Tunisia’s Saied extends Parliament’s suspension

Tunisian President Kais Saied has extended his suspension from parliament “for the time being”, a month after he fired his prime minister and granted himself more powers in a shock intervention that opponents rejected as a coup.

In a statement from the presidency late Monday, Saied also extended a decision to freeze the immunity of legislators, saying he would address the Tunisian people in the coming days, without giving further details.

Tunisia, hailed as a rare democratic success story in the Middle East and North Africa, has been embroiled in a political crisis since Saied’s intervention, which comes as the country struggles with terrible economic misery and the COVID-19 pandemic.

On July 25, Saied invoked the constitution to extend his authority, fired Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and froze parliament, in what activists called a “purge” that has seen opponents, judges and businessmen arrested or banned from traveling.

Saied issued “a presidential decree extending the exceptional measures … regarding the suspension of parliament and the waiver of the immunity of parliamentarians for the time being,” the presidency said in the statement. Saied’s intervention, which he said was necessary, has raised fears in the international community that the cradle of the Arab Spring of 2011 is returning to authoritarianism.

Analysts expect Saied to announce new measures to reassure the Tunisian public as well as the international community of his decision.

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The intervention has been condemned by judges and Saied’s opponents, especially by the Ennahdha party, the largest bloc in parliament. Several politicians, businessmen and judges, as well as MPs – who lost their immunity after Saied interrupted the legislature – have said they have been banned from traveling abroad or placed under house arrest without warning. Their claims have sparked a chorus of condemnation, with critics condemning the actions as “arbitrary” and “unjustified”.

As a retired professor of constitutional law, Saied has used Article 80 of the Constitution, adopted in 2014, which allows for exceptional measures if there is an “imminent danger” to national security, to justify his decision.

“Freedom of movement is a constitutional right that I promise to guarantee,” he said last week in response to criticism. “But some people have to answer to the judicial authorities before they can travel.” Many Tunisians have backed Saied’s decision to deter MPs from their immunity, seen as a belated move against a corrupt and inappropriate political class.

He was elected to power in 2019 due to a campaign in which he promised to fight corruption. Ennahdha, who is seen as one of the main targets of Saied’s move, has called for a national dialogue – something the president quickly dismissed. Shortly before Saied’s latest announcement, the party announced the dismissal of its executive committee.

Party leader and parliamentary speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who has faced criticism over his handling of the crisis, decided to form a new government “to meet the demands of the current period”, the party said in a statement. It has not yet reacted to Saied’s extension of Parliament’s freeze.

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