President Kais Saied has initiated a constitutional referendum in Tunisia. This could have serious implications for a country once championed as the singular Arab democracy.

One year after President Kais Saied sacked the prime minister, dismissed the government, and froze parliament, Tunisia remains precariously stalled at the political crossroads. Said’s actions, which included vastly expanding his presidential powers via a series of presidential decrees, constitute a power grab that has essentially suspended the 2014 Constitution.  A recent referendum on a new constitution has produced more questions than answers about the prospects of democracy in Tunisia, once heralded as the great Arab democratic “exception.” To understand the country’s current predicament, we need to understand Tunisia’s post-independence history as well as its unique political pathway following the seismic events of January 2011 and “the Arab Spring.”   

The ongoing legacy of the Ben Ali regime 

Since achieving independence from France in 1956, Tunisia has endured half a century of authoritarian rule. Independence leader Habib Bourguiba ruled as president-for-life until being removed in a “palace coup d’état” in 1987 that saw the autocratic Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali seize power. Ben Ali’s corrupt regime stabilised the economic situation but led to the widescale violation of human rights, embezzlement of finances, and increasing rates of poverty in particular among rural and non-coastal regions. It only ended with the events of 17th of December 2010, when young Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in response to the harsh socio-economic conditions of his country, sparking an outcry and a wave of protests throughout the Middle East and North Africa region. Weeks later, on 14 January 2011, Ben Ali fled Tunisia for exile in Saudi Arabia. 

The fall of the Ben Ali regime saw an initial turn for the better at least politically, and for almost a decade Tunisia emerged as the singularly successful Arab democracy.  Not only did the Tunisian revolution  overthrow an oppressive regime, it also started to pursue a truly representative, democratic system of governance, that reflected the popular slogan of “freedom, dignity, and equality.”  

Failure of the Jasmine revolution to deliver socially 

A decade after the dramatic events of late 2010 and early 2011, the underlying socio-political problems that led to the uprising against the autocratic Ben Ali regime remain largely unaddressed. These relate essentially to the economic and social problems that continue to afflict marginalised communities. Ongoing social and regional inequalities, together with entrenched corruption, frustrate the realisation of a more equitable and inclusive society.  

The inability of the post-revolution state to make substantial progress on these problems has led to growing disenfranchisement across Tunisian society. President Saied exploited the mood of grievance and disappointment with the failure of democracy to bring about tangible change to justify his 2021 power grab. The political instability and the lack of progress on socio-economic reforms reached a crescendo in the middle of 2021. 

The president’s power grab and its implications for democracy 

The persistent social and economic problems, together with the political dysfunction that paralysed the country with a series of protests, culminated on 25 July 2021.  President Saied declared that he was using emergency powers to freeze parliament and sack the government, in what many observers have referred to as a “constitutional coup.” These extraordinary decisions were justified by the president on two levels. Firstly, at a political level, he accused political parties of bringing the parliament to a state of paralysis by pursuing infighting and political manoeuvring at the expense of undertaking much needed reforms for the benefit of average citizens. Secondly, at the socio-economic level, the president blamed both the parliament and the government for failing to respond to the pressing challenges facing Tunisian society, and youth in particular, in relation to soaring unemployment rates and exclusion from political decision-making processes. As my own sociological research on post-Arab Tunisia has shown, these problems did indeed mean that the Tunisian youth had become distrustful of all forms of organised politics and saw no benefit whatsoever in continuing with political status quo.   

But one of the key arguments put forward by President Saied in justifying these extraordinary events was that the 2014 Constitution had led to a divisive fragmentation of executive power, with the prime minister often wielding more authority in managing the country’s affairs than the directly elected president. The New Constitution project, which was written by President Saied himself, who had been a professor of constitutional law before assuming office, was meant to fix these problems. Having rejected the initial draft prepared by the advisory committee tasked with drafting the new Constitution which he had appointed himself, President Saied made sure that the draft presented for the referendum would give the president unparalleled and unchecked  powers over all other forms of authority, including legislative and judiciary.   

The referendum on the new Constitution was organised one year after the beginning of political crisis on 25 July 2021. The president chose a date of great national symbolism, one that had previously been reserved to celebrate the declaration of Tunisia’s first Republic on 25 July 1957, following its independence from France. Without a trace of irony, President Saied invoked Article 72 of the 2014 Constitution to dissolve parliament, sack the government, and propose a new constitution. This brazen unilateral move explains why the majority of the Tunisian political class, civil society, and most international observers have refrained from supporting these measures, despite having been deeply disappointed with the performance of the previous government and parliament. 

The new Constitution came into effect after the formal announcement of the referendum results by the electoral body (ISIE), which showed that clear majority voted “yes.” The overall turnout was very low, however, with less than 30 percent of registered voters bothering to turn up. President Saied will now turn his attention to writing a new electoral law that many fear will be framed to exclude his main political opponents, especially the Islamist Ennahda Party whose leaders have recently been arrested, and subsequently released, on charges of corruption.  

The prospect for a return to pluralist democracy 

What has served Tunisia very well during the initial stages of the revolution when compared to other Arab Spring countries ‒ broad political consensus among the various political parties, a vibrant civil society including a very robust and influential trade movement, and an apolitical army ‒ will now become the main, and perhaps only, source of hope for a new national dialogue that will restore the early democratic gains.  The new electoral law and the subsequent arrangements for the parliamentary elections scheduled for 17 December 2022 look set to signal, at least for the medium term, whether a genuine democratic system of governance will re-emerge that represents both the critical need for separation of powers, as was the case in the 2014 Constitution, and a greater degree of political accountability that is hoped for in the 2022 version.

This piece was first published under a Creative Commons Licence on Australian Outlook, Australian Institute of International Affairs’ news and opinion publication.