence was seen at the site of the protests. Security forces prevented the protesters from reaching the parliament and installed blockades at the nearby Bardo square.

Tunisia has been witnessing political turmoil since the president’s extraordinary measures to grab power last year. He subsequently consolidated his hold on power by giving himself the authority to rule by presidential decrees. He also suspended parts of the current constitution, in place since the revolution. In the beginning of 2022, he announced a national referendum to be held in July for bringing in a new constitution. He also announced general elections to be held as per the new constitution later in December. Such moves were vehemently opposed by the opposition political parties and civil society groups. 

Tunisia’s economy has been suffering from years of autocratic rule, political infighting, and now the COVID-19 crisis. Unemployment and poverty are rising along with widespread shortages of essential food items and other commodities. Successive governments in the country have been trying to negotiate with international financial institutions and donors for a financial rescue package in order to facilitate economic recovery and improve the lives of ordinary Tunisians. However, this vital financial assistance is heavily dependent on the country achieving political stability under a democratically elected government.

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