Tunisia's Saied unpicks 'Arab spring' democracy

Tunisia's President Kais Saied. Tunisian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

TUNIS, Dec 15 (Reuters) - President Kais Saied has dramatically reshaped Tunisian politics in his favour since mid-2021, amassing near total power in what critics see as a march to one-man rule set to culminate on Saturday, when voters will elect a largely toothless parliament.

Saied, 64, has ruled by decree since July of last year, when he dismissed the previous parliament, surrounding it with tanks and rewriting the constitution of a country where the Arab uprisings against autocracy first erupted more than a decade ago.

To Tunisian opponents, the former law professor is responsible for dismantling the only democracy to have emerged from the Arab Spring uprisings that ended in civil wars or bloody repression in other parts of the Middle East.

But Saied, an austere academic with a stiff public manner, is unfazed by his critics, portraying his moves as the dawn of a new republic and a necessary corrective to post-revolution political dysfunction and corruption.

His top-down approach is captured by photographs on his official social media showing him behind his desk with mouth open, lecturing a procession of subordinates.

He often compares himself to Charles de Gaulle, who led former colonial power France's anti-Nazi forces during World War Two and later rewrote its constitution and served as its president.

Tunisia's new constitution, approved in a July referendum, has significantly weakened parliament, shifting power back to the presidential palace in Carthage from which Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali ruled with an iron fist before being ousted in 2011.

Saied has described the political parties that dominated the post-revolution phase as enemies of the people, taking aim notably at the Islamist Ennahda which, like others, has accused him of mounting a coup.

A political novice when elected president in 2019, he outmanoeuvred his more experienced adversaries last year, aided by security forces that did his bidding.

Dismissing parliament and the government was popular with many Tunisians, who were fed up with political bickering and economic malaise, and thousands took to the streets to celebrate. Saied basked in a stated conviction that he represented the will of the people.

MOUNTING OPPOSITION

Saied's supporters still hail him as a man of integrity standing up to elite forces whose bungling and corruption condemned Tunisia to a decade of political paralysis and economic stagnation.

But it is unclear how much backing he continues to enjoy as economic hardship mounts.

Turnout for the July referendum was just 30%, and Saturday's election, which is being boycotted by political parties, appears to be generating little enthusiasm among Tunisians.

While Saied has pledged to preserve rights and freedoms won in 2011, critics are deeply sceptical.

He has purged judges and some state employees with political ties, and issued a law imposing prison terms for spreading false information or rumours online, denounced by the main journalists' union as an assault on free speech.

And while there has been no crackdown on political parties, police questioned Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi in November over accusations he had helped Tunisians travel to Syria for jihad - a charge he denied as politically motivated.

Meanwhile the powerful UGTT labour union, which has at times backed Saied, recently voiced clear opposition to his "individual rule". The UGTT opposes reforms the government must enact to secure a badly needed $1.9 billion IMF loan.

Saied has sought to rewrite the history of the revolution that toppled Ben Ali, during which he would walk at night through Tunis's old city talking with protesters.

He has changed the date when the state marks its anniversary to play down Ben Ali's ousting, instead marking the uprising on Dec. 17 - the day in 2010 when an act of self-immolation by vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi sparked the revolution.

Saturday's election coincides with that anniversary.

Saied rejected the constitution that was agreed in 2014 following tough negotiations among political parties and civil society organisations to forge a compromise that seemed to bring the country together.

Upon his election in 2019 as an independent candidate, defeating a media mogul accused of corruption in a landslide second-round victory, he declared a new revolution.

Reporting by Angus McDowall; Writing by Angus McDowall/Tom Perry; Editing by William Maclean and John Stonestreet

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