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Newsroom Press release

Open Society Foundations’ Statement on Recent Events in Tunisia

NEW YORK—The Open Society Foundations call on Tunisian President Kais Said to reverse the draconian actions he announced on July 25, including the freezing of parliamentary activity and his assumption of judicial authority, which have effectively removed all constitutional checks and balances on his power. We urge him to guarantee individual and collective freedoms and collaborate with political parties and civil society to put in place a roadmap to end Tunisia’s political, economic, and health crises.

Said’s announcement, following protests against the government’s dismal handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and a deepening economic recession, has been met with some popular support but is highly divisive in an already polarized country. Although he justified it by the constitution’s provision for emergency powers under Article 80, it has been condemned as unconstitutional by Tunisia’s leading parties and constitutional scholars and is a clear break with universal democratic norms. It is also certain to hinder the ability of the authorities to address the devastating human and economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While the desultory performance of the government headed by Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who was sacked by Said, is one reason for the popular support the latter has received, it is not on its own the trigger of Tunisia’s recent unrest. The political deadlock between the presidency, parliament, and government over the last year has been a major contributing factor as it crippled the response to the country’s problems. Concentrating the powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government into the presidency’s hands—even on a temporary basis as Said claims—is authoritarian overreach and a recipe for further unrest, not for reform.

There is still time for Tunisia, at it has done in the past, to find an inclusive and democratic way out of the current crisis and present a blueprint to address the issues most urgent to Tunisians, including effectively confronting the COVID-19 pandemic and restoring economic confidence. To do so, a necessary precondition is that the hard-won freedoms of the 2010–11 uprising are guaranteed and that Said refrain from arbitrary recriminatory measures against his political rivals. His veiled threats against members of parliament, whose parliamentary immunity he has lifted, and a police raid on the Tunis offices of the Al Jazeera news network are early signs of authoritarian drift. Judicial independence and media freedom must be guaranteed, the work of parliament allowed to continue unhindered, and political leaders should work with civil society to find a way out of the present crisis within the bounds of the constitution.

We also call on the international community to urge Tunisian political actors towards dialogue and condemn Said’s move for what it is—a blatant power grab that will inevitably harm the people of Tunisia and thwart hopes for democracy in an already troubled region. This should include—should Said press on with the authoritarian direction he has set on—labeling his actions as unlawful and unconstitutional and taking commensurate legal measures.

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