Tunisians fret at president's silence on future

·3-min read
FILE PHOTO: Tunisian President Kais Saied takes the oath of office in Tunis

By Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall

TUNIS (Reuters) - Five weeks after their president seized governing powers and a week after he indefinitely prolonged emergency measures, Tunisians are increasingly puzzled at his silence on the biggest crisis of their democratic era.

Though President Kais Saied has spoken regularly on issues ranging from potato prices to corruption in videos of meetings that his office posts online, he has yet to name a new prime minister or say how he plans to rule.

"We have great confidence in the president," said Samira Salmi, a clothes vendor in Tunis, before adding: "But frankly his programme has been delayed a lot...We want quick answers."

Saied's next steps will determine whether his intervention, called a coup by critics but widely supported by a populace weary of paralysis and economic decline, will ultimately be regarded as a democratic reset or a gateway back to autocracy.

Both ordinary Tunisians and the political class widely expect him to change the constitution to give the presidency more powers after he suspended parliament.

The existing constitution, agreed in 2014 as a messy compromise at a tense moment of polarisation after the 2011 revolution that introduced democracy, has long been unpopular. Most candidates in the 2019 election, including Saied, said they wanted to amend it.

However, Saied has given no public statement about what any new constitution would look like, whether he will dissolve the now suspended parliament or how long he expects the emergency period to last.

He has dismissed calls for a "roadmap" from the powerful UGTT labour union and major foreign lenders by suggesting they look in geography books, and last week he said the government "will be appointed soon, but the state continues".

The UGTT has a million members and the power to shut down the economy through stirkes.

'FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN'

While political parties, ordinary Tunisians, the union and Western allies have voiced concern at his delay at announcing a programme, few appear ready to put Saied under public pressure yet.

Both the government he ousted and the suspended parliament were very unpopular, while his vocal attacks on corruption and high prices have popular support, making it harder for his critics to oppose him.

"The president is facing pressure and has started a campaign to clean up the administration and security apparatus... he is interested in the normal people like us and knows that we trust him," said Ahmed Abid, a bank employee.

The most vocal critic has been the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, the biggest in parliament and a supporter of successive coalition governments since the revolution.

Its immediate response to his intervention was to call it a coup, but it has since dialled back its rhetoric, referring to his moves instead as a "constitutional violation". The crisis has meanwhile accelerated disputes within the party.

"There is a fear of the unknown...the president has all the power and he has not yet announced his plans," said Maher Madhioub, an adviser to Ennahda's leader.

However, patience may be running out. "The party expresses its growing concern about the gathering of powers in the hands of the president without a clear timeframe," said Ghazi Chaouachi, head of Attayar party.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara, writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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