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Tunisian president's critics assail his constitution plan

* Referendum on draft constitution due on July 25

* Party ally says will allow establishment of new Tunisia

* Civil society group blasts it as powers of king

TUNIS, July 1 (Reuters) - President Kais Saied is trashing Tunisia’s democracy with a draft constitution that he announced overnight and will put to a referendum next month, his critics warned on Friday, accusing him of assuming “royal powers”.

Saied is remaking the political system after seizing near total executive control last summer, dismissing the parliament and moving to rule by decree in a move his critics call a coup.

He says the changes are needed to save Tunisia from a prolonged political and economic crisis and that the new constitution will respect individual freedoms and mark a new Tunisian republic.

Abid Briki, the head of a small party that backs Saied, said his draft constitution would allow people “to breathe and establish a new Tunisia”.

However, it gives the president near absolute powers while removing almost all checks on his rule and diluting the roles of the parliament and judiciary prompting accusations he is undoing the democratic gains that Tunisians won in a 2011 revolution.

The referendum on July 25 does not set a minimum participation level and voters have less than four weeks to decide on a system that will govern their lives.

“The president granted himself royal powers ... the powers of a king,” said Mohab Karoui a director of iWatch, a prominent Tunisian civil society organisation that monitors corruption and government abuses.

Imed Khemiri, a senior official from the Islamist Ennahda party that is the biggest in parliament and has been most vocal in opposing Saied’s moves, described the draft constitution as a “farce”.

“It is another strong blow to the path of the revolution and a return to what there was before 2011,” he said.

While most main Tunisian political parties, including Ennahda, have already rejected Saied’s plans to hold a referendum on a new constitution and have urged a boycott, none of them have yet issued a formal response to the draft.

Sami Tahri, a spokesman for Tunisia’s powerful UGTT labour union, said its executive office would meet constitutional law experts, lawyers and formal judges on Saturday to weigh its response.

It has previously indicated it opposes Saied’s decision to remake the political system alone and put it to a referendum.

CRISIS

In Tunis’ Ibn Khaldoun district more people seemed concerned about an economic crisis that threatens to bankrupt the state than about Saied’s constitution.

When he suddenly seized power last year, the move appeared very popular among Tunisians tired of endless political squabbles while the economy festered.

“Yes, Tunisians want presidential system ... but first we want to improve the economic conditions,” said Salma Aouini, who was shopping in a second-hand clothes market. “I fear the constitution will do nothing for us.”

Fayez, a vegetable seller who asked not to disclose his family name, said Saied had used democracy to become a dictator. “No surprise he would tighten his grip on all power,” he said.

Even the draft that was originally presented to Saied by lawyers he designated to rewrite the constitution was heavily reworded before its publication last night, said one of them, Ibrahim Bouderbala.

“This is not the constitution we submitted to the president ... the preamble had focused on the economic issues as well as political ones,” he said, though adding that other sections remained the same.

Reporting by Tarek Amara, Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Alison Williams

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