Tunisian President Kais Saied declared on Wednesday that he will rule by decree and ignore parts of the constitution as he prepares to change the political system, prompting immediate opposition from his rivals.
Saied has held nearly all power since July 25, when he removed the prime minister, suspended parliament and assumed executive authority, citing a national emergency in a move his enemies called a coup.
His intervention has undermined the democratic achievements of the 2011 Tunisian revolution that ended autocratic rule and triggered the Arab Spring, despite Saied’s promises to defend the freedoms won a decade ago.
As the weeks have passed, he has come under increasing pressure from Tunisian political actors and Western donors to appoint a prime minister and explain how he intends to overcome the crisis.
The new measures announced on Wednesday go far beyond the steps it took in July, by including in the official gazette the rules that transform Tunisia’s political system to give the president almost unlimited power.
The rules published in the official gazette allow him to issue “legislative texts” by decree, appoint the cabinet and fix its political direction and basic decisions without interference.
The elected parliament, which it suspended in July through a highly controversial reading of the constitution, will not only remain frozen, but its members will stop collecting their salaries. Immunity from prosecution will still be waived.
Saied did not put any time limits on his seizure of power, but said he would appoint a committee to help draft amendments to the 2014 constitution and establish “a true democracy in which the people are truly sovereign.”
The presidency said that in the meantime only the preamble of the existing constitution and any clause that does not contradict the executive and legislative powers it has taken will remain in force.
The leader of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, the largest in the deeply fragmented parliament and a member of successive governing coalitions, immediately rejected Saied’s announcements.
Rached Ghannouchi said the announcement meant canceling the constitution and that Ennahda, who had already declared Saied’s intervention on July 25 as a coup, would not accept it.
A senior official in the Heart of Tunisia, the second largest party in parliament, accused Saied of carrying out a “premeditated coup”.
“We call for a national alignment against the coup,” the official, Osama al-Khalifi, said on Twitter.
Earlier this month, a Saied adviser told Reuters that Saied planned to suspend the constitution and offer a new version through a public referendum, prompting a backlash from the powerful union and political parties.
Saied has denied having dictatorial aspirations, insists his actions are constitutional, and has vowed to defend the rights of Tunisians.
His widely popular intervention came after years of economic stagnation and political paralysis, compounded by a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases and a day of violent protests.
However, as the weeks have passed, a growing number of Tunisians have become concerned about the lack of clarity about Saied’s plans and the absence of a prime minister.
Human rights groups have also pointed to the arrest of several members of parliament and business leaders on a variety of charges, including some former ones who were reactivated after their immunity was lifted.
One of the detained MPs told Reuters on Wednesday that he had been released.
After criticism about the widespread use of travel bans against people from the political and business elite, Saied said last week that only people who face a court order or a subpoena will be prevented from leaving Tunisia.
The first protest against Saied since his intervention took place on Saturday, and activists have called for a larger one this weekend.