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Sweeping Constitutional Claim Behind Tunisian President’s Power Play

Tunisian President Kais Saied gesturing among supporters he walks protected by security in Tunis, July 26, 2021. ( Tunisian Presidency Facebook/AFP)
Kais Saied

Kais Saied

president of Tunisia

“This [parliament] session is a failed coup attempt. It's a conspiracy against the internal and external security of the state.”


On March 30, the Tunisian President Kais Saied held a televised meeting with his national security council to announce that the country’s parliament was dissolved.

Saied cited his powers under the Tunisian constitution, saying it compelled him to protect the people and ensure the nation’s sovereignty. He warned that the military would deal with any violent response to his decision.

Just hours earlier, more than half of the parliament’s members held an online session and voted for a bill to roll back the “exceptional measures” Saied has relied on to maintain power.

Saied cast the move as illegal.

“This [parliament] session is a failed coup attempt. It's a conspiracy against the internal and external security of the state,” Saied said.

That is misleading.

In fact, just three days before he dissolved parliament, Saied said in a meeting with his government that he had no authority to do so because it would be unconstitutional.

“The constitution was respected because the state was falling apart and there were increasing demands to dissolve the parliament. But we did not resort to that solution because the constitution won’t permit it,” he said. “So, the choice was to freeze the parliament till holding new elections.”

Saied noted that his government had already set dates for a referendum on the constitution on July 25 and legislative elections on December 17.

In dissolving the parliament, Saied cited article 72 of the constitution, a sweeping provision that states: “The President of the republic is the Head of State and the symbol of its unity. He guarantees its independence and continuity and ensures respect of the Constitution.”

Tunisia has been in a state of political upheaval since July 2021, when Saied announced a freeze on the parliament’s work, rescinded legal immunity for its members, took control of the state prosecutor’s office and arrested multiple officials.

That followed street demonstrations protesting corruption, declining services, high unemployment and the economic impact of COVID-19.

Saied, a law professor, helped draft Tunisia’s constitution in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. He was elected president in 2019 with a 73 percent majority after running on an anti-corruption platform.

But as he consolidated power, the United States and other countries warned that Tunisia was moving away from democracy.

On January 19, Saied cut the budget for members of the Supreme Judicial Council, a constitutional body that monitors the functioning and independence of Tunisia’s courts.

The opposition saw Saied’s move as undermining the independence of the judiciary and consolidating his control over all state bodies.

On February 18, he extended the country’s state of emergency until the end of the year. An emergency law has been in effect in Tunisia since 2015, when two terrorist attacks killed 60 and wounded 50.

The emergency law gives Tunisian authorities the power to arrest and detain suspects; prevent gatherings and impose curfews; monitor media, publications, radio and TV, theater and film screenings; and prevent union strikes; all without a court order.

According to Tunisia’s constitution, a state of emergency is supposed to extend no longer than 30 days, after which the president is required to let the parliament ask the country’s Constitutional Court to determine whether the conditions that led to the state of emergency still exist.

Saied has ordered Tunisian authorities to detain members of parliament who participated in the online session. Thirty were summoned by the anti-terrorism police for questioning.

On March 14, Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized Tunisian authorities for arresting Abderrazak Kilani, a prominent lawyer and former government official , after police denied him access to a hospital to meet with a client. During the incident, Kilani criticized the president.

In a video published on social media, Kilani said: “We made the best constitution in the world, and he [the president] made it look like a rag.”

A military court charged Kilani. According to HRW, international human rights law prohibits military courts from prosecuting civilians.

“After placing scores of critics under ‘assigned residence’ house arrest or banning their travel, tossing Abderrazak Kilani into Mornaguia Prison sends a chilling new message that no one who criticizes President Saied’s power grab is safe,” said Salsabil Chellali, Human Rights Watch’s Tunisia director.