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  • Schuyler Beltrami

A Referendum on a Revolution

On Monday, July 25, 2022, voters in Tunisia will go to the polls to vote on a referendum that would create a new constitution for the state. This new constitution seeks to change the makeup of the state from a parliamentary democracy, to what some are calling a presidential autocracy. The current President of the country says he is simply aiming to correct the course of the country, but his opponents say he wants to get rid of democracy. Tunisia, the starting point of the Arab Spring, must now decide to continue with their democratic path or abandon its ideals in the name of stability.

(Photo: Wikipedia)

Legacy of the Arab Spring

In 2011, the wave of mass protests calling for the democratization and economic liberalization of the Middle East, known as the Arab Spring, began in Tunisia. Demonstrations and a political awakening put the power of politics back into the hands of the Tunisian people and led to the ousting of longtime President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The success of the Tunisian demonstrations began a chain reaction throughout the Arab world, which was met with mixed results. In nations like Egypt, it led to a different strain of autocracy, while in countries like Syria, it led to civil war. Throughout it all, many outside observers, particularly in the West, saw Tunisia to be the great democratic hope of North Africa and the Arab world. But, the reality on the ground in Tunisia was not as promising as many Tunisians may have hoped. Within the last eleven years since the revolution, there have been 10 governments, a parliament which was seen as ineffectual, and the economy of the country has never seen the strength that many have hoped. Over the past year, Tunisia has been hit hard by inflation, high unemployment (especially among young people) and high energy prices, which have only worsened due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now the future of the country, as well as the Arab Spring revolution and the process of democratization itself, is being judged with the upcoming constitutional referendum, a referendum which could see sweeping changes to the very basics of the Tunisian political system.

Savior or dictator?

The impetus of the constitutional referendum stems largely from one man: current President Kais Saied. Mr. Saied, 64, has been the President of Tunisia since 2019 and comes from a background in law and politics. Running on a campaign of combatting corruption and adhering to conservative values, President Saied was popular with both Islamists and younger voters in the country and this broad-ranging support propelled him to victory in 2019. The first protests against his rule began in 2021, as the COVID-19 crisis began to hit Tunisia especially hard, with many protestors demanding more government support for the dual threat of both an economic and health crisis in the country. In light of the protests, Mr. Saied cracked down on many democratic institutions in the country, including relieving the Prime Minister of his duties, suspending Parliament, and utilizing some emergency powers. Then, in September 2021, he officially announced that he would rule by decree and ignore many parts of the Constitution in order to stabilize the nation. Over the next months, Mr. Saied led the charge to “refer” 19 high-ranking politicians to the highest judicial body in the country for crimes of election fraud. Four former Prime Ministers were among these 19 politicians, and the simple fact that the President was able to influence judicial review so clearly was seen as the first step in the erosion of judicial independence. In February, the Supreme Judicial Council, the highest judicial body in the country, was dissolved, with Mr. Saied promising to “restructure” the body after condemnation of his actions from Western leaders. All of these steps have now led to the constitutional referendum, in which voters will have to approve or deny a new constitution which will grant the President with sweeping powers, will severely limit the powers of Parliament, and will make it practically impossible for the President to be impeached or be removed by Parliament. Mr. Saied talks about the new constitution being necessary in order to “correct” the course of the country and the democratic process overall. His critics in the country see it as an attempt to restore autocratic rule in the country.

A nation divided

Although Tunisia was the starting point of the Arab Spring, there are many in the country who have become disillusioned with democracy, pointing to the fact that their own lives have not improved since the overthrow of autocratic rule eleven years ago. Unemployment and inflation remain high, while living standards have not greatly improved. Due to this dissatisfaction with democracy, there is a high chance that the new constitution will be approved by voters today, as many see Mr. Saied as a steady hand who can correct the path the country is currently on, without the unnecessary bureaucratic delays of a strong Parliament. At the same time, there are many in the country who see their President simply as an autocrat and do not wish to see the return of undemocratic rule. Furthermore, the nation is split amongst those who favor a kind of Islamic democracy in which Sharia law forms the basis of the nation’s law system, and those who would prefer a secular state. The new constitution would point to the latter, in which Islam would be enshrined as the religion of the people, but not of the nation and the pillars of Islam would only be used as a guiding principle for the state’s overall goals. With a recent poll showing that 81% of Tunisians prefer a strong leader, the overall dissatisfaction with the current course of democracy, and no minimum threshold of votes announced by the President in order for the constitutional changes to be accepted, all signs point to the changes in the constitution taking place. The question then would be whether Mr. Saied truly does change the course of democratization, or simply rules as an autocrat in a country where the last vestiges of the Arab Spring still find their place within society.

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