By Tarek Amara
TUNIS – Tunisia’s president cemented his grip over the judiciary on Sunday with a decree that lets him dismiss judges or block their promotion, helping consolidate his power after he seized executive authority last summer in a move his foes call a coup.
President Kais Saied outraged his opponents and alarmed democratic foreign allies with his announcement last week that he was dissolving the Supreme Judicial Council, a body that guaranteed judicial independence.
Several thousand people took to the streets of the capital Tunis on Sunday to protest against the measures.
“Shut down the coup… take your hands off the judiciary,” some chanted as they gathered in central Tunis.
The protest was organised by the moderate Islamist Ennahda, the biggest party in the suspended parliament that has emerged as Saied’s most vocal opponent, and by a separate civil society organisation.
Saied, a former constitutional lawyer and whose wife is a judge, has accused the council of acting for political interests and has set up a temporary replacement to oversee judges’ work while he prepares broader changes.
The judiciary was seen as the last remaining institutional check on Saied’s actions after he suspended parliament last year and said he could rule by decree.
Anas Hamaidi, president of the Tunisian Judges Association, said he feared there could now be a wave of sackings of judges.
“We will move forward in protecting the legitimate judicial authority,” he said in a statement, hinting that judges could stage more strikes, after going on strike last week.
Youssef Bouzakher, head of the dissolved Supreme Council rejected the decree, describing it as “unconstitutional that ends guarantees of the independence of the judiciary“.
Saied has said his actions were temporary and were needed to save Tunisia from a corrupt, self-serving elite that had allowed its economy and politics to stagnate for years and brought the state to the brink of collapse.
Some Supreme Judicial Council members and other judges demonstrated last week and shut down many courts with a two-day strike in protest at Saied’s moves on the judiciary.
However, Saied issued a new decree early on Sunday creating a temporary new council, with no fixed term, to oversee the judiciary and saying judges had no right to go on strike.
The decree also said Saied has the right to object to the promotion or nomination of any judges and is responsible for proposing judicial reforms, effectively giving him sole power over the entire justice system.
Saied has already seized absolute control over both executive and legislative authority, and his critics accuse him of seeking dictatorial powers and undermining rule of law.
He has said he will uphold rights and freedoms won in the 2011 revolution that brought democracy and that he will put a new constitution to a referendum this summer, with new parliamentary elections to follow in December.
However, with Tunisia facing a rapidly looming crisis in public finances, the Western donors that have previously bailed it out have voiced deep concern at Saied’s moves and have said any political process needs to be inclusive.
“What has happened is the completion of the coup… Tunisia has become a nascent dictatorship after being a nascent democracy,” Nadia Salem, one of the protesters, said.