In the cradle of the Arab Spring, democracy is once again at stake.
Modern Tunisia has adopted three different constitutions. The first two were linked to proud moments in the nation’s history: independence from France in 1956, and the fruit of the 2011 Arab Spring pro-democracy movement that ousted strongman President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country for almost 24 years.
The adoption of a third constitution, which Tunisians were called to vote on in a referendum on Monday, has been a very different story. Though exit polls report that more than 90% of those voting approved the new constitution, the referendum saw a low turnout of just above 30% after the major political parties boycotted the vote.
Still, with no minimum turnout required or expected legal challenges to the referendum results, by Saturday Tunisia is set to be governed by the new constitution when the final results of the referendum are announced.
Indeed, events are moving fast in the nation where the Arab Spring began. The previous constitution was introduced in 2014, having taken two years to draft with the input of numerous scholars and civil society organizations, and credited for setting up a parliamentary-presidential system that ushered in a new era of democracy that ensured Tunisia would not end up ruled by one person.
Consolidation of power
The new constitution was instead drafted in just one month behind closed doors, the exclusive project of the current president Kais Saied.
The former professor of law, who took over the presidency in 2019, has pushed the new constitution as part of an ongoing consolidation of power that he says is necessary to overcome the parliament’s political gridlock and accelerate much needed reforms.Saied denies any authoritarian ambitions, declaring on the day of the referendum that the new constitution represents the democratic power of the people as understood by French Enlightenment philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Montesquieu. Critics worry the inspiration comes from the more recent past: pre-Arab Spring Tunisia.
Mondher Belhaj Ali, a former member of parliament and lawyer has stated that the new constitution fails to separate the executive branch from the legislative branch, potentially concentrating massive power in the hands of the president.
Amnesty International has expressed similar worries, noting that lack of judicial independence is a threat to human rights. “The proposed draft dismantles many of the safeguards provided in Tunisia’s post-revolution Constitution and fails to provide institutional guarantees for human rights,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa. “Removing these safeguards sends a chilling message and sets back years of efforts to strengthen human rights protection in Tunisia.”
Hamadi Rédissi, Professor in Political Science at the University of Tunis, interviewed by Tunisian news site Kapitalis, said the proposed constitution risks seeing the country “sliding towards a dictatorship.”
Tunisian President Kais Saied
Stronger place for Islam
Despite its shortcomings under what's been called the "presidential dictatorship" of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who wound up dying in exile in 2019, Tunisia has been considered a regional model for a secular and modern state. For example, the Code of Personal Status in Tunisia introduced in 1956 laid out a foundation for women’s rights including marriage rights and abolishing polygamy.
The proposed constitution risks seeing the country “sliding towards a dictatorship."
The constitution of 2014 started with an article declaring Tunisia to be a free and sovereign nation with Islam as its religion. This article has often been cited as a guarantee of the state’s secular character.
The new constitution would instead give emphasis to the role of religion by rooting Tunisia in the Islamic Umma or community. It also declares that the state must pursue religious values while leaving out previous mentions of Tunisia as a civil state.
From parliamentary to presidential system
In the year leading up to the referendum, Tunisia had gotten a taste of where decision-making power may be headed. Since Saied put a freeze on Parliament’s work in 2021, he has ruled mainly by decree.
Civil society groups and activists have been limited as the President has extended the state of emergency, which limits the freedom of assembly. And as there was no functioning constitutional court, there was no way to challenge the legality of the President’s actions.
While the new constitution appears to simply be a way to formalize Saied’s reforms and power grabs that were carried out in a legally dubious manner, French daily Le Monde notes that his increasing grip on power is also a sign of the political failures of the past decade, “the product of an immense disenchantment that has affected the very idea of democracy and rehabilitated the myth of the providential savior.”
But Le Monde also warns that Saied should not take the referendum victory as a “blank check” to take total power. The Arab Spring may be over, but he should remember how it ended for the last president who behaved like a dictator.