Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Democracy Fades in the Arab Spring’s Success Story

Few restraints remain for Tunisian strongman Kais Saied after his constitutional referendum passed overwhelmingly and opposition parties boycotted the vote.

By , a freelance journalist based in Tunisia.
A billboard depicting Tunisian President Kais Saied hangs on the side of a building in the east-central city of Kairouan, on July 26.
A billboard depicting Tunisian President Kais Saied hangs on the side of a building in the east-central city of Kairouan, on July 26.
A billboard depicting Tunisian President Kais Saied hangs on the side of a building in the east-central city of Kairouan, on July 26. KABIL BOUSENA/AFP via Getty Images

TUNIS, Tunisia—In Tunisia, activists and politicians are coming to terms with the passage of President Kais Saied’s new constitution last month and a new vision of the future—one where their relationship with power has been fundamentally altered.

The new constitution grants Saied vastly unchecked powers, creating a parliament that’s responsible to him and allowing him to fast-track his own legislation at the expense of the body’s own. Critically, there is no mechanism to remove the president, with ministers, along with the security services, police, and judiciary, all now answerable to one man.

The president has passed his constitution with what he and his supporters will see as an overwhelming majority. That those who opposed the new constitution stayed away matters little at this point.

TUNIS, Tunisia—In Tunisia, activists and politicians are coming to terms with the passage of President Kais Saied’s new constitution last month and a new vision of the future—one where their relationship with power has been fundamentally altered.

The new constitution grants Saied vastly unchecked powers, creating a parliament that’s responsible to him and allowing him to fast-track his own legislation at the expense of the body’s own. Critically, there is no mechanism to remove the president, with ministers, along with the security services, police, and judiciary, all now answerable to one man.

The president has passed his constitution with what he and his supporters will see as an overwhelming majority. That those who opposed the new constitution stayed away matters little at this point.

According to Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections, known by its French acronym ISIE, around 95 percent of the 30.5 percent of eligible voters who turned out to vote on July 25 cast their ballots in favor of the new constitution. Both activist groups and political parties have questioned the legitimacy of the results, pointing out that a supposed 30 percent turnout is hardly a foundation on which the president can build his much vaunted “new republic.”

But with the bitterly divided opposition only agreeing that the vote should be boycotted, it was unsurprising that the president’s new constitution passed and that turnout was low. Polling stations stayed open in the blistering heat from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., with single shifts of poorly trained monitors overseeing a haphazard process.

The wisdom of the boycott is still disputed. While its critics claim it was a cynical move, intended to save a doomed campaign, its supporters point to a flawed process, with the electoral deck firmly stacked in favor of the president and his backers. Even on the morning of the ballot, Saied disregarded Tunisia’s strict electoral laws and gave an interview to the national television channel supporting his vision, a move the network, rather than the president, was later censured for.

Saied, for his part, shows few signs of caring. Addressing crowds on the night of the vote, he hailed the victory, telling them that “Tunisia has entered a new phase.” “What the Tunisian people did … is a lesson to the world and a lesson to history on a scale that the lessons of history are measured on,” he said.


Saied is already coming under pressure from observers and opposition groups. Mourakiboun, a volunteer organization tasked with observing the poll, has called on the ISIE to publish a detailed breakdown of the vote, citing several infractions at the polling stations. The anti-corruption watchdog I Watch has also launched a challenge to the poll. Likewise, the center-right political party Afek Tounes, which supported the boycott, has challenged the vote, though without stating on whose behalf it is acting. The successor party of the pre-revolutionary regime, the Free Destourian Party, maintained its policy of refusing to engage with foreign journalists while calling for the constitution to be halted and new presidential elections to be held forthwith.

However, while controversy continues to swirl around the result, the president has passed his constitution with what he and his supporters will see as an overwhelming majority. That those who opposed the new constitution stayed away matters little at this point.

International voices have joined a chorus of disapproval that appears likely to grow, with the U.S. government issuing a press release criticizing the new constitution, to predictable outrage from Saied’s backers.

Elsewhere there is silence. Questions to several of Tunis’s usually voluble progressive groups on their future under Saied went unanswered. Likewise, no response was forthcoming from the National Salvation Front, a body that styles itself as the main opposition, though is perceived in some quarters to be dominated by Islamists of different stripes.

And while the Tunisian League of Human Rights came out against the vote, despite having participated in the constitution’s drafting, it now seems more concerned in campaigning against granting the new U.S. ambassador his credentials after the government’s criticism. The journalists’ union, the SNJT, also opposed the new document, later complaining that the work of its members had been obstructed at some polling stations. However, it was Tunisia’s powerful general trade union, the UGTT, whose involvement may have been decisive; the group decided to sit the ballot out, leaving the vote to the conscience of its individual members.

Only Ennahdha, the self-styled Muslim democrats and the largest party in the former parliament, appeared ready to contemplate a potential future under autocracy. Asked if the party intended to contest the legislative elections slated for December and serve in the new parliament, Ennahdha member Ahmed Gaaloul, a former youth affairs and sports minister, said, “It will be very unlikely, within the circumstances that Kais Saied has created in the country, that Ennahdha will participate in any process that is resulting from the illegitimate road map that has been imposed by the dictator and from his forged constitution.”

December’s vote remains some way off, and a lot can change between now and then. However, by refusing to participate in any new government, Ennahdha, while at least making some claim to the moral high ground, risks ceding the agenda entirely to its opponents, potentially at the expense of its own members. Equally, while the party might claim a boycott of December’s vote highlights its political illegitimacy, critics would point to the party’s own numbers, which have been falling consistently for years.

Nevertheless, while turnout was ultimately limited, the level of support that Saied’s populist messaging has elicited throughout Tunisia’s hardscrabble hinterland, as well as the marginalized districts of its cities, stands as much a judgment on the past decade as it does on the present day.

While Tunis has become a hub for international NGOs serving much of North Africa, as other countries have fallen to autocracy and chaos, the interior and the slums around the cities were overlooked.

From long before the revolution, development outside much of the capital and coast has remained at a standstill. The events of 2011 did little to reverse that. While Tunis has become a hub for international NGOs serving much of North Africa, as other countries have fallen to autocracy and chaos, the interior and the slums around the cities were overlooked. Elsewhere, while international investment provided platforms to minorities and financial support for many, it is equally true that much of that aid has made rich people richer. While freedom of speech gave voice to some, others were left to look on from the shadows of poverty and await their turn.

Yassine Khazia comes into the capital from his family home in Jendouba in the country’s northwest to sell electrical goods in the street. “During the revolution, I was 20. I’m 33 now, and I don’t have 10 dinars in my pocket,” he said. “I didn’t get married. I don’t have a family. I’ve got nothing. The situation is horrible. … If I brought you to my home in Jendouba, you would weep.” Tunisia’s politicians, principally Ennahdha, are crooks, he continued: “They’ve robbed the country for 10 years. They’ve hired their cronies, but they didn’t hire us.” He loved Saied, he said, and he wished him nothing but good things, but he wasn’t going to vote. “Tunisia’s problems won’t get better in one year,” he said, outlining his plans to leave Tunisia for Italy.

Hamza Meddeb of the Carnegie Middle East Center noted that Tunisia had become a fundamentally divided country. “We have around a quarter of the population that supported the president and his constitution,” he said. Moreover, “according to polling institutions, a quarter of the electorate have been actively boycotting the referendum,” he said, adding that data suggested around a further quarter stayed home due to political motivations. “That leaves about 50 percent, the silent majority, who have yet to decide.”

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss this section of the population as simply passive. “They can be mobilized,” Meddeb said. “They’re dissatisfied with Kais Saied, and they’re dissatisfied with the politicians from before July 25 [the date of the president’s power grab last year]. Their concerns are mainly economic, and if they feel price increases are going too far or subsidies are being cut too deeply, they will take to the streets.”

For now, many in Tunisia are still coming to terms with the consequences of last week’s vote. Looking to Europe and the United States, the historic cheerleaders of their revolution—now seemingly more concerned with fuel prices, stability, and limiting migrant numbers—for anything more than moral censure appears optimistic at best.

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

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