On July 25th, Tunisian president Kais Saied’s assault on his country’s democracy culminated in a controversial constitutional referendum. Occurring almost exactly a year after the “coup” in which the Saied sacked Parliament and began ruling by decree, the referendum for a new constitution, along with its severe dilution of checks on presidential powers, appears to have passed.
The new constitution contains similar rights clauses as its predecessor, but banishes parliament to a secondary role in governance and grants the president expanded powers, including the ability to appoint the prime minister. No minimum level of participation was required for the referendum to pass, and voters had less than four weeks to consider the text before casting their ballots.
Saied’s supporters celebrated the referendum’s passage in the street. Saied himself sees the new constitution as the “foundation of a new republic.” But even those who have voted “yes” appear to be divided. Where some are heralding the vote as a chance to “save the country from corruption and failure,” as one man told Reuters, others, such as 37-year-old waiter Ziad Raghouani, see it merely as the only remaining option to ameliorate the country’s political and economic crisis.
“Everything is expensive, the cost of living is extremely high and you can’t provide for a family. I want a solution for this situation that is keeping us from living,” Raghouani told the New York Times.
This final nail in the coffin of the Arab Spring did not come about out of an antipathy toward democracy. Rather, it is a result of severe economic hardship, frustration with parliamentary deadlock and political fatigue surrounding polarization and corruption.
The situation is setting alarm bells clamoring in the minds of international democracy advocates and scholars. Monica Marks, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern politics and Tunisia expert at New York University, Abu Dhabi, cites a conversation over coffee with 39-year-old Zouhair Khlefi: “We [Tunisians] are sleepwalking back to the dark old days,” Khlefi told her. “I want to shake people awake, but I can’t. They’re too hungry, they’re too tired, and they’re too forgetful of how precious our revolution was.”
Khlefi’s “revolution” refers to the Arab Spring, a wave of pro-democracy struggle born on the streets of Tunisia in 2011 and which would go on to sweep the Middle East. The self-immolation of fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi triggered an uprising, ousting dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from two decades of oppressive authoritarianism in Tunisia and sparking similar rebellions against autocratic rulers throughout the region. Tunisia’s 2014 constitution, which guarded human rights, placed checks on power, and demanded democratic elections, was seen as a testament to the revolution’s success. But in 2019, the election of partyless populist Kais Saied saw the country take a turn for the worse. Saied invoked an emergency article against protestors only two years later, on July 25th, 2021, and soon replaced the 2014 constitution with a decree announcing an attenuated parliament and increase of presidential powers.
His “carelessly constructed, single-handedly-authored authoritarian constitution,” Marks says, is the biggest slap in the face yet to Tunisia’s democratic achievements. With despotic measures such as freezing parliament and dismissing the government, Saied is focusing on political changes that do not address the root of public discontentment: the economy. Since economic freedom often comes more easily to nations with high levels of political freedom than to authoritarian regimes, Saied’s ransacking of democratic structures is far from a cure to Tunisia’s economic ailments and may be simply a Trojan horse for the reinforcement of his own power. Even Sadok Belaid, an expert Saied himself chose to assist in the drafting of the constitution, warned that the document may “pave the way for a disgraceful dictatorship.”
“At stake is nothing less than the fate of the Arab world’s most promising experiment in democratic governance,” Marks grimly concluded in a Washington Post op-ed. “If Saied gets his way, Tunisia could send an ominous signal to the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, where despotic rulers remain entrenched.”
Democratic nations and regional bodies such as the African Union must dedicate themselves to a fervent promotion of Tunisian democracy and economic growth. Steps must be taken to empower Tunisia’s robust civil society, support grass-root pro-democracy movements and empower economic growth in the country. For example, universities both domestically and abroad could launch programs for Tunisian students to help align their educational achievements with the needs of the labour market. People are searching for change, and Saied is offering an option at a time when many feel that things could not get much worse, but an ameliorated economic situation could allow Tunisians to refocus on ensuring the protection of rights and freedoms for generations to come.
With the Arab Spring beginning, and now seemingly ending, within its streets, there is no overstating the severity of a blow to Tunisian democracy. Though the constitution will most likely pass, there is very little chance that it will serve as any kind of antidote to the hardships plaguing Tunisians today. In fact, it may trigger deeper instability when Saied’s democracy-demolishing actions fail to produce the economic and political gains Tunisians so desperately require. As presidential powers increase and the economic situation stagnates, a perfect storm of public discontent and desperation could boil over into protest and violence. Utilization of the new constitution’s “emergency” measures could cause a reactionary tidal wave of oppressive authoritarian crackdowns and further consolidation of power, which risks extinguishing once and for all the region’s democratic beacon.
While never flawless, Tunisia was regarded as a sign that a reformulated agreement between state and citizen could persist in the Middle East. Its democracy must be protected to safeguard human rights and freedom, at home and abroad.