After the Referendum, Tunisia’s Democracy on the Brink
Federica Zoja 4 August 2022

One year after the coup by which Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed froze the parliament, fired the prime minister, and concentrated all major powers within the presidency, the situation remains more uncertain than ever. The July 25 constitutional referendum added further instability to this already confusing picture.

Although the Yes camp began celebrating victory a few hours after the polling stations closed, the results of the popular consultation will not be available until the end of August. Anything can happen, given the high number of appeals on the horizon and the controversy over the actual rate of affluence.

According to the Electoral Commission, two million Tunisians voted in favor of the new constitutional charter, or 94.6 percent of voters, compared to 148,723 who voted against it, or 5.4 percent. The voter turnout rate was 30.5 percent, of a total of 9,278,541 registered voters.

Challenged by oppositions and the independent press, the chairman of the Election Commission, Farouk Bouasker, called on all those who have doubts about the veracity of those figures to turn to the courts and stressed that verification procedures are underway. As if to say, the authorities themselves are leaving a means of escape open in case of persistent disputes. Rumors are circulating from several quarters that Mr. Saied himself is considering launching a new consultation process.


Farewell to the Jasmine Constitution

On July 25th, Tunisians were asked to vote on substantial changes to the Constitution that came into effect in January 2014.

Back then, a citizen-elected Constituent Assembly had worked for months painstakingly seeking a balance between all the political ideologies represented in the assembly. The balance of public power was its cornerstone. Equally fundamental was the weight given to Islam, circumscribed within precise delineations. Equal dignity between men and women was another indispensable pillar.

However, detractors of the parliamentary system believe that the very mechanisms designed to avert a return to a dictatorship such as the one of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali contributed to paralyzing government action, hindering the approval of structural reforms that Tunisia sorely needed in the post-(2011) Revolution era.

Hence Saïed’s plan – promoted as early as his election campaign in 2019 – for a shift towards a presidential system.

On June 30, the new text of the constitutional charter, the result of the work of a presidentially appointed commission that lasted barely a month, was published in the Tunisian Official Gazette: yet the leader of the constitutional experts, Sadok Belaïd, immediately disavowed the work, complaining to the media that the draft circulated did not correspond to the one prepared by the working group.


A new genetic code

The changes introduced with respect to the 2014 Constitution are significant. In the new text, Islam is no longer the “state religion,” but Tunisia “is part of the Umma,” that is, the Islamic nation, and therefore the state apparatuses will have to “pursue the objectives of the community of Muslims.” It is a concept with unclear boundaries, easily instrumentalized in multiple spheres: from the possibility – or not – for women to inherit the property of a deceased family member on par with men, to that of a child to be adopted outright or just ‘entrusted’ to a family.

In essence, if the new reference of Tunisian justice becomes Islamic law – the examples cited pertain specifically to family law, which is particularly thorny – the legal scenario will look increasingly similar to that of Egypt, moving away from a path of secularization embarked upon 70 years ago.

The role of the president is the other central aspect of the reform: he will enjoy total immunity and will exercise executive power, together with a prime minister appointed by him. The ‘chosen one’ will have minimal freedom to maneuver, as he or she can be dismissed without parliamentary involvement.

Among the head of state’s prerogatives will be the appointment of top military and judicial figures. Meanwhile, from a single chamber, the parliamentary system will become bicameral, with the creation of a Council of Regions. The right to strike is guaranteed, but not for the military, police, and judiciary. Not surprisingly, the judiciary itself has been protesting for weeks, denouncing the risk of authoritarianism.

NGOs, associations, trade unions, religious minorities, and all the parties that led Tunisia from 2014 to July 2021 spoke out jointly against the June 30 draft. An uprising that prompted the president, backed into a corner, to personally intervene – clumsily – on the text in early July by making new adjustments. However, this did not change the minds of opponents, who called for the boycott of the referendum, even though there was no minimum quorum to legitimize the vote.

Most importantly, and this is what needs to be emphasized, what final text Tunisians voted on is unclear. Those available on institutional sites or circulated in the pro-government press diverge. What, if anything, will come into effect is not a given.


The President speeds up his plan

After taking part in the “Yes” celebrations by personally descending on the streets of downtown Tunis with his supporters, Saïed wasted no time, receiving PM Najla Bouden to discuss the organization of the upcoming parliamentary elections, those of the nascent Council of Regions, and a “special” electoral reform. An ad hoc presidential decree could soon be issued amid the political inertia of parties collapsed on themselves and hounded by the courts. On a particularly fragile position is the Islamic Ennahda party, which had a chance, both alone and in tandem with the modernists, to govern the country in the post-revolutionary phase and failed across the board.

Brought to its knees by youth unemployment, a devaluation of the dinar, and galloping inflation, Tunisia is thus forced to beg the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for yet another loan on even harsher terms than before. Crippled by the pandemic and the socio-economic effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine, it is also snubbed by Gulf investors, who are focusing their efforts in Egypt and Turkey.

The president is ‘settling scores’ with Ennahda Islamists through the courts: their leader, Rached Ghannouchi, whose material assets have been frozen, is free but on parole. Charges ranging from money laundering to support for terrorist organizations hang over the leadership of the party, a political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.

To date, Kaïs Saïed’s presidency enjoys the support of younger people – according to Sigma Conseil, voters between the ages of 18 and 25 – and a lower-middle class exhausted by the crisis. By leveraging precisely this social stratum, Saïed may even decide to drive Ennahda and its acolytes back into hiding, outlawing them entirely. The great unknown is the ability of civil society, both traditionalist and liberally inspired, to perceive the danger from this authoritarian turn disguised as a ‘stabilizing’ maneuver.

In the coming weeks, the future of Tunisia’s young and fragile democracy will truly play out.


Cover Photo: Farouk Bouasker, president of Tunisia’s High Authority for Elections, announces the unofficial results of the 25 July constitutional referendum – Tunis, July 26, 2022 (Yassine Gaidi /Anadolu Agency via AFP).

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