The story so far: Tunisian voters have approved a new Constitution that would turn the country back into a presidential system, institutionalising the one-man reign of President Kais Saied, who suspended the elected Parliament and awarded more powers to himself last year. According to preliminary results, 94.6% voters backed the new Constitution in the referendum, which saw only 30% turnout. Most opposition parties, who called Mr. Saied’s power grab a coup, had boycotted the vote. While Mr. Saied has welcomed the result, his critics have warned that the new Constitution would erase whatever democratic gains Tunisia has made since the 2011 Arab Spring (Jasmine) revolution and push the country back into an authoritarian slide.
Among the countries that saw popular protests bringing down dictatorships in 2011, Tunisia was the only one that witnessed a successful transition to democracy. The Arab Spring protests began in Tunisia in December 2010, leading to the fall of the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in power since 1987. Ben Ali had to flee the country in the face of the mass uprising. Quickly, protests spread to other Arab countries such as Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. While protesters brought down the 30-year-long dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the revolution did not last long in that country.
In 2013, the military seized power toppling the elected government of President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader. In Libya, the protests against Mohammar Gaddhafi slipped into a civil war, which saw a military intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The NATO intervention toppled the Gaddhafi regime (the Libyan leader was later assassinated), but the country fell into chaos and anarchy, which continue to haunt it even today.
In Bahrain, the Shia majority country ruled by a Sunni monarchy, neighbouring Saudi Arabia sent troops to crush protests in Manama’s Pearl Square. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh had to relinquish power, but the country fell into a civil war, leading to the rise of the Shia Houthi rebels, who now control capital Sanah, and the subsequent Saudi attack on the impoverished country. In Syria, protests turned into a proxy civil war, with President Bashar al-Assad’s rivals backing his enemies, and his allies, including Hezbollah, Iran and Russia, backing the regime. President Assad seems to have won the civil war, for now. Tunisia was the only country that saw a peaceful transition to democracy, and with the new Constitution, it is witnessing another transition.
The 2014 Constitution put in place a mixed parliamentary and presidential system. Both the President and Parliament were directly elected by the voters. The President was to oversee the military and foreign affairs, while the Prime Minister, elected with the support of a majority of lawmakers, was in charge of the day-to-day affairs of governance.
In the democratic elections, the Islamist Ennahda party, which has ideological links to the pan-Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement, emerged as a main political force in the country, which upset the secular sections. The polity remained fractious. The country had nine governments between 2011 and 2021. Its economy was already in a bad shape, and the COVID-19 crisis made it worse. Tunisia has one of the highest per capita COVID death rates in the world. Amid the mounting economic and healthcare crisis, protests broke out against the government in July last year. Protesters stormed the offices of the Ennahda, the ruling party.
As unrest was spreading, Mr. Saied moved in, sacking the Ennahda-backed Prime Minister Hichem Mechich and suspending Parliament, plunging the country into a constitutional crisis. Under the 2014 Constitution, such crises should be settled by a constitutional court, but the court had not been formed yet. This allowed the President a free hand to rule the country by decrees. He declared a state of emergency, appointed a Prime Minister to run the government, dissolved the suspended Parliament earlier this year while simultaneously moving to rewrite the Constitution, awarding himself more powers.
In March 2021, less than two years after he won the presidential election, Mr. Saied had expressed concerns over the country’s post-revolutionary parliamentary system. According to him, the new Constitution would protect the values of the 2011 revolution — bread, freedom and dignity. While it leaves most of the personal freedoms guaranteed by the 2014 Constitution intact, the new charter seeks to take the country back to the presidential system, undercutting the powers of Parliament. The President will have ultimate authority to form a government, name Ministers (without Parliament’s approval), appoint judges and present legislation directly to the legislature. It would also make it practically impossible for the lawmakers to remove the President from office.
Over the past year, President Saied has sacked many judges, tightening his control over the judiciary, and taken over the country’s election body, the Supreme Independent Elections Commission (ISIE). Previously, the nine members of the ISIE were appointed by Parliament. Now, the President can directly appoint the members. He has left no doubt on how he is planning to rule the country.
The International Commission of Jurists, a Geneva-based advocacy, has said the new Constitution lacks essential checks on presidential powers and “would return Tunisia to an autocratic constitutional order.”
If in Egypt the ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s sudden move to Islamise the country created a momentum for the counter-revolution, which the military seized to grab power, in Tunisia, the Parliamentary system’s failure to address the country’s enormous problems set the stage for the presidential power grab.
The referendum is clearly a victory for Mr. Saied who could now claim legitimacy for his one-man rule. But the low turnout despite the regime’s high decibel propaganda and the boycott of the vote by most political parties that have substantial influence among the public show that Mr. Saied is still on a slippery slope. In comparison with other countries hit by Arab Spring protests, Tunisia managed well in its transition. But the continued political turmoil suggests that the country is yet to recover from the post-revolutionary chaos. With a battered economy and a fractured polity, Mr. Saied could find it difficult to mobilise power even with a new Constitution.