Tunis, Tunisia; and Amman, Jordan
Democracy in Tunisia, the Arab world’s last hopeful holdout since the revolutions of 2011, was dealt a crushing defeat today – not with the bang of a military coup, but with a whimper of apathy at the ballot box.
Anticipating the constitutional referendum Monday set to tear up their democratic system in favor of a presidency with near-unlimited powers, many Tunisians merely shrugged.
“We spent too much time and energy talking the last 11 years, and left no energy to work to change things for the better. Sometimes a dictatorship is just better,” says Hamzeh Salem, a Tunis cafe owner and political independent in his 30s who, like many, was abstaining from the vote.
“We have a lot of freedoms, but we didn’t get a better life. Freedom and liberties mean nothing if you can’t live comfortably.”
With no minimum-vote threshold required for the referendum’s approval, and many boycotting, it was widely believed the authoritarian constitution drawn up by populist President Kais Saied passed.
The new system replaces the most progressive constitution in the region, a product of two years of consultations that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.
Articles codified women’s rights, youth rights, and rights for people with disabilities; protect against discrimination of all forms; and guarantee “the right to a healthy and balanced environment and the right to participation in the protection of the climate.”
Yet despite winning plaudits from the West and serving as an inspiration to Arabs struggling against oppression, the democratic system simply did not address decades-old inequality, corruption, unemployment, and crumbling public services, Tunisians say. Political parties only looked out for their own interests, they claim.
The widespread apathy greeting such an authoritarian relapse speaks to a core question confronting Tunisian citizens and supporters of democracy worldwide: What is the value of liberty without socioeconomic equality and prosperity?
Arab democrats and rights activists across the region who once viewed Tunisia as a guiding light now see a cautionary tale emerging from the North African state: Unaddressed, citizens’ economic grievances can unravel hard-won democratic gains, creating a back door for authoritarianism’s return.
“What rights am I enjoying right now? Only the right to vote,” says Dhia Hammami, a former supporter of Mr. Saied who said he has given up on the political process.
“Where is my right to decent medical care and social security? Where is my right to free movement and transportation? Where is my right to security and safety? The state is not offering me this.”
Populism to authoritarianism
Monday’s vote was viewed by many as the crowning victory for President Saied, codifying the emergency powers he seized in 2021 – ostensibly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic – in what was described at the time as a “constitutional coup.”
Mr. Saied, who was popularly elected in 2019, was determined to overhaul a post-revolution system in which a parliament-backed government and the popularly elected president shared powers, an arrangement prone to policymaking deadlock.
But rather than launch a national dialogue or include political groups in the drafting of a new charter, the former constitutional law lecturer instead named a small committee of legal experts in June to do the work.
Mr. Saied then surprised Tunisians once again July 1, when, rather than forwarding the committee’s resulting draft for a referendum, he put forward his own. Committee chair Sadok Belaid denounced the document as “completely different” from the experts’ draft and said it could “pave the way for a disgraceful dictatorial regime.”
Under Mr. Saied’s tailor-made constitution, the president heads the armed forces and has the authority to form and dismiss governments, dissolve parliament, call for elections, and appoint judges.
There is no check on the president’s powers or mechanism to impeach the executive, and a loophole allows the president to serve for life.
Beyond the power grab, the draft also imperils individual freedoms.
“There is no clear definition of human rights or a civil democratic state in this proposed constitution,” says Wahid Ferchichi, honorary president and co-founder of the Association for the Defense of Individual Liberties, one of dozens of Tunisian human rights and civil rights organizations that flourished after the 2011 revolution.
“The only person who can interpret this constitution is Kais Saied himself. He can change its meaning based on his needs of the day.”
The move has been met with a smattering of protests that continued Sunday and Monday, led by hundreds of Tunisian activists who lived under former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
But most Tunisians were staying away from the polls altogether, disinterested both in Mr. Saied’s project and in saving a democratic system they say has failed to work for them.
Worn down by inflation, currency devaluation, and food shortages, Tunisians are concerned instead with economic relief. Turnout for the referendum was projected to reach 15%.
Among the small, vocal faction supporting the new constitution are Saied supporters who believe a strong presidency is key to turning around a deteriorating economy, tackling unemployment, and curbing corruption.
Then there are those Tunisian liberals willing to trade away their democratic gains in order to sweep Islamists out of government and public life. A similar bargain was struck in 2013 by Egyptians and strongman President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who, after overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood there, cracked down on free expression and political activity and jailed tens of thousands – including liberals.
Politicians and rights activists warn of what could come next; Mr. Saied has vowed to pass laws dissolving political parties and allowing the president powers to dissolve civil society organizations and ban them from meeting, issuing reports, or receiving foreign funding.
Then there are the crackdowns. Police beat and pepper-sprayed activists protesting peacefully in downtown Tunis Friday, attacking the head of the journalists association and arresting leading LGBTQ rights activist Saif Ayadi, who reports an uptick in police raids since Mr. Saied’s power grab.
“We who advocate for legal rights are facing revenge attacks, intimidation, and threats by the police – particularly those of us who advocate for queer rights,” says Mr. Ayadi, a social worker at Damj, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ Tunisians. “I fear for my safety, for my organization, and particularly those who come to us for assistance.”
“Civil society in jeopardy”
Around the region, political and constitutional reform activists have consistently cited the codification of rights in Tunisia’s democratic constitution as inspiration.
Crucially, the 2014 constitution included a “limitation clause” constraining how far the “civil and democratic state” can curb personal and collective freedoms for the greater good, such as in an emergency, the first of its kind in the Arab world.
Despite Tunisia’s “antagonistic political system prone to deadlock,” the 2014 constitution “was a very progressive way of looking at rights and protected civil society as a product of the system,” says Zaid Al-Ali, a Tunis-based expert on Arab constitutions.
“If this new proposed constitution were to be adopted, it would make it very easy for this new system to curb all rights. It would immediately put civil society in jeopardy,” says Mr. Al-Ali, author of the 2021 book “Arab Constitutionalism: The Coming Revolution.”
Suddenly at stake are freedoms and protections that Tunisians have become accustomed to, but some are willing to sacrifice.
“You can speak freely in Tunisia, but these freedoms didn’t translate to benefits on the ground,” says Abdulkhalek Essid, a Tunis taxi driver in his 60s who describes himself as “unsure” over Mr. Saied’s changes.
“Unemployment is widespread; the dinar has lost its value; prices have increased; youths are migrating illegally and dying. We have liberty, but the situation has deteriorated.”
Other Tunisians say they are simply worn down from five elections in the past decade.
Tunisia’s civil society has been campaigning across the country, urging disillusioned citizens to not give up on their democracy and to resist Mr. Saied’s authoritarian project.
“We tell people: Imagine socioeconomic rights without the freedom of expression, freedom of thought, freedom of education, freedom of media, freedom of association,” says Mr. Ferchichi of the Association for the Defense of Individual Liberties.
“It will prevent anyone from improving the socioeconomic situation, from monitoring the government’s policies, or even complaining about the socioeconomic situation.”
Tunisia has been the last refuge in the Arab world for the free exchange of ideas, serving as a regional hub for human rights and democracy work. Activists, journalists, and lawyers across the Arab world continue to come to Tunis to train, learn from the Tunisian experience, and apply lessons back home.
“People have always looked to Tunisia as what can go right, how you can bring in democracy after these really sizable protests. All the progressive change they achieved encouraged Arab democracy activists,” says Kholood Khair, founding director of Confluence Advisory, a Khartoum-based think-tank working on the transition in Sudan, where grassroots activists continue to push for democracy two years after toppling strongman Omar al-Bashir.
“I think it will be a cautionary tale now of what could go wrong even when the military is not heavily involved: You still might not get the democracy you wanted.”
Others, such as tour guide Lassad Chebi, say they refuse to let their children grow up in a dictatorship. They urge fellow Tunisians to safeguard their freedoms.
“Liberty will result in prosperity in the long term,” Mr. Chebi says, “if we can keep it.”
Correspondent Ahmed Ellali contributed to this report from Tunis.