Tunisia: President’s power grab is an assault on the rule of law

President Kais Saied’s dismissal of Tunisia’s head of government and suspension of parliament constitute a flagrant attack on the rule of law and erodes the foundations of the constitutional order in Tunisia, the International Commissions of Jurists (ICJ) said today.

On Sunday 25 July, the President dismissed the government, declared himself as the head of the executive branch and the Public Prosecutor Office, suspended the country’s legislature (the Assembly of the People’s Representatives, ARP), and stripped the ARP’s members of their parliamentary immunities.

“Through his actions and usurpation of power, President Kais Saied represents a direct and imminent threat to the constitutional order and the rule of law in Tunisia,” said Said Benarbia, the Director of the ICJ’s MENA Programme.

“President Saied must reverse his power grab and avoid any measures to give effect to his declaration, which is beyond the scope of his constitutional authority and violate basic rule of law principles.”

Kais Saied’s declaration followed other arbitrary, repressive moves on his part, including those that he undertook as the Tunisian Armed Forces’ commander-in-chief, such as when he conferred on them the responsibility of managing the COVID-19 crisis and when he condoned the use of military courts to put critics on trial.

The President’s declaration came following months of open conflict pitting President Saied against the President of the ARP and the head of government over the scope of their respective constitutional powers, and widespread protests over deteriorating economy and the government’s management of the COVID-19 crisis.

Under the rule of law, authorities should ensure that any political disagreement or conflict is resolved in compliance with rule of law principles and through legally established channels.

In this time of crisis in Tunisia, the judiciary should act as a check on the arbitrary exercise of power by the President and other branches of government, in particular by ensuring that any measures adopted to address the crisis comply with the rule of law and human rights.

“More than 10 years after an uprising that ended the rule of President Ben Ali, President Kais Saied is brining Tunisia back to the authoritarianism of the past,” added Benarbia.

“In so doing, the President is betraying the very Constitution he pledged to uphold, the will of the people that brought him to power, as well as the sacrifices of millions of Tunisians who fought against and ended the one-man rule.”

Background

The President invoked Article 80 of the Constitution on exceptional circumstances (état d’exception) to justify his decisions.

“Freezing the competencies” of the ARP is clearly incompatible with Paragraph 2 of Article 80, which provides that the ARP shall be deemed to be in a state of continuous session throughout the état d’exception.

Article 80 also requires that the President inform the President of the Constitutional Court prior to declaring the état d’exception. Paragraph 3 of the same article further provides that the ARP may request the Constitutional Court within thirty days to rule on maintaining  the état d’exception . The Constitutional Court is yet to be established, seven years after the adoption of the Constitution, leaving no possibility of constitutional review of the President’s decisions.

Under the Constitution, the executive power is exercised by the President (Président de la République) and the Head of Government of Tunisia (Chef du Government). Under Article 77 of the Constitution of Tunisia, the President is also the commander-in-chief of the Tunisian Armed Forces.

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Contact

Said Benarbia, Director, ICJ Middle East and North Africa Programme, t: +41-22-979-3817; e: said.benarbia(a)icj.org

Asser Khattab, Research and Communications Officer, ICJ Middle East and North Africa Programme, e: asser.khattab(a)icj.org

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