Tunisia Decides: A Constitutional Referendum-or a Referendum on Saied?
Tunisians and outside observers wait anxiously for 25 July, when President Kais Saied plans to hold a referendum on his new constitution. This 25 July will likely yield much fewer surprises than the same date last year. Then, the President launched his takeover under cover of night, freezing Parliament and sacking Hichem Mechichi’s government.
For a measurable segment of Tunisia’s civil and political societies, in the almost eleven months since, Saied has gone on a march of democratic backsliding, dismantling one democratic institution after the next. They point out, not without evidence, that Saied has followed a one-man process of refashioning and redesigning an entire political system. He charged a loyal man of the law and relic from the Ben Ali era, Sadok Belid, as leader of the Coordinator of the Tunisian National Consultative Body for a New Republic.
Belid’s main mission is to draft a new constitution. His team includes Amin Mahdfoudh, another law professor, and Ibrahim Bouderbala, Dean of Tunisian lawyers. During the drafting stage, Belid declared to the media that he will “write the new constitution in accordance to what my conscious dictates.”
That one man could talk seriously of writing a constitution in a country where democratization is eleven years in the making is a sentiment not lacking in hubris. Released to much uproar on June 30, the draft has been so controversial that Belid and Mahfoudh distanced themselves from it, warning of a slippery slope to singular rule. Even Bouderbala admitted the draft to be different from the one the consultative body submitted to the President.
It is this document, that will be up for a referendum vote after being released for public viewing (but not genuine debate) by the end of June. On the day of the referendum, Tunisians partaking in the plebiscite will answer the question, “Do you approve the new constitution?” The question itself is a leading one. A more appropriate question would be: Should Tunisians get rid of their 2014 Constitution? Alternatively, a question worded along the lines of: Do you agree with Kais Saied’s decision to replace the 2014 Tunisian constitution?
Significantly, Saied has gone about his mission to overhaul Tunisia’s political system without taking into account the input of Tunisia’s diverse political and civic actors. Unlike the 2014 constitution, the new version has not been the outcome of deliberation and debate. In fact, Saied has excluded political parties from the entire process. Voting in the form of a referendum is only to seal a deal already made in the halls of Carthage, some opine. There are already predictions that Tunisians will abstain from voting, yielding a low voter turn-out. Moreover, resistance against the referendum is mounting.
A wide spectrum of parties, civil society players, and citizens are calling for a boycott. Some even rebuffed calls to join (however nominally) in pre-referendum “consultations” in a process that is the antithesis of democratic. It is this non-participatory, non-democratic nature of Saied’s constitutional drafting that is the biggest weakness of his political project.
The Road to 25 July 2021
It may have all started with the ‘protest vote’ of fall 2019. After a shocking first round of elections, Tunisian voters cast their ballots (2.7 million of them) for the relatively unknown Saied. Austere in demeanor and populist in tone, the constitutional law instructor (who never completed his doctorate) was suddenly catapulted to the helm of Tunisia’s political triumvirate of the President, the Premiership (Head of Government), and Parliament.
The victory of a man with no prior political experience, or even a pedigree of resistance against Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime, told more about the political climate in the country than about his charisma or qualifications. Saied’s campaign mantra al-sha’b yureed (the people want) recast the revolutionary slogan of 2011 in the realm of formal politics, attracting support from disaffected youth.
By choosing Saied, Tunisians disdainfully rejected the entire post-2011 political class and its consensus democracy (dimuqratiyyat al-tawafuq) cobbled together between leaders of new political forces (Ennahda’s Rached Ghannouchi) and the ancient regime (Nidaa Tounes’s Beji Caid Essebsi). From the Troika elected in 2011 to the Ghannouchi-Essebsi duo, consecutive governments had failed to solve urgent socio-economic problems confronting the country: skyrocketing unemployment, youth exit via deathboats (harqah), regional inequality, deepening foreign debt, a less-than-friendly investment climate, and rickety infrastructure. A caveat is in order,
however. Voters did overwhelmingly embrace Saied, choosing him over his opponent media mogul (and now disgraced) Nabil Karoui, yes, but they did so through democratic means. A majority for Saied was not a majority against the constitution, or against the new democratic institutions in their entirety—despite abundant critiques of the electoral system. Public disaffection with the performance of Ennahda, Nidaa Tounes, and numerous other parties and politicians did not translate into a mandate for single-handed revamping of Tunisia’s incipient democracy.
Yet revamp is exactly what Saied set out to do. Step one was to not cooperate with partner governing institutions and the politicians serving in them. After promising to fight corruption and focus on youth, he failed to propose legislative bills. In April 2021, he refused to sign off on nominees for Parliamentary nominees for the much-stalled Constitutional Court. He balked at convening the National Dialogue proposed by Tunisia’s largest union and political heavyweight, the UGTT. Step Two was to woo the army and security officers.
On occasion after occasion, Saied would visit military and security personnel, breaking bread with them, commending their bravery and service. In turn, he seemed to revel in being saluted as the undisputed Commander-in-Chief. The army so far appears to publicly back the president. Concurrent with all this was Step Three, where he constantly castigated his political foes. He darkly warned of political machinations hammered out in the secrecy of dark rooms, ghuraf mudlimah. He warned of plots to assassinate and plots to betray.
His inept partners in governance made these attacks all too easy. No party had emerged with a clear majority in the 2019 parliamentary elections. A Parliament headed by Speaker Rached Ghannouchi became the site of mud-slinging, rants and spectacles by the Free Destour Party Abir Moussi and her opponents, and even violence. Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, handpicked by Saied himself, seemed spineless, relying for political backing by a fragmented Parliament. No governing was happening, as the Kamour protest campaign swelled, protesting in Tunisia’s marginalized regions spread, and youth riots made headlines.
The cresting of the COVID pandemic in summer 2021 exacerbated political frustrations. The death toll climbed by the day, undeterred by a government fumbling to devise a vaccination strategy. Small businesses were decimated, and unemployment was rising yet again amidst the health crisis that had Tunisians on edge. It was on the national Republic Day that Saied made his move, a way out of the political impasse.
Invoking the daytime protests that had railed against the government across the country (even trashing and setting fire to Ennahda regional headquarters), the President activated Article 80 of the Constitution. Flanked by Generals and military men, he announced he was freezing Parliament, firing the government, and lifting immunity on MPs. The “imminent danger” posed by the pandemic and Parliament’s incompetency were no less than “exceptional circumstances,” and he was rising to the occasion by seizing the reins of power.
Saied was clearing the way for a righteous crusade against corruption, unblocking the political paralysis that stood in the way of governing for the people. Or so he said. The tanks guarding over Ibn Khaldun’s statue on Habib Bourguiba Avenue and barring entrance to a chained Parliament in Bardo signaled their assent.
(Almost) A Year of De-Institutionalization
Initially, many Tunisians sounded approval at Saied’s announcements. Moments after his declaration, they spilled into the streets to celebrate in the dead of night (despite COVID curfews). They seemed to project all frustrations with ruling elites (mostly Ennahda) onto a new “Superman” Saied who would miraculously solve the country’s many problems. The enigma of his self-styled hamlah tafsiriyyah (explanatory campaign, as he called his presidential campaign back in 2019) would reveal itself beginning on 25 July 2021.
Saied was heading towards a re-make of Tunisia’s political system at full speed. Since that fateful Republic Day, he has paused at regular intervals to lecture Tunisians, government officials he appointed, and even foreign diplomats about his take on al-dimuqratiyyah al-haqiqiyyah (real democracy). In iron-fisted fashion, he has “explained” to Tunisians, over 11 long months, what his political program is all about. And it is nothing like what citizens voted for by approving the country’s first democratic constitution voted in by the elected National Constituent Assembly in January 2014.
Inch by inch, or meter by meter, Saied would take hold of more Tunisian politics. On 22 Sept. 2021, Saied passed Decree 117 authorizing himself to rule by decree, making the state of exception permanent and sealing the fate of a now defunct Parliament. Where according to the 2014 constitution any incoming government had to be approved by a Parliamentary majority, in October 2021, he appointed an entire new government on his own, headed by the first female Prime Minister Najla Boudin.
This tokenistic move toward women’s empowerment falls short, as it withholds from her the powers afforded to the Head of Government in the Constitution. Moreover, Boudin’s political experience is limited, befitting the much-diminished role, shrunk by Saied’s Decree 17. Images and video clips of her sitting before Saied’s forbidding wooden desk, looking up at the President but barely uttering a word as he intones directions, have become an object for widespread mockery.
On 13 Dec. 2021, Saied finally unveiled the crux of his plans: an online consultation (March 2022), a constitutional committee to draft a new document, a constitutional referendum (25 July 2022), and parliamentary elections (17 Dec. 2022, the date he has re-appropriated from 14 January as the anniversary of the revolution).
In the meantime, Saied has dismissed Shouqi Tbeib, head of the country’s Anti-Corruption Committee, and dissolved the High Judicial Council and ISIE (independent election authority), slotting their replacements with his own appointees. Opposition members and journalists have been arrested. He has reportedly attempted to infiltrate syndicates like the Tunisian Union for Industry, Trade, and Handcrafts (UTICA, its French acronym, for short), currently in the midst of a bitter leadership struggle that falls along pro- and anti-Saied lines.
Saied’s true democracy appears to be at odds with democracy, as sinking global democracy rankings confirm. Previously labeled a “flawed democracy,” the North African country has been downgraded to a “hybrid regime” by the Economic Intelligence Unit’s 2021 Democracy Index. Freedom House has lowered Tunisia from “Free” in 2021 to “Partly Free” in 2022.
Civil Disobedience Gains Momentum
Saied’s onslaught has been overwhelming, but it has not quelled the rebellious streak of Tunisians who have had ten years’ experience of hard-won freedoms in the incipient democracy. Democratic backsliding is not without its discontents. Weak participation (a bit upward of half a million out of 7.9 million eligible voters) in online consultation deemed a façade for top-down decision-making, rather than participatory deliberation, was one indication. Other signs of growing skepticism for Saied’s choices include criticism from even initial supporters of his power grab, such as the pan-Arab party Harakat Al-Sha’b.
Its Secretary General Zoheir Maghzaoui had decried Sadok Belid’s declared plan to remove Article 1, which stipulates Tunisia’s state identity as an Arab and Muslim country, from the new constitution. Article 5 of the released draft states that Tunisia is part of the “Islamic ummah,” and that the state works towards upholding the religion’s maqasid—the high objectives underlying Islamic law. Yet Harakat Al-Sha’b quickly announced its plan to vote “yes” in the referendum.
Abir Moussi, staunch enemy of Islamists, lambasts Saied for violating the Constitution and Tunisian law, not to mention going easy on Ennahda. In ridicule, she refers to the post-25 July scene as dawlat al-khilafah (the caliphate state—likening Saied’s rule by fiat to that of the historical caliph). Days before the draft was published, she insisted her party would “not recognize” the referendum.
Even taken with a grain of salt as they should be, polls show dwindling approval for Saied . Newspapers that screamed pro-Saied headlines in the days after last 25 July (e.g. Assabah) now feature more criticism of the President’s policies. Even trusted adviser and Chief of Staff Nadia Ukasha jumped ship, declaring her disapproval from Paris and setting off a scandal involving leaked voice recordings. Many names nominated for a consultative role declined the invitation, choosing what some decry as an “empty chair policy” (siyasat al-kursi al-farigh), leaving others to shape the country’s trajectory as they sit on the sidelines.
The rejoinder to such charges goes: why be “false witnesses” to a process as whose endgames and outcome are already predetermined ? Judges have just renewed their first week-long strike, objecting to the President’s Decree 35 enacting the sudden dismissal of 57 judges. They are pushing back against Saied, who seems determined to effectively take over the judiciary through court-packing. Political heavyweight national union UGTT opted out of participating in the constitutional consultations.
It conducted a general strike on 16 June, bringing the country to the standstill in its opposition to wage freezes and looming subsidy slashes as Tunisia negotiates a new IMF loan. While stressing that the new draft threatens Tunisian democracy, the UGTT has stopped short of boycotting the referendum, leaving the choice up to its individual members.
Parallel to retractions of support is rising dissent against the President. Muwatinun Didd al-Inqilab (Citizens Against the Coup) has organized opposition protests since the fall. It took Ennahda quite some time to find its bearings beyond issuing condemnatory statements. The Islamist party has reconstructed some old political alliances and joined forces with veteran dissident Ahmed Najib Ecchebi and his brother Issam Ecchebi in Jabhat al-Khalas al-Watani (National Salvation Front).
The coalition also brings together Attayar Aldimuqrati (whose Samia Abbou and husband Mohammad Abbou were not shy in articulating their enthusiasm for Saied’s coup) and another long-time opposition figure, the Workers’ Party head Hamma Hamami who had immediately vocalized stringent refusal of the President’s moves, back in July. Mobilizing thousands of Tunisians, these forces held the biggest anti-Saied protest to date on May 15. They have been recently touring the country to mobilize support for boycotting the referendum.
Since its unveiling, the Salvation Front has declared the constitutional draft is a gateway to “absolute rule” of the past, announcing a boycott of the referendum. In a press conference on 7 July, Ennahda also declared its refusal of the draft, calling for a boycott. Women’s groups including the Association for Tunisian Democratic Women congregated on the steps of the National Theatre on Saturday (June 11), similarly calling for a boycott of the referendum and the President’s policies that they see as endangering democratic gains and freedoms achieved since the 2011 revolution.
Women, they say, have become increasingly subjected to the verbal violence of the public rumor-mill that invites physical violence and compromises livelihoods. Most recently, the National Association of Tunisian Democrats has publicly stated that the new constitution “does not represent us.”
The new draft of the Constitution, which Tunisians, politicians, and legal experts have been digesting for the past week, has been faulted for its many apparent flaws. The Preamble is the President’s own personal re-writing of history, prefacing a blueprint for an unfettered, presidential-style political system, Tunisian constitutional law scholars have said. Seeming to backtrack from his own role, head of the drafting Commission Sadok Belid has called the new constitution “dangerous,” warning it will usher in a “reprehensible dictatorship.”
Human rights are imperiled, unleashes military courts, and throws into question the judiciary’s independence, cautions Amnesty International. In the meantime, Saied released a letter addressed to the “great Tunisian people,” exhorting them to vote “Yes” in the referendum, framing the constitutional draft as a safeguard of the revolution. This entreaty has been met with mockery, at least by some. That Saied’s new constitutional project is many major steps backward from the 2014 democratic constitution comes as no surprise. Perhaps more important than its substance, however, is the non-democratic trajectory of the entire process.
Since the July 25 power grab, Tunisia has been sitting on a knife-edge. For nearly 12 months polity, economy, society and political discourse have faced serious challenges to democratic sustainability. The North African country is akin to a frozen democratic experiment. There is a conspicuous rise in populist politics, with pre-July 25 democratization process in limbo, and a 10-year democratization experiment not delivering shared norms, bargain politics, legal rules of engagement, or consensus on how to extricate the country out of its current democratization crisis.
Illiberal influences are prevalent. They include early support for military intervention and support for the Kais Saied’s self-coup, in the midst of widespread disinformation and exclusionary tendencies (esp. vis-à-vis the Islamists). Despite having amassed the power of all three branches of government, Saied has not made headway into these enormous afflictions. The severity of the democratic rollback has compounded unresolved problems of socio-economic disparities, social justice, and magnified distrust in the political elite.
All of this is aggravated by the magnitude of harqah (illegal migration) rising marginalization and poverty, and festering problems of regional under-development in the country’s south and centre. Corruption, one of Said’s hot items on his declared agenda of revolutionary correction (tashih) behind his power grab, remains rampant. Saied’s illegal power grab may be blamed for Tunisia’s worsening finances and economic outlook. This is partly due to strained relations with international lenders (IM and World Bank) and aid donors.
Perhaps Tunisia’s democratic flame has somehow dimmed. But it has not been fully extinguished. The past months since Kais Saied’s undemocratic takeover, have seen a sharp rise in social mobilization. Society is striking back against the president’s the power grab. There has since February 2022 been an oppositional outpouring of anti-Saied activism.
A referendum in which spanners in the works are already in motion: a mounting civil disobedience campaign of widening boycott. Saied himself seems to be isolated and kind of “boycotted” by a large swathe of the civil society, academia, key national non-governmental organization, including the UGTT, and the bar society. This is a space to be watched after the actual July 25, 2022 referendum. One thing the author of Al-Jumhuriyyah al-Jadidah (the new republic) seems to forget. Tunisians remain in the thrall of the country’s democratic flame sparked ten years ago.
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 Aljazeera. 2022. تونس.. سعيد يستبعد الأحزاب من الحوار الوطني واتحاد الشغل يرفض المشاركة فيه, 21 May, https://bit.ly/3xOD3Hm
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Larbi Sadiki and Layla Saleh. 2021. “Tunisia’s Presidential Power-Grab is a Test for its Democracy.” OpenDemocracy, July 28. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/north-africa-west-asia/tunisias-presidential-power-grab-is-a-test-for-its-democracy/
 Larbi Sadiki. 2014. “Tunisia’s Constitution: A Success Story?” 27 January, Aljazeera English, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/1/27/tunisias-constitution-a-success-story
 اسماعيل عزام. 2022. ماذا يريد قيس سعيد فعلياً من تعيين سيدة ضعيفة الخبرة لرئاسة الحكومة؟ 30 September https://bit.ly/3tARfB1
 Reuters. 2021. “Tunisia’s President Says He Will Call Constitutional Referendum, Elections Next Year.” 14 December, https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/tunisia-president-announces-referendum-elections-2021-12-13/
 يسرى ونّاس. 2022. تونس.. سعيّد يقيل كاتب عام هيئة مكافحة الفساد August 2021 , 20
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 The Economist Group. 2022. “Democracy Index 2021: Less than Half the World Lives in a Democracy.” 10 February, https://bit.ly/39oDUVK
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 As stated, for instance, by the head of the National Union for Tunisian Women, which has opted to join the President’s national dialogue. See Kapitalis. 2022. راضية الجربي : “سياسة الكرسي الفارغ لا تخدم قضايا النساء..لذلك قررنا المشاركة في الحوار”. 25 May, https://bit.ly/3OcMLZh
 Tunisie Numerique. 2022. المنظّمات الوطنيّة تؤكّد استعدادها للمشاركة في الحوار الوطني و لكن بشرط, May 10, https://bit.ly/3HldiBk
 Mosaique FM. 2022. اضراب القضاة متواصل (فيديو) 13 June, https://bit.ly/3xQsNyo
 Bajec, Alessandra. 2022. “Tunisia’s UGTT Stages Nationwide Strike over Wages and Cuts.” 16 June, Aljazeera English, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/6/16/tunisias-ugtt-stages-nationwide-strike-over-wages-and-cuts
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 See their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/%D9%85%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B7%D9%86%D9%88%D9%86-%D8%B6%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%82%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%A8-102802378824591/
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 Ultra Tunisia. 2021. محمد عبو: “نساند قرارات سعيّد دون أدنى شك أو نقاش”, 26 July, https://bit.ly/3mQSBnm
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 Tunisie-Telegraph. 2022. حركة النهضة: هذا ما جاء في الندوة الصحفية, 7 July, https://bit.ly/3nNUaTP. Ennahda additionally repudiated the recent freezing of assets of party leaders, including Rached Ghannouchi, and the Audit Court decision banning Ennahda candidates from running in elections for five years. See Mosaique FM. 2022. البراهمي: حركة النهضة لن تصمت بعد الآن, 7 July, https://bit.ly/3nMCBDs
 بشرى السلامي.2022.الحركة النسوية في تونس: نرفض أن نكون ديكورا ونطالب بالمساواة.MosaiqueFM, 7 June https://bit.ly/3NP6yhO
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 Amnesty International. 2022. “Tunisia: New Draft Constitution Undermines Independence of Judiciary and Weakens Human Rights Safeguards.” July 5, https://bit.ly/3akV1s1
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