Analysis |

With No Public Support, Tunisia's President Is Returning His Country to the Age of Dictatorship

Less than a third of voters participated in the referendum on the new constitution, in which Saied won 94.6% of the casts. Now he will be able to appoint and dismiss a prime minister, ministers and judges with no oversight

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Tunisian President Kais Saied's supporters celebrate two days ago in Tunis.
Tunisian President Kais Saied's supporters celebrate two days ago in Tunis.Credit: Riadh Dridi/AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Tunisian President Kais Saied won a dubious victory on Monday. Exit polls found that more than 90 percent of voters supported the constitution Saied proposed, but only 27 percent of eligible voters even bothered to vote in Monday’s referendum, which masqueraded as a democratic process.

Even though Saied praised the public for supporting him and boasted of his democratic victory, it’s hard to deem the result a public legitimization of the president, who perpetrated a constitutional coup exactly a year ago. It’s even harder to see how he can lead Tunisia’s 12 million citizens on the basis of such narrow support.

Saied, a constitutional lawyer by training, was elected in 2019 with a sweeping 72 percent of the vote. But within two years, he had revealed his real ambitions.

Through presidential decrees, he dismissed the prime minister and all the other ministers; suspended parliament; and fired dozens of judges, as well as the Supreme Judicial Council. Overnight, he became an omnipotent president, bringing back memories of Tunisia’s former dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

A woman holds up a banner during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia, last month.Credit: Hassene Dridi /AP

This move destroyed most of the achievements of the Arab Spring revolution in Tunisia, which until then had been viewed as a model for emulation in many Arab countries. Unlike countries such as Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, Tunisia was an example of a popular revolution succeeding.

It established a democratic system of government in which parties from across the political spectrum participated. Ennahda, a sister party to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, won the first election with a large majority, but in a show of solidarity, it gave up on its victory and formed a governing coalition together with secular parties.

Ennahda also supported constitutional and social reforms that kept the country liberal. Women’s and children’s rights, freedom of expression and equality before the law were all real concepts, not just words on paper meant to cover the regime’s deep-rooted injustices as was the case in other Arab countries.

FILE PHOTO: Reuters, as the country awaits the official results of the presidential election, in Tunis, in 2019.Credit: MUHAMMAD HAMED/ Reuters

The three elections since the revolution stood out for their relative transparency, and turnout was very high. This showed the public’s faith in the political system and, above all, in its power to influence the character of both the government and the country.

None of this happened by itself. Between Ben Ali’s ouster in 2011 and its establishment of a stable democratic system five years later, Tunisia suffered from recurrent mass demonstrations and violence. The police and army arrested thousands of people, two leading public figures were assassinated, and terror attacks by Islamist organizations contributed to a feeling that the country was approaching civil war. Only a national dialogue launched in 2016 managed to generate a relative consensus, albeit one only loosely stitched together.

But these democratic achievements are exactly what prevented Saied from running the country however he pleased. His serious disagreements with opposition movements, parliament’s inability to agree on needed reforms, his personal rivalries with the prime minister and certain other ministers and a justice system that “interfered” with the president all led Saied to lose his patience.

A reform of the army and police was frozen because of disputes with the leaders of both organizations as well as self-interested politicians. The planned constitutional court was never established. Necessary economic reforms were shelved because of fierce opposition from powerful unions that were part of the government. And in the end, Saied used a law that gave him the power, “under exceptional circumstances,” to declare a state of emergency and even dissolve parliament.

Domestic protests against Saied’s rule by presidential decree, combined with international criticism, later led him to appoint a new prime minister who formed a technocratic government. But it was never approved by parliament, which had ceased to sit. He also eventually promised to hold a referendum on his proposed constitutional amendments, which were slated to serve as the basis for new elections at the end of the year.

A woman prepares to cast her ballot at a polling station in Ariana, near Tunis, Tunisia, on Monday.Credit: Hassene Dridi/ AP

The new constitution, drafted by a special committee appointed by Saied, gives the president extremely wide-ranging executive powers and effectively Tunisia’s parliamentary (or semi-parliamentary) system of government with a presidential one. The president will appoint the prime minister and other ministers with no need for parliament’s approval. He also has the power to appoint and dismiss judges, and he is the army’s commander in chief (that last was also true before).

But the excessive power Saied gave himself through the constitution he drafted and his “victory” in the referendum now leave him directly and almost solely responsible for rehabilitating Tunisia’s economy and getting the country back on a growth track. This is a particularly difficult and complex challenge in a country that was hard hit by the coronavirus, can’t pay for its imported wheat and barley and whose tourism industry, its main source of income, hasn’t produced anything for the last three years.

According to official statistics and World Bank reports, more than half of Tunisians – some six million people – live under the poverty line. Unemployment has soared to more than 18 percent (and much higher among women and young people); the national debt totals some $40 billion, around 82 percent of gross domestic product; and in a national survey conducted last year, the vast majority of respondents said their dream is to emigrate.

Tunisia, which until a few years ago enjoyed the goodwill of international financial institutions and donor countries, has now become a dangerous country for lenders. It has been forced to ask the International Monetary Fund for a $4 billion loan that would enable it to at least pay civil servants’ salaries on time and repay some of its debts.

But the IMF doesn’t give gifts. It is conditioning the loan on a hiring freeze for civil servants and deep cuts in government subsidies. These conditions will presumably be opposed by the unions, which will veto any step that could reduce unionized workers’ already meager incomes.

The question is whether the president will be able to get the police and army on his side in his fight against the expected protests and demonstrations should he accept the IMF’s conditions, or whether he will find himself in the same situation as Ben Ali – abandoned by the security services and forced to flee the country.

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