Tunisian judges on Sunday rejected President Kais Saied's moves to disband the council that oversees them, a move they see as undermining their independence, setting up a new struggle over his consolidation of power.
Saied announced overnight he was dissolving the Supreme Judicial Council, one of the few remaining state bodies still able to act independently of him, the latest in a series of moves his opponents call a coup.
In July he suddenly suspended parliament, dismissed the prime minister and said he could rule by decree, and has since said he will rewrite the 2014 democratic constitution before putting it to a public referendum.
Saied has vowed to uphold rights and freedoms won in the 2011 revolution that introduced democracy, but his critics say he is leaning increasingly on the security forces and fear he will take a harsher stance against dissent.
Tunisia's dire economic problems and a looming crisis in public finances risk undermining Saied's declared plan to reset the 2011 revolution with a new constitution, raising the possibility of public unrest.
Saied has been tussling with the judiciary for months, criticizing its decisions, accusing it of corruption and saying it has been infiltrated by his political enemies.
The Supreme Judicial Council head, Youssef Bouzakher, early on Sunday said its dissolution was illegal and marked an attempt to bring judges under presidential instruction.
"Judges will not stay silent," he warned.
Later, two other judicial organizations condemned the move as unconstitutional. The Young Magistrates Association said it was part of a political purge of the judiciary and the Judges Association said Saied was trying to amass all powers in his own hands.
Saied, a constitutional law professor before running for president in 2019, is married to a judge and has repeatedly said that the judiciary should remember it represents a function of the state rather than being the state itself.
In January, he revoked financial privileges for the council's members, accusing the independent body established in 2016 of appointing judges to their positions based on loyalty to its leadership.
"Their place is not where they sit now, but where the accused stand," Saied said of the council members in his overnight speech, delivered from the building of the Interior Ministry, which oversees Tunisia's security forces.
Saied had called on supporters to protest against the council on Sunday, but only a few hundred people turned up. Some held a banner saying, "The people want to cleanse the judiciary."
Several main parties in the suspended parliament, including the moderate Islamist Ennahda which has been part of successive governments since 2011, accuse Saied of a coup.
Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, who is also the speaker of the suspended parliament, said in a statement on Sunday that the body rejected Saied's decision to dissolve the council and voiced solidarity with the judges.
Three other parties, Attayar, Joumhouri and Ettakatol, issued a joint statement rejecting the move.