Tunisia’s President Kais Saied signalling on Saturday that he was planning to amend the country’s constitution, but that he would only do so through existing constitutional channels, seven weeks after seizing power in what his opponents dubbed a coup.
The remarks were his most direct statement yet about what he wants to do next, after swearing there would be “no going back” to the scenario in the North African country prior to his involvement on July 25.
Speaking live on television on a central Tunis boulevard, Saied stated that while he admired the 2014 democratic constitution, it was not forever and could be altered.
“Amendments must be made within the framework of the constitution,” he told the Sky News Arabia channel and Tunisian state television.
One of Saied’s advisers told Reuters on Thursday the president was planning to suspend the constitution and offer an amended version via a referendum, prompting opposition from political parties and the powerful UGTT labour union.
Anxiety has been growing, both internally and among Western democracies that have supported Tunisia’s public finances, over Saied’s intentions since his July 25 announcement that he was sacking the prime minister and suspending parliament.
The former constitutional law professor justified those moves by citing emergency measures in the constitution that his critics and many legal scholars said did not support his intervention.
Though he indefinitely extended the measures after a month, he has yet to appoint a new government or make any clear declaration of his long-term intentions, as Tunisia struggles to confront a rolling economic crisis.
Saied also said on Saturday he was close to naming a new government. Ambassadors from the Group of Seven advanced economies this week urged him to quickly do so and return to “a constitutional order, in which an elected parliament plays a significant role.”
Saied’s intervention drew widespread support after years of political paralysis, but it has thrust Tunisia into crisis a decade after it threw off autocracy and embraced democracy in the revolution that triggered the Arab Spring.
Political leaders have complained about the constitution since it was agreed in 2014, calling for it to be changed to either a more directly presidential, or a more directly parliamentary, system.
Article 144 of the constitution says an amendment to the document can only be put to a referendum if it has already been approved by two-thirds of the parliament, an institution Saied last month called “a danger to the state”.
The current parliament was elected in 2019, just one week after Saied was. He does not have the authority to dissolve it and hold new elections, but several of the chamber’s profoundly divided parties have signalling that they could do it themselves.
The moderate Islamist Ennahda, parliament’s largest party with a quarter of the seats, has accused Saied of staging a coup and stated on Saturday that straying from the constitution would imply a retreat from democracy.
The UGTT, Tunisia’s major labour union, also signalling its opposition to suspending the constitution on Saturday, instead calling for new legislative elections, which Saied may now contemplate.