Skip to main content

Tunisia: Thousands ask President Saied to step down as voters shun online poll

Security forces block a large march on parliament, with protesters offering 'condolences' to the president's online survey that garnered only 10 percent participation
Tunisian protesters hold a poster calling for the release of prominent lawyer Abderrazak Kilani and chanting against President Saied, not far from the Tunisian Assembly headquarters in Tunis, on 20 March 2022 (AFP)

More than two thousand protesters took part in a demonstration on Sunday in the Tunisian capital against President Kais Saied as his online poll for constitutional reform failed to attract voters.

The protest was organised by the Citizens Against Coup movement, launched in the aftermath of Saied’s power grab in July last year, widely labelled a “constitutional coup” by the Tunisian opposition.

'We will not accept the results of the consultation, this is a scam against the people,'

- Samira Chaouachi, MP

Protesters marched on parliament, which has been suspended by virtue of Saied’s decisions, but security forces blocked the march from reaching Bardo Square by setting up security barriers and deploying security forces on its way.

"Down with the coup d'etat!", "The people want to remove the president", "No to the consultation!", chanted the demonstrators, according to AFP.

On 25 July last year, President Saied announced his controversial measures, revealed by Middle East Eye two months earlier, including the suspension of parliament and the sacking of the prime minister. 

In addition to freezing parliament, Saied also shut down the country's independent National Anti-Corruption Authority and sidelined the Independent High Authority for Elections. Last month, he dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council - the body that deals with judicial independence - and granted himself control over the selection and promotion of judges.

Saied has cited skyrocketing unemployment, rampant corruption and the coronavirus pandemic as reasons for his power grab.

Tunisia: Kais Saied's row with the judiciary explained 
Read More »

However, Tunisia remains in a morass, and a lack of concrete action has seen many supporters of his power grab become critical of the president and his policies.

The president has initiated an online public consultation before drafting a new constitution that he said will be put to a referendum in July 2022, followed by parliamentary elections in December. 

The move has been rejected by the majority of political forces, including Tunisia's powerful labour union, the UGTT.

The online consultation poll, launched in January, closed on Sunday, with less than 10 percent of the seven million electorate taking part, according to official statistics. 

The results of the poll are due to be presented to a Saied-appointed committee of experts, who will be tasked with drafting the constitution.

"We will not accept the results of the consultation, this is a scam against the people", Samira Chaouachi, vice-president of the suspended parliament, said in a speech to the crowds. 

“Our condolences for the consultation, President Saied,” protesters chanted to mock the low turnout.

Saied attributed the failure of his online survey to "technical obstacles" and "attempts by the old system to abort this experience", alluding to the Ennahda party that was part of the previous government and held the largest number of seats in parliament after the 2011 revolution.

Crackdown on opposition

Saied's measures have been followed by a crackdown on the opposition and their protests. Many have faced trials before military and civilian courts and given jail times for charges denounced by rights groups as politically motivated.

Protesters on Sunday held signs calling for the release of prominent lawyer Abderrazak Kilani, who was detained by a military court on 2 March.

Kilani, the former head of the Bar Association, was detained after a verbal exchange between him and security forces who barred him from visiting his client, former Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri. He has since been charged with “disturbing the public order, insulting state officials, and obstructing the work of others,” according to Amnesty International. If convicted, he may face up to seven years' imprisonment.

Kilani’s client, Bhiri, was released days after the arrest of his lawyer, after being detained at a hospital in Tunisia for months, in circumstances denounced by Human Rights Watch and the United Nations.

The UGTT, with more than one million members representing an estimated five percent of the Tunisian population, did not initially reject Saied's power grab, but later became more critical of the president's moves.

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.