Where is Tunisia heading? That is a tricky question. While it is still too early to suppose that Tunisia is returning to authoritarianism, it is also hard to ignore that the north African country that hosted the first spark of the Arab Spring, is falling off the track of democratization. The new republic that the Tunisian president, Kais Saied, has been trying to establish since his unforeseen power grab, last year, will be free from the Muslim Brotherhood. That is a progress worthy of celebration, on the condition that he will not open the political door wide open for the far-right Salafists to replace them, similar to the case of Egypt. Yet, at the same time, Saied’s new republic may austerely put brakes on the progress of civil and political rights, if not completely suppressing them, under the prerogative of prioritizing economic reform. That is a potential regress that is worthy of worry.
The New Republic
The new constitution, which is perfectly tailored by the law professor, Saied, to enhance his presidential powers, warns that the general mood in Tunisia has become more tolerant to upholding the long and tedious process of political change, in hope that this may accelerate the process of economic reform. Tunisians have been bragging about being the only Arab Spring country that have had the longest streak on the trajectory of peaceful political transformation, after the overthrow of Ben Ali’s dictatorship. Though, apparently, the heightening economic crisis is pushing the socio-economic agenda to the forefront on the expense of continuing with the pursuit of democracy. That is creating a perfect atmosphere for Saied to proceed with building the new republic.
The term ‘new republic’ is originally Egyptian. It was first coined by the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, to highlight the progress of social and economic developments under his first seven years in power. El-Sisi played a central role in ousting the Muslim Brotherhood out of political power in Egypt, in 2013, after which a new constitution was written and he got voted in as state president. Since the beginning of Saied’s power grab in Tunisia, his opponents could not help accusing him of copying El-Sisi’s scheme, especially that Saied’s war on the officials of his own regime started only three months after his return from Cairo and meeting with the Egyptian president.
When Kais Saied was in Cairo, in mid-April of last year, the Tunisian streets had been boiling with protests that called for holding the political elite accountable for practicing corruption and failure manage the economic crisis, that was magnified by the consequences of the pandemic. The protests did not stop until Saied decided, on the night of July 25th, to make use of the exceptional powers given to the president in Article 80 of the constitution, that he rewrote later. He dissolved the government and the parliament, which was dominated by the Islamist Ennahda party, to make himself the new center of power.
Then, Saied recorded video statement assuring the people that he is not a dictator and that these arbitrary procedures were necessary to control the public outrage and put an end to economic suffering. "There is no withdrawal from respecting rights and freedoms, and there is no room for infringement or assault on them," confirmed Saied. He also confirmed that he willingly chose to stand by the people to “preserve the unity of the state and protect it from the corruption that is decaying its joints.” Saied concluded his video statement by saying: "Insha’Allah, we will win! It is a war, but without bullets or blood. It is a war based on the law. A war for justice and freedom. We will keep our oath and our responsibility, all the way.”
Surprisingly, the angry masses applauded Saied’s power grab and believed his message. Basically, people wanted to take a break from the ‘three presidencies’ system of governance that was the main reason behind state failure in meeting people’s needs. Out of fear of sliding back into the web of the deep state, the post-revolution constitution in Tunisia tailored a system of governance that is neither presidential nor parliamentarian. Rather, it was a new system based on balancing the decision-making process between three authorities – or ‘presidencies;’ namely: the President of the State, the Prime Minister (the president of the government), and the Speaker of Parliament (the president of the legislative authority).
While the three presidencies system kept all the competing parties in the political elite happy, it paralyzed the process of decision-making in the state. For three years, since Kais Saied got elected as president, Tunisia could not achieve any tangible progress under the three presidents, whose agendas and visions are not only inconsistent, but also contradicting. Eventually, that wobbled the faltering economy, and consequently stirred nation-wide protests calling for reform. Saied’s response to the people calls, at that time, was inevitable. He had to do something to break the state of political paralysis and bring hope back to the hurts of the people.
Yet, soon after, Saied used the momentum to enhance his grip over political power in an alarming way. He started by removing state officials from government to parliament, judiciary, and even security forces, and replacing them by loyalists; up to rewriting and passing a new permanent constitution that puts all state powers exclusively in the hands of the president and makes him immune to accountability.
The New Constitution
On first anniversary of Saied’s power grab, last week, a minority of Tunisian voters approved the new constitution that Saied wrote with the help of some law specialists, in the past few months. Barely above 2.75 million voters (30.5%) out of 9.3 million registered voters showed up at the poll stations, on July 25th, to participate in the constitutional referendum. According to the official Electoral Commission, which all of its members are also hired by Saied, 94.6% of the participants voted for the new constitution.
The voting on the new constitution was, more or less, a voting on Saied’s vision. Several political parties, either those genuinely supporting Saied’s agenda or those concerned about the return of Ennahda, applauded the results of the referendum and announced their approval to the new constitution. Meanwhile, the opponents of the Tunisian president, and civil society missions that observed the voting process are referring to acts of fraud and forgery that puts the legitimacy of the constitution and of Kais Saied, himself, in question. Currently, the Administrative Court is looking into the appeals submitted by some political parties and civil society organizations to protest the results of the referendum.
In addition to civil society appeals, there are other factors that raises doubts about the authenticity and transparency of the constitutional referendum. One of them is the fact that the board of the Elections Commission, that took the responsibility of organizing the referendum, have recently been replaced by one of Saied’s decrees. That raises questions about the independence of the commission and thus the legitimacy of the whole voting process.
Another factor of concern, here, is the exceptionally low voter turnout. How can the state adopt a constitution based on a voting by 2 million citizens, which is way less than the 50% threshold usually requested in similar referendums. It is an abnormal static for the Tunisian citizens, who are known to be pretty active when it comes to democratic practice. The state-run media and some pro-Saied commentators justify the absence of voters in the constitutional referendum by the hot weather and being people busy with handling economic problems. But, in fact, these issues have never prevented Tunisians from active political participation in past elections. The lowest voter turnout, in the past ten years, was 41.7% in the parliamentary elections of 2019.
Nevertheless, the new constitution is written under the direct supervision of president Saied, during a period of transition and political turmoil. If this new constitution is meant to be permanent, it should at least be written in a time of political stability and with the active participation of all political blocs and civil society representatives. Otherwise, it is a constitution that represents the president who wrote it, and his loyalists who approved it, but not the Tunisian people. Let aside the fact that the new constitution puts all state powers in the hands of the president and makes him the only decision-maker in the state, that is immune to accountability by the parliament, the government, the judicial authority, or even the military institution.
Per this new constitution, Kais Saied will have the power to hire or fire all state officials of all ranks and positions, including the prime minister and the speaker of the parliament. He will also act as the supreme commander of the armed forces and thus can keep himself immune to any attempt by the military to turn against him. In addition, Article 100 of Saied’s new constitution gives him the exclusive right to “set the public policy of the state and define its essential choices, and his legal projects have priority for consideration by the parliament.” This comes with a catch though.
If the Administrative Court annuls or rejects the appeals submitted by some political parties and civil society organizations to protest the referendum process and results, the new constitution will officially go into effect on the 27th of August, after being ratified by the president. That makes Kais Saied, the one who writes the constitution and also ratifies it. However, as soon as the new constitution takes effect, he will find himself in a legal trouble. He was elected president based on the previous constitution. The change of the constitution necessitates the re-election of all the electable governing bodies and officials, including the state president, Kais Saied, whose legitimacy will be terminated as soon as the new constitution is being activated. For sure, the shrewd Saied, who worked as a professor of law for most of his life, will tailor another decree to protect himself against that scenario.
The political scene in Tunisia is terribly muddled. President, Kais Saied, has been solely ruling the country for an entire year through public statements and presidential decrees. He promised not to turn the country into a dictatorship, but the new constitution he is trying to pass on the first anniversary of his power grab does exactly that. The Tunisian people are slowly burying their dream to live in a democratic state, while struggling with an economic crisis that seems to have no end. According to official statistics by the Tunisian government, unemployment rates exceeded 17%, and the economic contraction hit a record rate of 8.2%, in September 2020. According to a survey conducted by the World Bank, in cooperation with the governmental National Institute of Statistics, in 2020, poverty rate in Tunisia reached 15.2%. At least, 30% of the surveyed families, stated that they fear running out of food, as a result of the pandemic which added to their miseries of unemployment and deteriorating economy. In the past week, news has been circulating that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) may consider lending two billion euros in aid to the current Tunisian government. If true, that is unlikely to solve the economic crisis as much as it will further enhance Saied’s grip on power. On the gates of Saied’s new republic, the political Islamists are desperately trying to sneak their way back to political power, and the international community is deeply frustrated by the fall of the last hope for democratization in the Arab Spring countries. Where is Tunisia heading? Nobody knows where to exactly, but we may easily guess that it is not heading to a better future.