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Tunisians take to the streets ahead of constitutional referendum

Tunisians protest ahead of the referendum
Tunisians protest ahead of the referendum Copyright FETHI BELAID/AFP or licensors
Copyright FETHI BELAID/AFP or licensors
By Rhal Ssan
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Tunisians took the streets this weekend to protest against a planned constitutional referendum, which would concentrate power in the hands of the president.


Tunisians took the streets this weekend to demonstrate against a constitutional referendum on Monday, which would transfer greater powers to the president.

Hundreds gathered in Tunis on Saturday to demand the resignation of president Kais Saied, before Tunisians vote on Monday for a draft constitution that will reduce the role of the parliament and judiciary, and remove most checks on his power.

The date of the referendum is exactly one year after president Saied dismissed the government and froze parliament - a significant blow to Tunisia's young democracy. 

The vote is the latest move in what Saied's opponents call a march to one-man rule since he moved against the elected officials a year ago in what has been branded a coup.

Demonstrators, waving Tunisia’s red-and-white, chanted "get out" and "the people want the fall of Kais Saied; the people want the fall of the constitution,” at the Saturday event organised by the National Salvation Front (FSN) opposition alliance.

A large number of police stood alongside roads but there were no reports of violence.

One protester, Mohamed Gonani, feared the changes could create a presidency which is too powerful.

"The essence of the constitution is to ensure a balance of powers, but this [new] constitution gives the president broad powers and has no mechanism to impeach or reprimand him," he said. 

During a separate protest on Friday evening by civil society groups and smaller political parties, police used sticks and pepper spray to disperse demonstrators, arresting several of them.

Since last year's power grab, critics of the president have grown louder, although divisions among the opposition have hampered their ability to form a clear stance against Saied and mobilise street protests. 

Some critics, such as Samia Abbou, the head of the Attayar party, initially supported the president in dissolving parliament, but are now opposed to his proposed constitutional changes.

"I was for a positive change, for the thieves and the mafia who stole the country to be called to account. I was for that," he told Euronews. "But on September 22 [the date Saied issued a decree granting him full presidential power], we saw his true nature," he said.

Saied’s power grab from parliament last July came after years of political paralysis and economic stagnation and appeared to have widespread support at the time.

However, there has been little sign of public enthusiasm for his referendum, with only limited numbers of people attending rallies to support it.

Many Tunisians when asked about the political turmoil, point instead to a looming economic crisis as the most urgent issue facing the country.

Tunisia will vote Monday on the constitutional draft that would enshrine the vast powers Saied has exercised since he sacked the government last year.

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