Tunisia—Towards the End of the Dream of Democracy

1 August, 2022
Hun­dreds of pro­test­ers gath­er in front of Tunis’ Munic­i­pal The­atre on July 25, 2022 (pho­to cour­tesy Twitter).


An over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of 94.6% vot­ed “yes” in Tunisi­a’s con­sti­tu­tion­al ref­er­en­dum last Mon­day, accord­ing to the chair­man of the elec­toral author­i­ty ISIE, Farouk Bouasker, What does that mean for Tunisian democracy? 


Emna Mizouni

Last Mon­day, the 25th of July, one year after Tunisia’s back­slide, sev­er­al hun­dred peo­ple gath­ered in front of Tunis’ Munic­i­pal The­atre, men, women, elders, to pre­ma­ture­ly cel­e­brate the President’s new con­sti­tu­tion. The sup­port­ers’ reac­tion was a fore­gone con­clu­sion giv­en that the result was known before vot­ing even start­ed. Unfair cam­paign prac­tices, uneth­i­cal appoint­ments to the Inde­pen­dent High Author­i­ty for Elec­tions (ISIE), and oth­er process ques­tions left many Tunisians who did not make it to the Munic­i­pal The­atre that day dis­en­chant­ed or wil­ful­ly dis­en­gaged. Sim­i­lar to the jubilee of the 25th of July, 2021, the few sup­port­ers who did gath­er were cheer­ing to get rid of Ennahd­ha (the Islam­ic demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty) and the exist­ing polit­i­cal class. For the cel­e­brat­ing pro­test­ers, these politi­cians led the coun­try to eco­nom­ic straits and didn’t tru­ly ful­fill the aspi­ra­tions of the 2011 rev­o­lu­tion. Their joy con­trast­ed with a few days ear­li­er, where, in the same loca­tion, hun­dreds of cit­i­zen pro­test­ers stand­ing against the same draft con­sti­tu­tion were bru­tal­ly repressed by the police, with some arrested.

As much as one could sym­pa­thize with their joy and aspi­ra­tions for a bet­ter future, it falls short of the real­i­ty of a fraud­u­lent process and a com­pro­mised elec­tions’ body legit­imiz­ing unac­count­able one-per­son rule through a draft con­sti­tu­tion that many peo­ple did not even read or under­stand. A jour­ney towards author­i­tar­i­an­ism start­ed on 25th of July, 2021 and led to Pres­i­dent Saïed seiz­ing pow­er grad­u­al­ly to opaque­ly draft a new con­sti­tu­tion, despite los­ing the faith of most of his pres­i­den­tial advi­sors and some polit­i­cal sup­port­ers. While a com­mis­sion was cre­at­ed to advise on the con­sti­tu­tion, its mem­bers denounced the doc­u­ment upon its release, at the end of June 2022. Most observers and ana­lysts, and the major­i­ty of Tunisians who chose to abstain dur­ing the ref­er­en­dum, agree that this new con­sti­tu­tion direct­ly threat­ens checks and bal­ances, polit­i­cal plu­ral­i­ty, and core prin­ci­ples of what made Tunisia the sole demo­c­ra­t­ic regime post-Arab Spring.

The Pres­i­dent of the ISIE, Mr. Bouasker announced that the final results are 2,830,094 vot­ers out of 9,278,541 reg­is­tered. Ini­tial­ly, Bouasker announced dif­fer­ent num­bers for the vot­ers: 2,458,985 vot­ers par­tic­i­pat­ed in the ref­er­en­dum out of 8,929,665 reg­is­tered vot­ers. So about 400,000 vot­ers were added to the count after 10 pm on July 25th. These num­bers are high­er than the mar­gin of error of vot­ers with­in the coun­try and exceed the reg­is­tered vot­ers abroad in the Amer­i­c­as. This addi­tion of vot­ers is dubi­ous, giv­en the goal of the regime to reach the need­ed par­tic­i­pa­tion thresh­old to legit­imize the vote.

Sur­pris­ing­ly, con­sid­er­ing grow­ing unpop­u­lar­i­ty since Kaïs Saïed first took pow­er, the num­ber of “yes” votes almost matched the num­ber of peo­ple who vot­ed for Saïed in the sec­ond round of the 2019 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. Yet, this is a low fig­ure for Saïed, who would have wished for a much high­er turnout to jus­ti­fy his one-year slow-mov­ing one-man regime and hyper-pres­i­den­tial con­sol­i­da­tion of power.

While many nation­al and inter­na­tion­al out­lets pro­claim that “Tunisia” endorsed the draft con­sti­tu­tion as pre­sent­ed to the 25 July ref­er­en­dum, it’s essen­tial to recall that this process was marred by inci­dents, incon­sis­ten­cies, obstruc­tions, and breach­es — before and dur­ing vot­ing day.

Dur­ing vot­ing day and in many places across the coun­try, some vot­ing cen­ters refused to announce the exact par­tic­i­pa­tion rates to civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions and mar­ket research firms observ­ing the process. The lack of trans­paren­cy appeared aimed at elim­i­nat­ing any poten­tial incon­sis­ten­cies with rates lat­er announced by the ISIE.

An enor­mous por­trait of Tunisian Pres­i­dent Kaïs Saïed looms over Kairouan (pho­to Kabil Bousena/AFP).

Observers also report­ed a num­ber of sig­nif­i­cant breach­es. For instance, dur­ing the (short) cam­paign, nation­al main­stream TV chan­nels main­ly pro­mot­ed the “yes” vote by a few unknown polit­i­cal par­ties and orga­ni­za­tions, which skewed a fair cov­er­age of “no” and boy­cott argu­ments. Dur­ing vot­ing day, Pres­i­dent Saïed broke elec­toral silence when cast­ing his vote in a speech to the press. Inter­na­tion­al observers, such as from the EU or the Carter Cen­ter, did not par­tic­i­pate, and many local observers lacked ade­quate training.

It’s worth not­ing that, in the last three years fol­low­ing the pres­i­den­tial and leg­isla­tive elec­tions, many changes occurred to the elec­torate, but giv­en the change in the nature of the ISIE and the short time­line for the ref­er­en­dum, many decid­ed to boy­cott. Many vot­ers doubt­ed offi­cial results from the ISIE, giv­en that, fol­low­ing the spe­cial mea­sures in 2021, the Pres­i­dent direct­ly appoint­ed mem­bers of the ISIE, under­min­ing the institution’s impar­tial­i­ty, a trend which goes in hand with oth­er rebuffs, such as the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Venice Com­mis­sion on the neu­tral­i­ty and cred­i­bil­i­ty of the elec­tions and ref­er­en­dum upon his Decree 22.

Among those who sup­port­ed Saïed’s con­sti­tu­tion, when asked about their rea­sons to vote in favor of it, they cit­ed socioe­co­nom­ic hard­ships and social unrest, recent­ly exac­er­bat­ed by the pan­dem­ic and the impact of the war in Ukraine. Dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, Tunisia suf­fered through a col­laps­ing health care sys­tem and wit­nessed the high­est death rate per capi­ta in Africa with lim­it­ed ini­tial access to vac­ci­na­tions, lat­er mit­i­gat­ed through inter­na­tion­al sup­port. Tunisia relies on wheat exports, a major­i­ty of which come from the Black Sea, includ­ing Rus­sia and Ukraine. The war in Ukraine has dis­rupt­ed sup­ply chains, while dri­ving prices of oth­er essen­tial goods up, such as oil, sug­ar, flour, and semoli­na, lead­ing to rationing in many instances, before and dur­ing Ramadan.

The “yes” camp argues for sta­bil­i­ty — low­er infla­tion, employ­ment, and eco­nom­ic growth. They want to see an end to the mis­ery of the last decade, get rid of an inef­fi­cient par­lia­ment giv­en the last leg­is­la­ture (elect­ed in 2019 and dis­man­tled in 2021), and many are against the Ennahd­ha move­ment, includ­ing Rached AlGhan­noushi and the rise of the Islamists. Only a lim­it­ed num­ber of “yes” votes were cast because they were con­vinced by the pro­posed new constitution.

Age, edu­ca­tion (below uni­ver­si­ty lev­el) and the geo­graph­ic loca­tion (north­west and cen­ter-west deprived and mar­gin­al­ized regions main­ly) were key dri­vers of the “yes” vote. Women, old­er cit­i­zens (mid­dle-age to elder­ly) vot­ed “yes,” while the youth who vot­ed for the Saïed in 2019 most­ly abstained.

The lack of inclu­sion dur­ing the con­sti­tu­tion­al draft­ing process influ­enced the deci­sion to boy­cott. Fatigue with the unsta­ble polit­i­cal scene, lim­it­ed trust in the polit­i­cal sys­tem and the belief that the result will be fraud­u­lent or could not affect real change, not to speak of a sim­ple lack of civic engage­ment, con­tributed to the high rate of abstention.

For many in oppo­si­tion cir­cles, which includ­ed a major­i­ty of the edu­cat­ed, express­ing sup­port for  the “no” vote derived from fear of slid­ing back to the days of dic­ta­tor­ship, giv­en police vio­lence against most of the peace­ful oppo­si­tion protests, and Saïed’s lim­it­ed results since his dras­tic polit­i­cal mea­sures in 2021. The “no” vot­ers also refused to agree with the con­tent of the pro­posed con­sti­tu­tion and the con­cen­tra­tion of pow­ers in the hands of the Pres­i­dent. This isn’t a mere per­cep­tion since the draft con­sti­tu­tion enshrines a lack of sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers, with the Pres­i­dent grant­ed to over­see the exec­u­tive, leg­isla­tive and judi­cial branch­es, includ­ing pow­ers to ter­mi­nate any of their man­dates, while remain­ing unac­count­able. The Pres­i­dent will now have the right to direct­ly dis­solve the par­lia­ment, rather than such action being tak­en by the con­sti­tu­tion­al court (he opposed its appoint­ment in 2021).

Tunisian women have enlist­ed in the fight for democ­ra­cy (pho­to Kabil Bousena/AFP).

As for the con­sti­tu­tion in ques­tion, its process went through dif­fer­ent stages: from a nation­al online con­sul­ta­tion with a poor par­tic­i­pa­tion rate to a biased cam­paign. The nation­al orga­ni­za­tions and polit­i­cal par­ties that called for the boy­cott believed that par­tic­i­pa­tion would legit­imize the process. Boy­cotters high­light­ed low turnout for the nation­al con­sul­ta­tion, the mis­lead­ing announce­ment of the Pres­i­dent regard­ing the con­sul­ta­tions’ results, as well as the announce­ment of the con­sti­tu­tion­al com­mis­sion despite major crit­i­cism on the inclu­sive­ness of the process.

The first draft of Saïed’s con­sti­tu­tion was pub­lished for the pub­lic on June 30th, 2022. Imme­di­ate crit­i­cism on its con­tent, includ­ing gram­mat­i­cal, and fun­da­men­tal errors, led the Pres­i­dent to hasti­ly pub­lish a cor­rect­ed ver­sion. Many experts, media com­men­ta­tors, politi­cians, lawyers and judges denounced the con­tent of Saïed’s con­sti­tu­tion in non-state owned media, giv­en major con­cerns and threats to demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples and human rights.

For exam­ple, in Arti­cle 55, leg­is­la­tion could lim­it cit­i­zens’ rights and free­doms in cer­tain cas­es, such as of nation­al secu­ri­ty, defense or pub­lic health. This arti­cle can be inter­pret­ed to pro­vide ways to shrink the civic space even more, lim­it­ing the free­dom of infor­ma­tion, media and press, the right to pub­lic trans­paren­cy in any mat­ter under the label of nation­al secu­ri­ty, espe­cial­ly in the era of a con­tin­u­ous state of emer­gency. Sim­i­lar legal inter­pre­ta­tions and abuse of pow­er using the state of emer­gency brought par­lia­men­tar­i­ans and civil­ians to the mil­i­tary court before and after 25th of July, 2021. Fur­ther­more, a cou­ple of days before the ref­er­en­dum, jour­nal­ists, includ­ing the Pres­i­dent of the Jour­nal­ists Union SNJT, Mr. Mohamed Yassin Jlas­si, were beat­en up on Habib Bour­gui­ba Avenue while protest­ing against this con­sti­tu­tion­al project and the restric­tion of media and threats to democ­ra­cy, while many were arrest­ed, as recalled ear­li­er. On the day of the ref­er­en­dum, some of the observers and media on the ground were harassed while col­lect­ing data in some vot­ing cen­ters, which inter­rupt­ed their work.

Anoth­er con­tro­ver­sial arti­cle is Arti­cle 90, which states in case of war or immi­nent dan­ger, the pres­i­den­tial man­date could be extend­ed until the sit­u­a­tion goes back to nor­mal. This new con­sti­tu­tion could ren­der any sce­nario as a rea­son to an inde­ter­mi­nate man­date. By shift­ing from the polit­i­cal regime to the pres­i­den­tial one, not only would Saïed main­tain absolute pow­er, but it could be for an unlim­it­ed time, exem­pli­fied by his inter­pre­ta­tion of Arti­cle 80 of the 2014 Con­sti­tu­tion using immi­nent dan­ger to take over the gov­ern­ment and freeze the parliament.

The most con­tro­ver­sial arti­cle of Saïed’s con­sti­tu­tion is Arti­cle 5. Based on the Islam­ic Maqasid doc­trine, it clear­ly states that the State is to pre­serve human life, reli­gion, lin­eage, and prop­er­ty. It sug­gests that Tunisia is part of the “Islam­ic Nation,” con­sis­tent with Ennahda’s project of his­tor­i­cal and geopo­lit­i­cal iden­ti­ty. This has impli­ca­tions for fur­ther entwin­ing the con­sti­tu­tion and the State with sharia law. This main arti­cle was the rea­son why many believe that Saïed’s project will dri­ve the coun­try towards becom­ing an Islam­ic Repub­lic. Com­pared to the 2014 Con­sti­tu­tion that grant­ed the right of faith and free­dom of reli­gious belief, this adopt­ed ver­sion could open Pandora’s Box to review and revoke indi­vid­ual free­doms that the cit­i­zens of Tunisia have gained over the years and after the 2011 upris­ing. This also has the poten­tial to upend the gains in rights that women won grad­u­al­ly since the country’s inde­pen­dence. Sim­i­lar­ly the dra­mat­ic over­turn­ing of Roe vs Wade in the Unit­ed States, could pro­vide polit­i­cal cov­er for those who would seek to ques­tion women’s rights in the new con­sti­tu­tion. In such an envi­ron­ment, activists and orga­ni­za­tions will be try­ing to main­tain what was already achieved. 

The whole vot­ing process and Kaïs Saïed’s new con­sti­tu­tion give the illu­sion of bring­ing solu­tions to exist­ing chal­lenges of a col­laps­ing econ­o­my and social unrest foment­ed by the dys­func­tion of the pre­vi­ous polit­i­cal dis­course. How­ev­er, the results will not be direct­ly actu­al­ized and the result­ing unrest when eco­nom­ic con­di­tions do not imme­di­ate­ly improve could trig­ger major protests and chaos.

Since 1957, Tunisians have been cel­e­brat­ing Repub­lic Day on July 25th. In 2021, Saïed chose this same day and anniver­sary to freeze the par­lia­ment, and dis­miss the Prime Min­is­ter. A year lat­er, the dream of democ­ra­cy in Tunisia is ending.

The chal­lenges this con­sti­tu­tion presents have cat­alyzed pre­vi­ous­ly dis­persed polit­i­cal par­ties to con­sol­i­date against the president’s project. Now it is up to the dif­fer­ent actors in Tunisian soci­ety; cit­i­zens, orga­ni­za­tions, and polit­i­cal par­ties to stop this back­slide. Oth­er­wise, it would be the end of the only “frag­ile” democ­ra­cy that sur­vived a decade after the Arab uprising.



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