Tunisia embraces new laws

Amira Howeidy , Tuesday 2 Nov 2021

The Tunisian president remains the face of Tunisia’s changing politics a month after appointing the Arab world’s first female prime minister, writes Amira Howeidy

Tunisia embraces new laws
President Kais Saied

President Kais Saied revealed previously unannounced plans to draft a decree for the Supreme Judicial Council last week, generating an outcry in the Association of Tunisian Judges who see it as breach of their independence. The president announced the revelation in a meeting he chaired with the newly appointed cabinet and Prime Minister Najlaa Bouden, where he spoke about combating corruption in state institutions.

Saied has been vocal in his criticism of some judges and the long and slow process it takes to issue verdicts in cases that should be resolved more rapidly. The former constitutional professor who won Tunisia’s 2019 presidential elections by a landslide has repeatedly called for “purifying” the judiciary. In statements following a meeting with the Justice Minister Leila Jaffel on Monday, Saied said there can be no real reforms without a radical reform of justice.

“Corruption in the judicial system has not completely disappeared,” he said, adding that he will not accept any violations of the independence of the judiciary or that of judges. “Preparing a decree on the Supreme Judicial Council does not mean interference in the affairs of justice.  Judges themselves will be involved in developing this draft,” the president said.

More talk than action has characterised Tunisia’s anti-corruption drive with only a few former officials under investigation. On 26 October authorities arrested Samir Beltaib, a former minister of agriculture, and seven other ex-officials on suspicion of corruption. The arrest of  Beltaib, a former professor of law who served in the 2018 Youssef Chahid government and was a member of the committee tasked with drafting the 2014 constitution, sent shockwaves through the country as news circulated that his house was subjected to a police raid while he was being interrogated.

On Wednesday the authorities shut down Nessma TV, the broadcasting company owned by the defeated presidential candidate and leader of the second parliamentary bloc, Nabil Karoui.

The Tunisian media authority, HAICA, said that Nessma TV was broadcasting without a licence and seized its broadcast equipment. A statement by HAICA attributed the channel’s closure to suspicions of financial and administrative corruption. The fact that it is also owned by a political party leader has “influenced the content of its programmes,” the authority said in a statement.

Karoui, the leader of the Qalb Tounes liberal party, has been under investigation since 2017 in a money laundering and tax evasion case. After losing the presidential elections, Karoui’s newly founded party formed a parliamentary bloc with the Islamist Ennahha Party.

Last month HAICA shut down Zitouna TV, a station close to Ennahda, after one of its hosts read out a poem condemning dictatorship. The host, Amer Ayad, was arrested and faces charges of “undermining the security of the state.” HAICA also seized the station’s broadcasting equipment and said it was operating illegally.

On 25 July Saied declared emergency measures, froze parliament and dismissed the prime minister in response to a crippling political and economic crisis exasperated by a Covid-19 wave which lead to an alarming collapse in the health sector amid rising public anger.

The measures assumed permanent status when Saied issued a presidential decree in September suspending parts of the 2014 Constitution while granting himself vast executive, judicial and legislative powers. He also pledged to amend the constitution with the assistance of a committee appointed by the presidency.

The decree, known as 117, was rejected by most of Tunisia’s political parties and civil society groups, and triggered weekly protests. While Saied’s measures were welcomed locally by the disillusioned public, international pressure mounted on Tunisia to fill the political void of the suspended parliament and the dismissed cabinet.

Saied’s appointment last month of Bouden, the first female prime minister in Tunisia and the Arab region, helped diffuse some of that pressure as protests paused. Even a recent Facebook video by the Paris-based ex Tunisian president Moncif Marzouki calling on Tunisians “to take down Saied and put him on trial for destroying the state” did little to revive the protest momentum.

But Bouden, the 63-year-old former university professor and geologist does not enjoy most of the powers that come with the job, which have been assumed by Saied whose chairing of the cabinet’s recent meeting reaffirmed his vast authority.

Last week Saied announced plans to launch a national dialogue on changing the electoral law and the political system in a speech streamed on Facebook, where he reiterated his rejection of what he called “foreign interference”.

In a meeting with the US State Department last week, Tunisia’s foreign minister said that Saied would take more steps to reassure its international partners but did not explain how.

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