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Tunisia: Ghannouchi urges 'peaceful struggle' against president's 'one-man rule'

Ennahda leader decries 'harsh methods and violence' a day after Kais Saied took steps towards rule by decree
'We call on the people to take part in peaceful actions to resist dictatorship and return Tunisia to the path of democracy,' said Ghannouchi (AFP)

The speaker of Tunisia's parliament Rached Ghannouchi called on Thursday for "peaceful struggle" against a return to "absolute one-man rule," a day after President Kais Saied took steps towards rule by decree.

"There is no longer any alternative to struggle, naturally a peaceful struggle," the head of the Ennahda party said in an interview with AFP.

Saied on Wednesday announced decrees that strengthen the powers of his office at the expense of the government and parliament.

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Four parties and the country's largest trade union on Thursday expressed deep discontent with Saied’s moves.

The Attayar, Al Jouhmouri, Akef and Ettakatol parties said in a joint statement that Saied has lost his legitimacy and that his move enshrined an absolute power monopoly.

Ghannouchi called the moves "a step back towards absolute one-man rule" a decade after Tunisia's 2011 revolution.

"We call on the people to take part in peaceful actions to resist dictatorship and return Tunisia to the path of democracy," he said.

The new provisions come almost two months after Saied sacked the Ennahda-supported government of Hichem Mechichi and suspended parliament, presenting himself as the ultimate interpreter of the constitution.

Ennahda, the largest party in the divided legislature, condemned the 25 July moves as a "coup d'etat" and a violation of the country's hard-won 2014 constitution.

While some Tunisians backed Saied's moves out of frustration with the political system, others saw them as a setback for the only democracy to have emerged from the Arab Spring uprisings.

Ghannouchi, 80, camped out for 12 hours in front of parliament in Tunis after Saied's power grab.

"The situation is worse now than it was before 25 July," he said in Thursday's interview.

Before that "there were no arrests over blog posts, no thousands of Tunisians banned from leaving the country".

Authoritarian slide warning

Tunisia has seen years of political deadlock since its 2011 revolution, with fractious coalitions and short-lived governments proving unable to resolve pressing social and economic crises.

Elections in 2019 produced another fragmented parliament that once again allowed Ennahda to dominate the government.

The resulting legislative deadlock helped to cripple a country hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

Civil society groups have warned against a slide towards authoritarianism that would wipe out Tunisia's democratic gains a decade after the revolution toppled longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

"The president has gone back to before the revolution," Ghannouchi said. 

He said his party was ready to work with all sides to restore democracy in Tunisia.

Ghannouchi founded Ennahda four decades ago and has remained at the helm ever since despite years of exile under Ben Ali.

'Harsh methods and violence'

After Ben Ali fell in the 2011 revolution, Ennahda made a return to politics and has since been part of every parliamentary coalition, backing the country's string of short-lived governments.

But the party has clashed with Saied, a former legal academic who bitterly opposes Ennahda and Tunisia's party system, instead calling for a form of decentralisation.

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"The president has convictions he expressed before he took office: his vision of popular government, his rejection of… political parties, parliaments. That is his choice, his right," Ghannouchi said. 

"But it’s not his right to use harsh methods and violence."

Ennahdha is the most organised party in the deeply fragmented 217-seat legislature, but since 2014 the party's share of the vote has plummeted.

It has also seen internal fractures in recent years as younger members have demanded changes at the top, including replacing Ghannouchi himself.

"The one positive aspect of the president’s decisions is that they will unify Ennahda with other political parties and unify Ennahda itself," Ghannouchi said.

Asked if his party would take part in elections were Saied to call them, he said: "We would take part, absolutely."