Kais Saied’s Proposed New Constitution Is Roiling Tunisia

The changes would grant the president almost untrammeled power.

By , a freelance journalist based in Tunisia.
Protesters wave signs including one that reads in English "Together fighting for democracy."
Protesters wave signs including one that reads in English "Together fighting for democracy."
Protesters wave flags and raise placards as they demonstrate against Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia, on May 15. FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images

Tunisia continues to reel from the draft constitution that President Kais Saied published last week. The new document, whose drafting process had promised to include the whole population but in the end attracted less than 10 percent of those eligible to take part, grants the president almost untrammeled power, reshaping the parliament into a body largely subservient to his will.

Under the proposed constitution, the president will be able to appoint a prime minister and then appoint cabinet ministers on the prime minister’s suggestion; that would strip the parliament of much of its current input in government formation. The roles of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches also appear reduced and would go from being designated as “powers” to simply “functions” of the state. In a further reversal, the government would pivot from being answerable to the parliament to being answerable to the president.

The new document would also allow the president to introduce his own legislation, including on the economy, which would take precedence over the parliament’s own. And, critically, the new constitution grants the president immunity throughout his tenure and states that he cannot be questioned about his actions as president.

Tunisia continues to reel from the draft constitution that President Kais Saied published last week. The new document, whose drafting process had promised to include the whole population but in the end attracted less than 10 percent of those eligible to take part, grants the president almost untrammeled power, reshaping the parliament into a body largely subservient to his will.

Under the proposed constitution, the president will be able to appoint a prime minister and then appoint cabinet ministers on the prime minister’s suggestion; that would strip the parliament of much of its current input in government formation. The roles of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches also appear reduced and would go from being designated as “powers” to simply “functions” of the state. In a further reversal, the government would pivot from being answerable to the parliament to being answerable to the president.

The new document would also allow the president to introduce his own legislation, including on the economy, which would take precedence over the parliament’s own. And, critically, the new constitution grants the president immunity throughout his tenure and states that he cannot be questioned about his actions as president.

Ahead of the referendum slated to determine the proposals’ fate on July 25, the amendments have further divided an already fractured Tunisian society.

Shortly after their publication, the man who was supposed to be their principal architect, Sadok Belaid, rejected them. Throughout the drafting process, as discussion and argument raged over the involvement of the unions and politicians, Belaid had remained steadfast at his post as the head of the commission, codifying the suggestions of the public and the few civil society groups taking part into the finished document. However, after reading the published version, he disowned it, saying it bore little relation to his draft and “paved the way to a disgraceful dictatorship.”

In response, Saied wrote an emotive letter to “the people,” calling on them to rally behind his proposals in the face of his unspecified enemies.

In addition to the predictable howls of outrage from the political parties ousted from the parliament last year, other groups have come out against the draft constitution. The Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH), one of the four civil society organizations to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 for their work during the crises of two years prior, has declared itself against the proposed document. In a statement released on Wednesday, the LTDH called on the president to withdraw his proposals and instead enter a wider dialogue with Tunisian society “to get the country out of the current situation.”

Elsewhere, the journalists’ union, the SNJT, said the president’s proposals would put a gag on freedom of expression. Nawaat, the online platform that speaks for much of Tunis’s activist community, has labeled the entire drafting process as a forgery of democracy. The anti-corruption watchdog I Watch, one of the prominent civil society groups to have emerged after the revolution, also opposes it, with a spokesperson saying, “The president granted himself royal powers … the powers of a king.”

Amnesty International also added its voice to the chorus of resistance, writing that the president’s proposals fail “to provide institutional guarantees for human rights” and would undermine the judiciary and other post-revolutionary gains.

It was certainly possible to revise the 2014 constitution with potential widespread public and political buy-in, said Aymen Bessalah, a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. However, Saied wishes instead to replace it under the current “state of exception,” he added, referring to the current period where the president rules by decree without a parliament.

“It’s a template for a dictatorship,” Amine Ghali of the Tunis-based Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center said of the proposals. “There is zero accountability, zero checks and balances,” he continued, framing the draft constitution, like others throughout the history of Africa and Europe, as not instructing that the worst excesses of human nature be carried out but providing a legal framework for them to be so.

However, in Sidi Hassine on the outskirts of Tunis, where graffiti reminds the casual visitor that “In our neighborhood, poverty never fails us,” Saied’s popularity is holding firm. From behind the counter of his brother’s butcher stand, Habib Nasrallah looked out on a sun-bleached street. He has been helping out at the stand for six months, taking time away from his normal job selling cleaning products to help his brother.

“Sales are down. People can’t afford red meat,” he told Foreign Policy, speaking through an interpreter, adding that even chicken and turkey sales were suffering. Yet he said he supports the president, confident that life in Sidi Hassine would get better under his watch.

Tunisia’s economic decline isn’t new: It started well before the country’s 2011 revolution. However, successive governments and Saied’s current one-man rule have yet to reverse the country’s fortunes. A fresh tranche of credit from the International Monetary Fund may go some way to checking Tunisia’s economic descent. However, the reform package insisted on by the lender is already meeting fierce resistance from the UGTT, Tunisia’s largest trade union.

In Sidi Hassine, at least, none of this appears to have dented support for the president. This is partly because the worst of the financial crisis has yet to impact Tunisia’s faltering economy. Inflation, already high at just over 8 percent, is cushioned by state subsidies that blunt much of its bite from the country’s already hard-pressed consumers.

Standing outside an improvised cattle pen, 48-year-old municipal worker Ahmed Achouri took up the question of the strength of the president’s support in the area, calling loudly out to random passersby and asking if they back the president. They all say they do.

Asked about the criticism of the president among civil society groups and those in the more affluent parts of the capital, Achouri barely paused. “They don’t understand how it is here. They’re ignorant of the truth.” He added: “[Saied is] a strict man. He wants to get things right, and he’s ready to die to do so.”

Nevertheless, though the fury of the economic storm heading Tunisia’s way has yet to hit, clouds are gathering. Shortages of essential items, such as sugar, remain commonplace, while food and utility prices are increasing beyond the reaches of many incomes.

However, support for the president is not indefinite, Ghali said, and his popularity will face its first test when the country’s inflation begins to push the cost of living out of the reach of many. “The subsidy system is unsustainable,” Ghali said. “My guess is that it could collapse just weeks after the July 25 referendum.”

As things stand, with many of Tunisia’s political parties calling for a boycott of the referendum, the president’s amendments look certain to pass. However, with turnout looking to be marginal, how legitimate the changes will be either at home or internationally remains to be seen.

Moreover, with the economy teetering on the brink of catastrophe and with only a series of unpopular reforms standing between Tunisia and the waves of economic hardship that will fall most crushingly on regions like Sidi Hassine and large swaths of the president’s support base, how long Saied’s popularity may last is equally uncertain.

Simon Speakman Cordall is a freelance journalist based in Tunisia. Twitter: @IgnitionUK

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