Tunisian President Kais Saied gave himself sweeping powers over the judiciary on February 13, prompting thousands to protest in central Tunis against what they said was another blow to their democracy.
A decree published in the early hours officially replaced a judicial watchdog he had vowed to dissolve and gave Saied powers to block judicial appointments and sack judges, who are now banned from going on strike.
Hours later, more than 2,000 protesters gathered in the capital, many waving large national flags and chanting slogans against the president.
“The people want what you don’t want,” went one chant, echoing a slogan of the country’s revolt against the regime of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali over a decade ago: “The people want the regime to fall.”
Some protesters carried signs reading “save our democracy!” and “don’t touch the judiciary!”
Saied’s decree came a week after he said he would dissolve the High Judicial Council (CSM), prompting a nationwide strike by judges saying the move would infringe on their independence.
Sunday’s ruling establishes a new “Temporary Supreme Judicial Council” with 21 members, who must swear “by God almighty to preserve the independence of the judiciary”.
Nine are directly appointed by the president.
The rest, all judges who serve on the council by virtue of their current positions, are indirectly under his control, as he now has powers to dismiss “any judge failing to do his professional duties”.
Moreover, the decree forbids “judges of all ranks to go on strike or hold any organised collective action that could disturb or delay the normal working of the courts”.
Saied last July sacked the government, suspended parliament and seized a range of powers before moving to rule by decree, sparking fears for what had been seen as the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings.
His moves had initially been welcomed by many Tunisians tired of political parties seen as corrupt and self-serving, but his critics accuse him of moving the country back towards autocracy.
Ezzeddine Hazgui of the Citizens Against the Coup movement pointed to the size of the demonstration and said resistance to the president was growing.
“On July 25, [Saied] had lots of people behind him, now he’s on his own,” he said.
Saied, who has put battling corruption at the centre of his agenda, has insisted he has no intention of interfering with the judiciary, but rights groups and world powers have criticised his move.
Tunisia’s Union of Administrative Judges said Sunday’s decree “represents a flagrant violation of the separation of powers”.
“Exceptional measures do not justify interfering in the constitutional framework of the judiciary,” it said, urging judges to boycott the new council.
Said Benarbia, the regional director of the International Commission of Jurists, said that the decree “enshrines the subordination of the judiciary to the executive”.
“If implemented, it would effectively end judicial independence and the separation of powers in Tunisia, and, with it, the democratic experiment in the country,” he said.