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Tunisia's Constitutional Referendum: National Pride or Self-Serving Power Grab?

posted on: Jun 1, 2022

Tunisia's President Saied has consolidated his one-man rule since seizing executive power last summer and dissolving the parliament to rule by decree in moves his opposition call a coup.
A protest in Tunis, Tunisia, against what many are calling an anti-democratic autocoup from President Kais Saied. (Photo: Yassine Gaidi – Anadolu Agency)

BY: Riley Bryant / Arab America Contributing Writer

Last Thursday saw the latest advancement over Tunisia’s constitutional reform efforts when President Kais Saied decreed that July 25, 2022 would be the official day of voting for the new constitution. The decision, however, is not without controversy, and several major groups in Tunisian politics staunchly criticize the move.

From the Arab Spring to COVID-19

Tunisia’s political history has been a rocky road in the last decade. Prior to 2011, then-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his regime ran a corrupt government that disproportionately favored private and foreign investment and left many common Tunisian citizens out in the cold, a trend that eventually led to the “Jasmine Revolution” as it has come to be known. 28 days and a series of concessions later, Tunisia had finally ousted Ben Ali and was on the road to a representative government. The success of the Tunisian revolts are what later inspired the rest of the Arab Spring during the early 2010s.

The first temporary parliament was established in 2011 and was later replaced by a permanent legislative body in 2014, once the new constitution was fully ratified. This parliament is known as the Assembly of the People’s Representatives, or ARP, and today it has the largest female and minority makeup of any Arab government.

Despite the success of the Arab Spring, new unrest has emerged in Tunisia in the last year. Complaints of an ineffective Ennahda party, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, led President Saied to freeze the ARP. Eventually, this dissolution is what prompted Saied to initiate the constitutional referendum in the first place. However, many view this decision as even more divisive than the Ennahda’s government.

President Saied’s Actions: A Rescue from Governmental Paralysis?

Kais Saied said last week that he would not do deals with those he described to be "traitors".
President Saied on Thursday as he delivered his address marking July 25, 2022 as the date of the upcoming referendum. (Photo: Agence France-Presse)

It is important to note: Saied has been concerned about an overly-powerful parliament since the creation of the new constitution; he cites a dependency on party-fueled propaganda that would allow a powerful elite to unjustly sway the general public. His pre-political days as a constitutional law professor characterize him as a believer in strict adherence to the constitution, and he has a history of acting in line with “what the people want.” His most recent strokes towards constitutional reform are, in his mind, progress towards a more representative government that serves the interests of the general populace rather than the one percent. It aids the Tunisians that have been frustrated with a government that is too deadlocked to make any meaningful change.

However, Saied’s reform expedition is not viewed by all in the same “for the people” light. His numerous opponents are multiplying by the day as the referendum drags on. They all view Saied’s unconstitutional reshaping of Tunisia’s governmental system as an expansion of power benefiting himself.

Who is Opposing Saied?

Politically, Saied’s most fervent enemy is easily the Ennahda party, who is currently controlling the ARP as the majority party. When Saied dissolved parliament, the democratically-elected ARP was cast aside in a move that the Ennahda labeled “anti-democracy”. For this reason, in addition to ideological differences, the Ennahda emerged as the primary opposition to Saied’s endeavors. The Ennahda has gone on record several times calling Saied out for “scam” attempts at cooperative progress. They see his consolidation of government as the end of Tunisia’s prosperous democracy, which was the only success story to emerge from the Arab Spring.

Likewise, Saied has deliberately left political parties such as the Ennahda out of major discussions regarding the constitutional referendum. He argues that anyone “who sabotaged, starved and mistreated the people” would not be involved so as to preserve the integrity of the new constitution.

Economically, Saied is also facing scrutiny from the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), Tunisia’s biggest trade union that holds more political power than nearly any other singular body in the country. In protest of unfair wages and a broken economy, the UGTT has gone on strike against Saied. They have rejected Saied’s call for a consultation regarding the matter, with UGTT spokesperson Sami Tahri saying, “We reject any formal dialogue in which…civil and political forces are excluded”. Because political parties were left out of discussions, the UGTT sees Saied as superficial and not constructive as he says he is.

Where do we go from here?

Tunisia's labour union and Ennahda party oppose suspending constitution
Tunisia’s President Saied (right) walks with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (left) in Tunis (Photo: Reuters)

Tunisia is still reeling from the turmoil of its Arab Spring days, and the thought of returning to constitution-less disorder is frightening for many. However, despite his departure from the conventional Tunisian democracy, Saied still maintains some level of popularity, particularly among young people. He has continued to uphold every promise he has made regarding acting in the best interest of the Tunisian people, including what he views as purging his country of corrupt politicians and ineffective governance.

Yet, his support is dwindling with every passing day that the referendum drags on. The Ennahda and UGTT are becoming more vocal, and Tunisians are starting to listen closer. Saied’s many decrees, the current method of governing while parliament is dissolved, frighten the people with hints of dictatorial authoritarianism. Still, it was the Ennahda’s ARP that was functionally inept in the first place, making public support as volatile and changing as ever as neither side appears to be a “winner”. In the end, the political chess game between the president and his opposition is tight- President Saied is going to need carefully strategized moves in order to checkmate against an adversary like the Ennahda.

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