A year ago, in July 2021, Tunisia’s President Saied sacked the Prime Minister and suspended Parliament after violent mass protests against the Government. He has since taken further steps to consolidate his power, dissolving Parliament and replacing the top judicial body. Crisis Group, an international NGO, warns of a “drift toward authoritarianism” in Tunisia.

A referendum on a new constitution is due to be held on 25 July 2022. This will shift power to the presidency and reduce the role of Parliament. President Saied has also announced new parliamentary elections in December 2022.

Tunisia was seen as the single success story since the Arab uprisings of 2011. This Insight looks at how democracy has progressed since and the significance of the referendum.

Inspiring the Arab uprisings

The self-immolation of a fruit and vegetable seller in December 2010 started a wave of protests which led to the removal of long-time authoritarian President Ben Ali in January 2011.

The protests in Tunisia inspired similar uprisings in Egypt and other Arab nations, and is the only country that transitioned to democracy after the 2011 Arab Spring.

Rise of Tunisian political parties

After many years of effective repression of opposition voices, civil society, trade unions and Islamists, Tunisia developed a multi-party democracy.

Two main parties dominated the 2014 legislative elections: Nidaa Tounes, a secularist party, and Ennahda, a mainstream Islamist party. They later formed a coalition government to push through economic and political reforms.

However, that consensus broke down, and legislative elections in 2019 resulted in multiple parties winning seats, led by Ennahda.

The emergence of Kais Saied

Incumbent President Beji Caid-Essebsi died in July 2019, a few months before planned presidential elections.

Kais Saied, a constitutional law professor unattached to any political party, resoundingly beat a contested field. He promised to “build a new Tunisia” and benefited from huge support among young voters, attracted by his anti-corruption platform.

Calls for the Government to step down

In July 2021, however, ongoing economic troubles, the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and criticism of the Government led to protests across the country. Demonstrators demanded the Government step down and attacked the offices of Ennahda, the largest party in Parliament.

Emergency powers or a power grab?

On 25 July 2021, President Saied sacked the Prime Minister, Hichem Mechichi, and suspended Parliament, invoking article 80 of the 2014 constitution which gives the President emergency powers. While his supporters celebrated, others described the move as a power grab.

Since then, President Saied has “gathered nearly all state power in his hands after dismantling much of Tunisia’s young democracy,” according to Reuters. Major developments include:

  • September 2021: issued a decree granting himself wider powers
  • December 2021: Announced a constitutional referendum will be held on 25 July 2022 and for Parliament to remain suspended until legislative elections on 17 December 2022
  • February 2022: Dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council, the top judicial body, and formed a new body which he has wider power over. The President also extended the existing state of emergency until the end of 2022
  • March 2022: Dissolved Parliament
  • May 2022: Formed an advisory committee to draft a new constitution
  • June 2022: Fired dozens of judges, a move the Tunisian Judges’ Association says was politically motivated. The new Constitutional Committee submitted a draft constitution to the President

Enshrining a presidential system?

The draft constitution reportedly enshrines a presidential system, ending Tunisia’s nascent parliamentary system. Salsabi Klib, a constitutional law professor at the University of Tunis told France24 the constitution “represents a step back”. He described it as a “presidentialist constitution, in which the balance leans towards the president as he enjoys vast prerogatives.”

The head of Tunisia’s Constitutional Committee has publicly criticised the proposed constitution, saying it did not reflect the draft submitted by the committee. Sadok Belaid said the President’s proposed constitution contains chapters that could pave the way for “a disgraceful dictatorial regime.” Political parties were excluded from the constitutional committee and several prominent legal academics reportedly refused to participate.

Hundreds of people demonstrated against the proposed constitutional referendum over the weekend of 18-19 June.

On 8 July, the President published an amended version of the draft constitution, saying “clarifications needed to be added to avoid confusion and interpretation.” The amendments relate to two articles concerning the role of Islam within the country and general rights and freedoms. The new draft reportedly still retains a broad range of powers for the head of state.

President Saied’s supporters say he is standing up to the elite forces whose corruption had led to years of political paralysis and economic stagnation.

In an opinion poll published by the BBC on 6 July 2022, 81% of Tunisians agreed with the statement “this country needs a leader who can bend the rules to get things done.” It was conducted between October and November 2021. The economy and corruption were identified as the greatest challenges facing Tunisia.

Amaney Jamal, co-founder of Arab Barometer which conducted the poll, said the results suggested a belief that “democracy has failed economically in Tunisia.”

Tunisia’s economic difficulties

Behind much of the frustration with Tunisia’s leadership over the years has been the struggling economy. The collapse of tourism after the 2015 terrorist attacks severely hurt the economy. Rising unemployment, crumbling state services and the pandemic all contributed to the July 2021 protests which led to President Saied’s declaration of a state of emergency.

In mid-June 2022, Tunisia’s largest trade union called for a public-sector strike against the Government’s economic reform plans. These included freezing wages and cutting subsidies as part of the Government’s deal to secure a $4bn loan from the International Monetary Fund. The IMF says Tunisia is facing major structural challenges that result in weak growth, weak investment, high unemployment and social inequality. The war in Ukraine, and rising inflation, has also contributed to the increase in fuel and cereal prices.

UK Ministerial visit

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister for North Africa, met President Saied during a visit to Tunisia on 7 to 8 June 2022.

In meetings, he “reiterated the UK’s belief in the importance of civil society, strengthening human rights, and including all voices in building resilient and successful democracies,” according to James Cleverly, Minister for Europe.

James Cleverly also said is the UK is closely monitoring the economic and political situation in Tunisia.

About the author: Louisa Brooke-Holland is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in Africa.

Image: The Carthage Presidential Palace by Fjmustak, CC BY-SA 4.0

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