Tunisia president defends proposed constitution amid criticism

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron meets Tunisia's President Kais Saied at the Elysee Palace in Paris
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TUNIS (Reuters) -Tunisia's president said on Tuesday his proposed constitution would not restore authoritarian rule, hitting back at criticism from across the political spectrum and urging people to support it in this month's referendum.

Saied, who ousted the elected parliament last summer to rule by decree in a step his foes call a coup, has published a draft of a new constitution that would greatly expand his powers while weakening checks on his actions.

The president's supporters say he is standing up to elite forces whose bungling and corruption have condemned Tunisia to a decade of political paralysis and economic stagnation.

In a letter published online he said there was no danger to Tunisians' rights and freedoms.

"Everyone knows what Tunisia has suffered for decades, especially the last decade. They emptied state coffers. The poor got poorer, the corrupt got richer," Said said, accusing critics of his constitution of "slanders, far from reality".

Most political parties and civil society groups oppose his constitution, saying it was drawn up unilaterally and will lack legitimacy as Tunisians have less than four weeks to decide on it and there is no minimum rate of participation for it to pass.

The main journalists union joined the opponents of the constitution and said statement on Tuesday: "We warn of its danger..it does not respond to the principles of freedom of the press and expression".

Freedom of speech and press has been a key gain for Tunisians following the 2011 revolution that toppled the late President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Even the head of the committee Saied convened to prepare the first draft of his constitution, which he then rewrote, said this weekend that the president's version was "dangerous and paves the way for a disgraceful dictatorial regime".

Sadok Belaid, the committee head, said the version Saied had presented did not resemble the draft the committee had prepared.

(Reporting By Tarek Amara; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Angus McDowall, William Maclean)