Charter drawn up by populist leader Kais Saied would greatly increase presidential powers
The last time Tunisia adopted a new constitution, it came after two years of public discussion and seemed to seal the country’s status as the only example of a successful democratic transition after the Arab uprisings of 2011.
Eight years later, the new charter that Tunisians are being called on to approve was drawn up in less than 20 days under a president who sent tanks to shut down parliament.
Since September Kais Saied has ruled by decree, dissolved a council safeguarding the independence of the judiciary and placed his appointees on the electoral commission. Opposition politicians say the proposed new constitution, to be put to a referendum on July 25, is another sign that Tunisia is sinking deeper into authoritarianism.
Published last week, the proposed charter — which would greatly increase presidential powers — was prepared in closed sessions by legal experts handpicked by Saied. Some are now distancing themselves from the document.
Sadok Belaid, who headed the drafting panel, told local media on Sunday that it did not resemble the text he submitted to the president on June 20. He described it as dangerous and said it could pave the way for “a disgraceful dictatorial regime”.
The proposed charter gives the president ultimate authority over the government and judiciary. It would allow him to dissolve parliament and remain in office beyond the permitted two terms of five years on the grounds of imminent danger to the state. It also says the president “cannot be questioned” about his actions.
“In 2014 it was a sound process, inclusive, transparent and praised by the entire world,” said Nejib Chebbi, a member of the elected assembly that drafted the charter now in force. “The current path contravenes international legal and constitutional standards. We have in this country political and economic crises, and these won’t be solved by a referendum.”
He and other political forces are calling for a boycott of the July 25 vote. Saied has previously made clear he does not approve of political parties and favours a strong presidential system. He has been quoted as saying “experience has proven that the 2014 constitution is unsuitable”. Some argue that the 2014 constitution was always likely to cause deadlock by dividing powers between the president and parliament.
A former law professor and political outsider with no party affiliation, Saied was elected president in a landslide in 2019 in what was widely seen as a rebuke to the country’s squabbling political class. A string of weak coalition governments had failed to address a deepening economic crisis.
Saied’s intervention to sweep away the whole system in 2021 received widespread support from a population fed up with a failing economy and fractious politicians. Hamza Meddeb, a scholar at Carnegie Middle East Centre, said it was likely the president had “lost some popularity” since then: the economy remains in crisis, with youth unemployment at 38.5 per cent and the war in Ukraine driving inflation up to 7.8 per cent. However he and others note that discontent has not translated into popular mobilisation to restore democracy.
On the streets complaints about the limited benefits of democracy are a common refrain.
In Kram, a waterfront district of Tunis, Hamed Benhammouda, a retired transport worker, bemoaned soaring prices but said: “We tried political parties for 10 years, but it produced no results, only divisions and fighting. I have confidence in the president and I am waiting for him to solve problems.”
Hanan Marzouki, a woman shopping in Kram, said: “Even if he brings back one-man rule, he is still a good person.”
Meddeb said there was an “anti-politics feeling” fuelled by Saied’s criticism of parties. “Politics is now rejected by many people as equivalent to opportunism and clientelism,” he said. “It will be a huge disappointment if we go back to dictatorship. Democracy could have been reformed.”
While some, like Chebbi, call for dialogue, Saied has marginalised the country’s politicians and refused to talk or compromise. “Saied is stubborn and not transactional,” said Meddeb.
After dissolving the independent Supreme Judiciary Council in March, Saied then sacked 57 judges and prosecutors in early June, accusing them of corruption and protecting terrorists. The dismissals triggered a judicial strike that ended on Sunday after four weeks, with threats of a further stoppage if the president did not reverse his decision.
Aicha Ben Hassan, deputy head of the Tunisian Judges Association, said those sacked had been targeted because they refused to prosecute Saied’s political opponents. “We have big fears because the aim now is to pressure judges to get rid of political adversaries. We are afraid for the freedoms the judiciary secured after the 2011 revolution.”
Since Saied’s power grab last year, political opponents have complained of restrictions and intermittent repression. Some have been briefly detained or placed under house arrest and others prevented from travelling. Saida Ounissi, a former minister and member of the dissolved parliament from Nahda, the moderate Islamist party, was stopped at the airport when she tried to travel in June. She said she knows of no legal cases against her and believes it was an administrative decision “intended to intimidate”.
Nahda was banned before the 2011 revolution and its members repressed, tortured and imprisoned. It has been a main target for Saied and many Tunisians blame its political manoeuvrings for government paralysis. Ounissi said the party, the biggest in the country, needed to examine its role in the failure of Tunisian democracy but said members were concerned about a return of repression.
“It is something we feel in our bodies,” she said. “We don’t have a rule of law situation. It is all arbitrary so they can go after you.”
Politicians and analysts say there is little doubt the constitution will be adopted even if they expect a low turnout.
The real challenge for Saied will be the economy, they note. The government is expected to start talks within weeks with the International Monetary Fund for a loan that is conditional on an austerity programme.
“Whether Tunisia signs with the IMF or not, it will be tough for him,” said Meddeb. “There will be an erosion of political support.”