Tunisia’s Referendum Leaves Its People Divided


Photo source: The New Arab

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Tunisia began its new era of a march towards autocracy when Kais Saied passed a referendum which was met with a low turnout in July 2022. It was something unexpected after he had installed a new female prime minister giving hope to Tunisians for a vibrant democracy. 

The new constitution includes changes to shift back power to the presidency, away from parliament, which Saied’s supporters see as a centre full of political bickering and government paralysis. His mandated charter would replace a 2014 constitution that was a hard-won compromise between Islamist-leaning and secular forces.

There was no minimum participation rate requirement for the referendum. Hence, the newly drafted constitution will become the law. Tunisian political analyst and author Amine Snoussi made comparisons of this referendum with some other recent referendums in other countries where attendance was far higher, such as Uruguay in 2022, Chile in 2020, or the UK’s Brexit vote in 2016.

The most important feature of the new constitution, according to an Oped in The New Arab by Alessandra Bajec, is that it would create a ‘new council of regions’ on par with the assembly of representatives, though it does not provide details on how it would be instituted or what powers it would have. Article 5 of the charter also takes out references to both Islam and the civilian nature of Tunisia, merely stating that the country ‘belongs to the Islamic Ummah’ and that the state is required to ‘achieve the objectives of Islam in preserving life, honour, money, religion, and freedom’, but within a democratic system. According to Bajec, the provision had been previously criticised as it could allow the courts to use this mention of religious principles as a basis for undermining human rights.

Omar Hamady, a constitutional expert also noted the nature of power diversions towards the president. He commented: ‘The system now rests on a central institution [the president] around which a multitude of bodies gravitate, and are in one way or another subservient to it, with absolutely no separation of powers that ensures checks and balances.’

Although Saied has assured that he is the new dictator, he says freedoms, the ones mentioned in 2011 are protected. However, the opposition groups have tainted the new development as ‘false’ and ‘not credible’, and view it as a dark day in their democracy. According to Nejib Chebbi, head of the opposition National Salvation Front, which includes the Islamist Ennahda party, the biggest faction in the dissolved parliament, Saied ‘falsified the political will’ by ‘falsifying the results’. Aymen Bessalah, a Tunisian non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) also believed the development to be dangerous, after ten years of nation-building, and that it runs counter to the idea of a republic.

Add to this, a report by Al Jazeera mentions widespread ideological divisions among anti-Saied forces. The main anti-Saied grouping, Citizens Against the Coup, has faced difficulty attracting support from some on the liberal left because it includes members of the Ennahdha Party amongst its ranks, as well as some other political parties.

There are some local activists, such as Wajdi Mahouchei, who believe that he didn’t see any changes he wanted in the constitution, and started campaigning online with comedy sketches, satirising him for what he called Saied’s strange behaviours. His most popular video is called The President Who Cried Wolf, “because he is always saying ‘they want to kill me, but nobody wants to kill him.’”

The new text would place the president in command of the army, will allow him to appoint a government without parliamentary approval, and make it very hard to remove the president from office. He could also present draft laws to parliament, where MPs would be forced to give priority. The new charter gives the president almost all powers and dismantles any check on the ruler, and any institution that might exert any kind of control over the president, as per Said Benarbia, regional director of the International Commission of Jurists.

According to an Oped by The New Arab, the Tunisian president had been quite isolated off late, mostly limited his comments to public videos, often against domestic foes, calling them ‘snakes’, ‘germs’ and ‘traitors’.

Despite believing that the opposition groups had miserably failed to lead the country to prosperity, Saied’s popularity is tempered by soaring inflation and very high youth unemployment, since he won an election in 2019 with a landslide victory. Opinion polls also reflect his dwindling popularity since 2021 or so. Although, a group of small political parties who had stood behind president Saied in 2021, such as the People's Movement (Echaab), Alliance for Tunisia, and Tunisia Forward, have urged people to vote in favour of the draft constitution in the referendum, embodying a resolve to break the deadlock within the past ten years. It is because they don’t want Ennahdha to come into power, as they think billions of dinars have been stolen under its eyes. This shows the constitutional amendment is keeping Tunisians divided.


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