Tunisians to vote on constitution that gives President authority over gov’t, judiciary

‘Many think the people are not ready for democracy since parties can easily buy votes. They think we were much better off under Ben Ali’s dictatorship’

 TUNISIA WAS once considered the Arab Spring’s sole success story, but President Kais Saied has dissolved parliament, dismissed the government and assumed autocratic powers.  (photo credit: MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS)
TUNISIA WAS once considered the Arab Spring’s sole success story, but President Kais Saied has dissolved parliament, dismissed the government and assumed autocratic powers.
(photo credit: MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS)

Tunisian President Kais Saied is urging citizens to vote “yes” in a referendum on a proposed constitution on July 25.

For more stories from The Media Line go to themedialine.org

But Prof. Sadok Belaid, the head of the advisory commission on the constitution, says that changes made to the draft by the president could pave the way for “a disgraceful dictatorial regime.”

Belaid added in an open letter published in the Tunisian newspaper Assabah on Thursday that Saied’s draft does not match the one the commission formulated.

“It is our duty to strongly and truthfully announce that the constitution that was officially published … and presented for referendum is not relevant to the constitution we prepared and sent to the president,” he wrote.

On Saturday, the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union also criticized the constitution, saying that it could endanger democracy in the country.

Tunisian presidential candidate Kais Saied reacts after exit poll results were announced in a second round runoff of the presidential election in Tunis, Tunisia October 13, 2019. (credit: ZOUBEIR SOUISSI / REUTERS)Tunisian presidential candidate Kais Saied reacts after exit poll results were announced in a second round runoff of the presidential election in Tunis, Tunisia October 13, 2019. (credit: ZOUBEIR SOUISSI / REUTERS)

Tunisia is considered by many the only country that successfully developed toward democracy as a result of the Arab Spring uprisings. But on July 25, 2021, amid an economic crisis, President Saied declared a state of emergency, dismissed the government, and froze the parliament. Since then, he has ruled by decree.

Exactly one year later, Tunisians will vote to approve or reject Saied’s proposed constitution.

Hamish Kinnear, a Middle East and North Africa analyst with Verisk Maplecroft, a risk intelligence company based in Bath, England, told The Media Line the proposed constitution envisages a political system in which presidential powers are vastly expanded.

If approved, he said, “it would enable Saied to remain president beyond the currently permitted two presidential terms.

“The proposed constitutional changes are being used by President Saied to codify his seizure of legislative and judicial powers since last July into law,” Kinnear said.

Nelia Charchour, who described herself as a Tunisian militant for democracy active since 2000, explained in an interview with The Media Line that the Tunisians have mixed feelings toward the president.

All Tunisians consider Saied to be an honest man, she said. But there are two clearly defined schools of thought that have taken different positions concerning his July 2021 decision to freeze the parliament’s operation, she continued.

“One group considers that the president deserves full support just because he got rid of the Islamists and a parliament that used to totally ignore the president,” said Charchour.

This group also considers his honesty enough to justify him ruling the country as he wishes after decades of deep financial and political corruption, she added.

The second movement considers the July 2021 changes an unconstitutional coup against democracy, noted Charchour.

“They think the president gave himself all the latitude to prepare for a new dictatorship. They consider his honesty insufficient to justify him ruling freely, without any check and balances.”

Kinnear noted that according to the available opinion polls, which predate the unveiling of the amended proposed constitution, Saied remains popular among the country’s approximately 12 million people.

Fadel, a program officer with an international NGO in Tunisia, told The Media Line that the majority of Tunisians love and respect Saied, “because he was an apolitical figure and he rose from nothing and became the president with no party or support or whatever. He is also known for being honest and faithful and someone who wants to do good things for his country.”

Nevertheless, Fadel added, power leads to dictatorship, and that’s why checks and balances are needed.

Charchour said that the entire opposition fears a new dictatorship. On the other hand, she continued, “many think Tunisian people are not mentally and economically ready for democracy since parties can easily buy votes. They think we were much better off under [President Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali’s [1987-2011] dictatorship.”

She added that it is too early to know whether the Tunisians will support Saied. “Only the ballot boxes can tell who is still with Kais Saied and who is against him,” she said.

Kinnear added that a spectrum of political parties is opposing the constitutional amendments and calling for a boycott of the referendum.

He noted, however, that as there is no minimum participation rate for the referendum to be considered valid, a boycott could increase the chances that the constitutional changes are approved.

Kinnear continued, “There is also good reason to be skeptical of how free and fair the vote will be. President Saied seized control of the electoral commission and appointed a new board, undermining its independence.”

Charchour added that the political parties are very weak separately and not representative enough. “They are not showing enough patriotism to unite around a single position,” she said.