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Tunisians protest constitutional referendum in hundreds

Protesters took to the streets in hundreds in central Tunis on Saturday to demonstrate against a referendum to be held on Monday on a new constitution that would significantly expand presidential powers – a move they reject as illegal.

Published by incumbent President Kais Saied less than a month ago, the draft constitution would bestow far more powers upon him while reducing the role of the parliament and judiciary. This would render his power mostly unchecked.

This has been time and again stressed by the president’s opponents who dub the referendum a march to one-man rule. President Saied’s power grab follows his move against the elected parliament a year ago, replacement of the government and shifting towards rule by decree, all of which critics have seen as a coup.

Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the main street in central Tunis, resounded with “Shut down the coup!” and “Stop autocratic rule!” slogans uttered by protesters who gathered in the civil demonstration organised by the coalition, which includes activist group Citizens Against the Coup and Ennahda, an Islamist party that was the biggest in the dissolved parliament.

Given no signs of violence, a large number of police officers deployed along the avenue stood by seeing no need to intervene.

Friday evening saw a separate protest by civil society groups and smaller political parties. During the demonstration, unlike on Saturday, police sticks and pepper spray were put to work to disperse demonstrators. Several participants were arrested.

Although President Saied’s move is widely criticised by the opposition, rifts within political parties and civil society organizations incapacitated a clear and united stance against the move as well as efficient mobilisation of street protests.

President Saied’s moves against the parliament last July came after years of political paralysis that featured episodes of fierce rivalry between himself and Rached Ghannouchi, Speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People and the President of the Islamist Ennahda Movement. The deadlock has also effectuated economic doldrums.

The prospective referendum has enjoyed little public enthusiasm with only small numbers of people rallying in its name.

Some Tunisians fear that expanding Saied’s presidential powers could revive times of presidential autocracy in the style of pre-Arab Spring late President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled the country for 24 years.

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