TUNIS: Thousands of Tunisians protested yesterday after President Kais Saied gave himself sweeping powers over the judiciary, his latest step in what opponents say is a slide towards autocracy. A decree published in the early hours officially replaced a judicial watchdog he had vowed to dissolve, and gave him powers to block judicial appointments, sack judges and ban them from going on strike.

Hours later, more than 2,000 protesters gathered in central Tunis, many waving large Tunisian 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. Yesterday'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, are indirectly under his control in view of his new 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 organized 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 center of his agenda, has insisted he has no intention of interfering with the judiciary, but rights groups and world powers have criticized his move.

Said Benarbia, the regional director of the International Commission of Jurists, told AFP 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. "It gives the president wide-ranging powers to manage the careers of judges, in particular to suspend or remove them. This violates the most basic principles of the rule of law, the separation of powers and judicial independence."

The CSM, established in 2016, used to have the final say over judicial appointments. It has firmly rejected decrees that "infringe on the constitutional structure of the judiciary" and said any alternative would have "no legal basis". Saied had long accused the CSM of blocking politically sensitive investigations and being influenced by his nemesis, the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party.

Ennahdha supporters were among the protesters in Tunis on Sunday, some carrying placards demanding the release of former justice minister Noureddine Bhiri and former interior ministry official Fathi Baldi. Both were arrested by plainclothes police officers on Dec 31 and later accused of possible "terrorism" offences, and have been held largely incommunicado, according to rights groups. The 63-year-old Bhiri, who suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and a heart condition, has been on a hunger strike since he was detained and was hospitalized shortly after his arrest. - AFP