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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Tunisia’s New Constitution Raises Prospect of a Return to Authoritarianism

Tunisia's New Constitution
Tunisian protesters chant slogans against President Kais Saied and the upcoming constitutional referendum to be held on July 25. FETHI BELAID / AFP

Dana Hourany

Ghaya Ben Mbarek will not be heading to the polls to vote for the referendum on Tunisia‘s new constitution on July 25.

Skimming through the draft constitution published in late June, the 27-year-old journalist fears that it will pass in an overwhelming vote.

“The president wields significant power over the population through populist language and the frequent recall of failed political leaders from the past,” she said. “What concerns me the most, at the moment is the lack of response from the street.”

Following the announcement of the constitutional referendum set by president Kais Saied in late June, hundreds of Tunisians took to the streets to protest what many deemed an attempt to consolidate power.

However, the streets of Tunisia have been deserted for some weeks now. Few scattered talks have been circulating by a “fragmented” opposition formed mostly of civil society groups, human rights activists, journalists, and political parties calling for mobilization but failing to garner public interest, Ben Mbarek says.

“The opposition’s disorderly conduct and unrelatable character make it difficult for the common person to devote time to listen to their speeches and put trust in their arguments,” Ben Mbarek said.

Since Tunisians have lost faith in the opposition, Saied took it upon himself to propose a new constitution that grants him broad powers and curtails the authority of the prime minister and parliament. Analysts and social observers note that such a system fosters increasing despotism and undermines the gains made during the Arab Spring.

The spark of the Arab spring

The North African country sparked the Arab spring uprisings after an intense campaign of civil resistance in 2011.

Unrest began after a young Tunisian vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself ablaze outside a municipal office in central Tunisia on December 17, 2010, in protest of police harassment and intimidation.

Bouazizi’s death on January 4, 2011, spawned nationwide protests against the dire economic situation and the country’s authoritarian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whose 23-year-rule ended in 10 days.

Despite the failure of numerous uprisings across the MENA region to bring in democracy in countries with established and powerful regimes that utilized state brutality to suppress protestors, Tunisia was hailed as the lone victor.

The decade that followed saw increased access to fairer elections, free expression, and the introduction of a new constitution. However, it fell short of the people’s aspirations for political and economic reforms that fueled the 2011 protests.

“I don’t believe we ever transitioned into a democratic state,” Ben Mbarek argued. “The process began in 2011 and is still ongoing. It’s true that we gained valuable freedoms that we wouldn’t otherwise have access to, but it is not over yet.”

In 2013 – two years into the country’s first publicly elected presidency – 71% of Tunisians said that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.” However, this number has since dropped to 46% in the span of five years.

The once optimistic citizenry has grown overwhelmingly suspicious of the democratically elected government as a result of rampant corruption and rising unemployment and poverty rates.

The rise of Kais Saied

61-year-old retired academic, Kais Saied rose to power in 2019 after a landslide victory in the presidential elections, winning 73% of the votes.

Reuters reported at the time that voters were impressed by Saeid’s reputation “of not being corruptible.”

“After the 2011 revolution, people became disillusioned with the ineffective rule of democratic politicians. Saeid, on the other hand, appeared as an outsider, with no history of corruption and the capacity to present alternatives,” Ben Mbarek argued.

The previous president, Beji Caid Essebsi who took office in 2014, had not delivered on the economic promises of the revolution.

Instead, the post-revolution outcome birthed deadlock in the parliamentary system, with new governments at a rate of one per year, and three in the last 12 months, according to the New York Times. Political parties, spearheaded by business elites, also fell out of favor with the people.

Past influential opposition powers, such as the Islamist party Ennahda – who held the majority in parliament in 2021– lost significant influence over the years, prompting citizens to further relinquish faith in democratic “opposition” figures.

Anti-government sentiment climaxed during last summer’s Covid-19 wave when violent clashes erupted between security forces and protestors who set fire to Ennahda’s local headquarters and demanded that the government step down.

This was followed by arbitrary arrests of Saeid’s opponents and the use of military courts to prosecute civilians.

Taking ten steps back

Saeid’s amendment to the constitution did not come as a surprise to analysts.

The draft was unveiled almost a year after Saied sacked the government and froze parliament.

Although the president described the move as necessary to “save the country,” fears are mounting over a potential return to authoritarianism.

Sadeq Belaid, the legal expert who headed the committee to draw up the new constitution, stated that the published text had “nothing to do with the text we drafted and submitted to the president.”

The new draft does not guarantee judiciary independence and removes the necessary mechanisms to hold authorities accountable. Article 96 omits needed provisions to protect human rights under a state of emergency and article 5 states that Tunisia “belongs to the Islamic Ummah” and says the state is required to “achieve the purposes of Islam in preserving [people’s] souls, money, religion, and liberty,” to name a few.

Sarah Yerkes, senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Program, told Fanack that Saeid took advantage of the country’s economic downfall to consolidate power into his own hands and to build a political reality akin to his beliefs on salvaging the country’s economic downfall.

“Saeid was never a revolutionary figure that advocated for demonstrations in 2011,” Yerkes said. “He believes in a one-man rule that places him as the final arbiter of power. So the hailed freedom of speech and freedom of press born out of the 2011 revolution might be at risk once the referendum passes.”

The National Salvation Front formed of five political parties, including Ennahda, has called for a boycott of the referendum. However, Yerkes believes that their efforts will bear little to no impact on the outcome.

An uncertain future

In light of Saeid’s mounting dictatorial approach, the analyst argues that support for the president dwindles by the day. This bolsters the chances of a potential retaliation that may unravel.

According to Intissar Fakir, Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Institute’s North Africa and Sahel Program , people’s concerns about the new political system are dampened by their preoccupation with the economy and previous disappointments with parliament.

“Although I wouldn’t discount efforts for mobilization, I’m uncertain how far-reaching they might be,” Fakir said.

Fakir identifies three factors that will shape the outcome of the July 25 election: the groups plotting to mobilize and the extent of their mobilization, boycott calls that could render the constitution illegitimate if Saeid’s supporters are the only ones who vote, and doubts about the legitimacy of the voting process.

However, Fakir doubts the prospect of a situation similar to that of the 2011 revolt.

“There’s an incredible sense of frustration among the Tunisians to finally reach palpable results and to rectify the damages of the post-revolution decade,” Fakir said. “So the understanding of Saeid’s risky gamble does not overshadow the people’s overwhelming sense of despair for any sort of remedy.”

In terms of regional ramifications, Yerkes claims that a weaker democracy strains relations with the international community, which may grow hesitant to assist Tunisia.

Fakir believes that Saeid’s Islamic rhetoric is a populist attempt to codify his personal opinions about how the constitution must look like in the future.

Both analysts agree that the current dent in Tunisia’s democracy represents a significant step back but does not mark its end.

“Tunisians are aware of what’s going on and they are well-capable of voicing their demands. Many people are fully committed to democracy and are not willing to give up. It’s too early to tell what the future may look like but Tunisians are fully capable of turning things around,” Yerkes said.

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