How can democracy be described in four words? The Tunisian regime has succeeded in doing so. “Your opinion, our decision,” according to the slogan that does a wonderful job of defining the essence of the contract between the president and the country’s citizens. And now for the interpretation: Tunisia is the only Arab country that emerged unscathed from the Arab Spring, which began there 11 years ago, and has a genuine democracy. The country wrote a constitution, formed a parliament, embarked on several free, transparent election campaigns. Parties with rival agendas, religious and secular, were able to establish coalitions. Power struggles were waged lawfully as is customary in every democracy.
But on July 25 the president, Kais Saied, decided that the cabinet and parliament were restricting his power and authority. In an arbitrary decision he declared a state of emergency, assumed unlimited powers, disbanded the parliament, dismissed the prime minister and the cabinet and also reached out to the legal system.
The international community condemned him, heads of state tried to persuade him, and the street was agitated. Thousands participated in demonstrations and clashed with the security forces that are loyal to the president. The media outlets analyzed the failure of democracy with expressions of despair and frustration. Hundreds of social media accounts demanded that Saied be ousted, and street placards marked an X on his head. The previous president, Moncef Marzouki, who is in exile in Paris, declared that Saied is destroying the country and called on the army to put an end to his rule.
Said, 63, is the last leader who would have been expected to violate the constitution and the rules of democracy. Before his entry into politics he was a professor of constitutional law at Sfax and Carthage universities, an adviser to human rights organizations, he helped write the Tunisian constitution, which was adopted in 2014, and is married to a judge. When he presented his candidacy for president in 2019, he won a majority of over 72 percent, mostly members of the younger generation.
But when demonstrations against the government began last January due to the brutal conduct of the police, the failure in the battle against COVID-19 and chronic economic difficulties, Saied decided that the time had come to implement the political system he prefers. This method is theoretically a combination of a representative parliamentary regime and direct democracy, whose meaning is vague.
According to Saied, several of the district representatives would be elected on the local rather than the national level, and from there they would go to parliament and serve alongside the representatives elected on the national level. This method, according to Saied, would bypass the control of the traditional parties, involve more populations in the political process and better represent the public. The real goal, of course, is to release the president from the dictates of the parties and give himself room to maneuver so he could assume greater executive powers.
The demand to change the political system and implement constitutional and economic reforms has been heard in Tunisia for several years. A small percentage of the public – mainly the powerful labor union and the organization of industrialists, merchants and farmers, with hundreds of thousands of members – even supported Saied’s steps at first. Even when the extent of his control of the country’s institutions became clear, they demanded only that he conduct a national dialogue in order to receive public consent.
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Saied listened, declared that he had decided to hold a referendum on his planned reforms – on July 25, 2022, exactly a year after what was described in Tunisia as a coup – and to hold an election towards the end of the year. But Saied inserted a loophole into this lovely plan of action, which is supposed to help fulfill his aspirations and gain public legitimacy for them.
Before the referendum, he decided, there will be a national dialogue on the internet, in which citizens will be able to express their opinions about the necessary economic and political reforms in the country. For that purpose a special website was started: “The electronic portal for national consultation,” or, in short: e-istichara (electronic consultation). Every citizen can enter the website, after sending in his ID number and receiving an entry code from the site's manager. The website was opened in full on January 15 and will operate until March, and it enables a discussion of six central issues: elections, the economy, development and digitization, education, quality of life and social issues. According to the site’s figures, to date over 90,000 participants have registered, about 70,000 men and some 20,000 women.
The government promised there will be no way to identify the personal details of the responders, and even recruited cybersecurity experts to ensure the participants' privacy, but at present it seems not many people are buying this promise. The basic question is how the ideas, advice and requests received on the website will be handled. How can the public know how many supporters there are for each idea and who will control the data analysis? There is fear and suspicion that this channel will serve as a manipulative tool for Saied – since if he intends to hold a referendum, why does he have to conduct a national dialogue?
The fear is reinforced by the slogan accompanying the website and the entire dialogue. Of course it’s possible that the slogan “Your opinion, our decision” is a reflection of the president’s intention to adopt and implement public opinion, as though it were a directive. But there is also another widespread interpretation, namely: Your opinion is one thing, our decision is another. The president’s conduct to date actually strengthens the latter interpretation.