LEADING Tunisian judges on Sunday rejected President Kais Saied’s moves to disband the Supreme Judicial Council that oversees them, a move they see as undermining their independence, thus setting up a new struggle over his consolidation of power.
This came after Saied announced overnight he was dissolving the council, one of the few remaining state bodies still able to act independently of him – the latest in a series of moves his opponents have condemned as a coup.
‘Their place is not where they sit now, but where the accused stand,’ Saied said of the council members in his overnight speech, delivered from the building of the interior ministry, which oversees Tunisia’s security forces.
Saied had called on supporters to protest against the council on Sunday, but only a few hundred people turned up. Some held a banner saying: ‘The people want to cleanse the judiciary.’
Supreme Judicial Council head Youssef Bouzakher said on Monday that Tunisian police had locked the doors of the Supreme Judicial Council and stopped staff from entering.
Early on Sunday, Bouzakher said the Council’s dissolution was illegal and marked an attempt to bring judges under presidential control.
He warned: ‘The president has moved to the stage of seizing institutions. What is happening is very dangerous and illegal. Judges will not stay silent.’
Later, two other judicial organisations condemned the move as unconstitutional.
The Young Magistrates Association said it is part of a political purge of the judiciary and the Judges Association said Saied is trying to amass all powers in his own hands.
Saied’s announcement has raised fears for the rule of law in Tunisia after his seizure of almost total power last summer in a move his critics call a coup, with judges associations accusing him of an illegal act that undermines judicial independence
In July, he suddenly suspended parliament, dismissed the prime minister and said he could rule by decree.
And he has since said he will rewrite the 2014 democratic constitution before putting it to a public referendum.
Several main parties in the suspended parliament, including the moderate Islamist Ennahda which has been part of successive governments since 2011, accuse Saied of a coup.
Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, who is also the speaker of the suspended parliament, said in a statement on Sunday that the body rejected Saied’s decision to dissolve the council and voiced solidarity with the judges.
Three other parties, Attayar, Joumhouri and Ettakatol, also issued a joint statement rejecting the move.
Saied has vowed to uphold rights and freedoms won in the 2011 revolution that introduced democracy, but his critics say he is leaning increasingly on the security forces and fear he will take a harsher stance against dissent.
However, Tunisia’s dire economic problems and a looming crisis in public finances risk undermining Saied’s declared plan to reset the 2011 revolution with a new constitution, raising the possibility of public unrest.
Saied has been tussling with the judiciary for months, criticising its decisions, accusing it of corruption and saying it has been infiltrated by his political enemies.
Saied, a constitutional law professor before running for president in 2019, is married to a judge and has repeatedly said that the judiciary should remember it represents a function of the state rather than being the state itself.
In January, he revoked financial privileges for the council’s members, accusing the independent body established in 2016 of appointing judges to their positions based on loyalty to its leadership.
Saied’s suspension of parliament has provoked mass protests with riot police clashing with angry workers and youth.
Last month, Tunisia’s powerful General Labour Union (UGTT) criticised President Saied’s ‘road map out of political crisis,’ saying it did not go far enough.
The president announced the plan in December 2021. It includes a constitutional referendum, to be held on July 25 following an online public consultation that will start in January, and parliamentary elections at the end of 2022.
‘Setting a date for elections is an important step to end the exceptional situation, but it does not break with individual rule and exclusion’, the union said late on Tuesday, January 4th, in its first comment on the president’s plan.
‘We call (on the government) to resume social dialogue, launch negotiations on the wages of civil servants and begin to tackle basic issues in a participatory manner,’ it said.
The UGTT, which represents one million workers, said the online consultation may lead to a monopoly of power and the abolition of the opposition.
In a speech on national television on December 13 last year, Saied announced a reform package and promised to hold a constitutional referendum.
This came ahead of mass demonstrations in the capital, Tunis, marking the anniversary of the 2011 revolution.
About 1,000 people gathered in central Tunis on Friday to protest against Saied, who in July this year sacked the government, suspended parliament and seized far-reaching powers.
The protesters gathered at a key city centre junction, chanting: ‘The people want the coup d’etat to fall’, referring to Saied’s power grab, as police officers in riot gear looked on.
A few hundred metres away, past hundreds of security personnel and metal barriers, a smaller number of Saied supporters waved flags and chanted: ‘The people want the corrupt to go on trial’.
Friday 17 December officially marks 11 years since street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight in protest in the marginalised town of Sidi Bouzid, sparking a four-week revolt that forced veteran dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power and sparked ‘The Arab Spring’ – a string of uprisings in other Arab countries.
Earlier in December, Saied moved the official anniversary of the revolution from January 14 – the date Ben Ali fled into exile – to December 17.