Thousands in Tunisia protest against the president and demand a democratic return

Thousands of Tunisians protested against President Kais Saied on Sunday, demanding a return to normal democratic order and rejecting the replacement of the independent electoral commission with one he appointed.

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“The people want democracy” and “Saied has led the country to hunger” were two slogans chanted by protesters who gathered in central Tunis a week after a smaller rally in support of the president.

“It has become clear that the street supports a return to the democratic path,” said Samira Chaouachi, the deputy leader of the dissolved parliament who, like Saied’s other opponents, accuses him of a coup.

Saied has entrenched his one-man rule since taking executive power last summer, ousting parliament, switching to rule by decree and saying he will replace the democratic constitution through a referendum.

Saied denies a coup, saying his intervention was legal and necessary to save Tunisia from years of political paralysis and economic stagnation at the hands of a corrupt and self-serving elite that had seized control of the government.

Meanwhile, Tunisia’s economy and public finances are in crisis and the government is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a rescue package amid widespread poverty and hardship.

Saied’s actions have plunged Tunisia into its biggest political crisis since the 2011 revolution that ushered in democracy and triggered the ‘Arab Spring’, threatening rights and freedoms won 11 years ago.

It has replaced a judicial council that guaranteed the independence of judges, as well as the independent electoral commission, calling into question the integrity of both the legal process and the elections.

“Our peaceful resistance will continue in the streets until we restore our freedom and democracy,” said one of the protesters, Tijani Tizaoui, a private sector employee, who said he had been jailed before the revolution for protesting.

The 2014 constitution was the result of months of intense negotiations between a wide range of political parties and civil society bodies, including the powerful UGTT union, which has more than a million members.

Saied rejected calls for a similar inclusive dialogue, saying those who opposed his moves should be excluded from discussion of Tunisia’s future as it prepares for a referendum on its new constitution.

“The Tunisians reject the unilateral change of the electoral system… The Tunisians are here to reject the Saied referendum,” said Nejib Chebbi, a veteran politician in the protest.

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