Tunisia's Saied unpicks young 'Arab Spring' democracy

TUNIS, June 16 (Reuters) - President Kais Saied has gathered nearly all state power in his hands after dismantling much of Tunisia's young democracy over 11 turbulent months. But as he prepares for a referendum to approve his changes, challenges loom ever larger.

A former law professor with a stiff public manner, Saied is rewriting the constitution to enshrine a presidential system. But, meanwhile, Tunisia's economy is collapsing and opposition to his rule is growing.

The powerful UGTT labour union staged a strike on Thursday over plans for economic reform. Protests against him have drawn thousands to the streets, and all the main political parties have rejected his referendum.

Saied has depicted his actions as a corrective to political dysfunction and corruption. But his critics say he is a new dictator who has trashed the democratic gains of Tunisia's 2011 revolution.

He has set aside years of power sharing between president and legislature by dismissing the parliament, surrounding its building with tanks, has given himself the right to rule by decree and has assumed ultimate authority over the judiciary.

Saied was a political novice when elected president in 2019. Less than two years later, he outmanoeuvred his more experienced political adversaries, including the Islamist Ennahda party, with his sudden moves against the parliament and previous cabinet. These steps heralded the start of his bid to amass power.

They appeared to be hugely popular among Tunisians who were fed up with political bickering and economic malaise. Thousands took to the streets to celebrate and the president basked in a stated conviction that he represented the will of the people.

His supporters have hailed him as an independent man of integrity standing up to elite forces whose bungling and corruption have condemned Tunisia to a decade of political paralysis and economic stagnation.

But critics say his moves have amounted to a coup that has throttled Tunisia's nascent democracy, and are deeply sceptical of promises that he will preserve the rights and freedoms won in 2011. Saied has painted his opponents as enemies of the people and has urged arrests of those who defy him.

While it is unclear just how much backing Saied continues to enjoy, opinion polls have indicated declining support. The economy is in deep trouble and Tunisians are growing poorer.

After a rally last year that Reuters journalists present said had drawn only a few thousand, Saied boasted that 1.8 million of his supporters had flocked to the streets.


Tunisian politics is closely watched abroad because of the country's role in triggering the 2011 "Arab Spring" uprisings and its success as the sole democracy to emerge from them.

Saied, a solemn, 64-year-old who speaks an ultra-formal style of classical Arabic, wants to rewrite the history of that revolution, when 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 downplay the ousting of autocratic president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and has rejected the results of hard negotiations afterwards that led to a democratic constitution.

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. He now says his referendum will mark the start of a new republic.

Besides dismissing the unpopular but elected parliament, Saied has ousted the previously independent judicial authorities and electoral commission, raising fears over rule of law and the integrity of elections.

He has also purged state employees, including some in the security services, to oust people linked to the main political parties.

He has since said he wants to hold new parliamentary elections in December.

For many Tunisians, Saied remains something of a caricature whose frequent online videos show him lecturing subordinates or visitors from behind the presidential desk.

Those videos have given few insights into policy plans to address Tunisia's main economic problems, but they have often included fiery rhetoric against his detractors and opponents.

Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Tom Perry and Bradley Perrett

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