A nation divided: Tunisia's constitutional referendum

8 min read
20 July, 2022

Since its publication, the constitutional draft, which centralises power in the president’s hands, has stirred up much discussion among the Tunisian public amid concern for the fate of the only democracy that emerged from the Arab Spring.

The new charter will be put to a referendum on 25 July. Although an amended version was released on 9 July, the text still grants extended powers to the head of state.

Many political and civic actors are mobilising against the newly published constitution and the referendum, with most parties planning to boycott the vote since they argue that the whole process has been flawed.  

Calls for a boycott of the referendum have multiplied from different parties, among them Ennahdha, the Free Destourian Party, Democratic Current (Attayar), and Democratic Forum for Labour and Freedoms (Ettakatol).

"The constitutional draft, which centralises power in the president's hands, has stirred up much discussion among the Tunisian public amid concern for the fate of the only democracy that emerged from the Arab Spring"

“This project bestows broad powers on the chief of state without real safeguards. It institutes an ultra-presidential regime and paves the way for the establishment of an authoritarian (or dictatorial) state,” Hella Ben Youssef, Ettakatol’s vice-president, told The New Arab.

A group of small political parties who have stood behind president Saied since last year, such as the People's Movement (Echaab), Alliance for Tunisia, and Tunisia Forward, are urging people to vote in favour of the draft constitution in the upcoming referendum, embodying a resolve to break with the past ten years.

“We appeal to Tunisians to vote ‘yes’ not to go back to a system where the parliament and the executive block one another and put decisions and reforms on hold,” Oussama Aouidet, a member of Echaab’s political bureau, told The New Arab.

Voting 'yes'

With Kais Saied calling on citizens to vote ‘yes’ in the planned referendum, Tunisians are divided about the content of the modified document and the purpose of adopting a new constitution.

Some are determined to endorse Saied’s project saying they were deeply dissatisfied with the post-2011 political system, often deadlocked, and the ruling elite’s inability to govern the country. 

“I’m going to vote ‘yes’ to give power to someone that doesn’t represent the political class we had for a decade, to enable him to act on state institutions,” Fathy, a retired 71-year-old in Bab El Khadra, a working-class neighbourhood of Tunis, made clear. But he also admitted that passing a constitution is “not the prime concern” today.

“We are in the s*** now! So I will say ‘yes’ one thousand times in this referendum,” retiree Majid, 63, told The New Arab.

Some are determined to endorse Saied's project, saying they were deeply dissatisfied with the post-2011 political system. [Getty]

“I put my trust in Kais Saied, regardless. He’s better than all the other parties we saw following the revolution,” Messaoui, 44, a market vendor in Bab Souika, another working-class neighbourhood, said. “He’s Mr Clean and knows the law”.

Since the 2011 uprising, Tunisia has had ten successive governments who have all failed to handle its economic and social hardships while causing political stalemate, which has undermined public confidence in political parties and institutions.

Many people said they were disillusioned with the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha movement, the largest bloc in the now-dissolved parliament and the main Tunisian opposition force, blaming the party for the country’s political and economic paralysis.

“Everybody hates Ennahdha,” Hosni, a man in his early 40s in the old district of Halfaouine, said. “Billions of dinars have been stolen under its eyes”.

"Since the 2011 uprising, Tunisia has had ten successive governments who have all failed to handle its economic and social hardships while causing political stalemate"

Dr Boujmil, 61, in La Marsa, a middle-class suburb north of Tunis, pointed out that “wrongdoers” must be punished, referring to the conservative Ennahdha party and its leader, former parliamentary speaker, Rached Ghannouchi.

“The largest majority of Tunisians are sick of the Islamists and Ghannouchi. Getting rid of those intruders has been a relief since last year,” the doctor said, cheering the president’s decision to dissolve parliament.

“Saied will fix the mess created by Ennahdha,” said Hedi, 38, in central Tunis, who hasn’t read the constitution but is going to vote yes. “I trust him, he can save our country”.

Ghannouchi, who’s increasingly unpopular in Tunisia, appeared before the country’s anti-terrorism unit on Tuesday for an investigation into terrorist financing and money laundering allegations, and was freed after a nine-hour court hearing.

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'Nothing has changed, nothing will change'

Many citizens are wholeheartedly apathetic about the constitution and the upcoming referendum.

“I’m not going to read the constitution or vote. We live in misery, there hasn’t been progress since the revolution”, Abir, who is 35 and unemployed, said.

“It’s been more than ten years. Nothing has changed, nothing will change,” a woman in her mid-30s told The New Arab. “This vote will serve no purpose”.

One 30-something medic in Bab Souika, who’s not going to cast her ballot, stated unequivocally that rewriting the constitution isn’t a primary concern, nor is a referendum necessary at a time when life is becoming increasingly expensive and public services are visibly deteriorating.  

“President Saied hasn’t addressed the country’s priorities,” she told TNA. “Living standards are really bad, people earn too little to cover their daily expenses”.

In the economically deprived district of Jebel Lahmar, a young man in a street market selling clothes, who preferred to not give his name, said candidly, “I haven’t read the new draft, I’m not interested”.

“Tunisia is over,” he continued, with a sarcastic smile.

"I'm not going to read the constitution or vote. We live in misery, there hasn't been progress since the revolution"

Further up the main road, Noura, 45, who’s employed in a bakery, expressed the same lack of interest. “I’ve no idea about the constitution. I just care about working to feed my children,” she said. “I don’t expect to see a change after 25 July. Kais Saied can’t make a big difference”.

Raoua and Syrine, two fashion designers aged 22, in La Marsa, were likewise uninterested in the referendum. “I haven’t seen any improvement since last summer. On the contrary, the situation has worsened,” Syrine told TNA. “People can’t find jobs, those who work are paid very low wages, criminality is on the rise because of the tougher living conditions”.

Across the street, 58-year-old Fawzia, a primary school teacher, and her daughter Sanaa, 26, who recently graduated in agri-food engineering, both sounded unconvinced about the benefit of next Monday’s vote.

“We thought Saied could do better than those who ruled before, though he hasn’t done anything meaningful for the people,” the schoolteacher said, venting her disappointment. “He betrayed our hopes”.

Tunisian opposition supporters take part in a rally against President Kais Saied's power grab and the economic crisis in the North African country, in the capital of Tunis on 13 March 2022. [Getty]

Cautious hope

But other Tunisians hold onto hopes that passing the constitutional draft will give Saied more leeway in serving the country’s interests.

In Jebel Lahmar, Amira, 40, an employee at the National Health Insurance Fund (CNAM), stressed that the president will succeed if parties let him work and do not sabotage his plans. “The previous constitution granted powers to politicians, [who are] mafia and thieves,” she claimed.

Walid, 46, who works at the National Social Security Fund (CNSS), echoed the same view. The public employee also said it is “better to have one head” rather than three heads of the state.

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Mohamed, 41, an industrial maintenance technician, also clearly favoured a presidential system for running the country’s affairs. While he has read the constitution, Mohamed acknowledged that a lot of people haven’t, and are showing no interest.

Mr Ben Fadhel, a 60-something retiree in Halfaouine, said he has confidence in Saied and his fight against corrupt politicians and the “lobbies” and “mafia”, with the view to see stolen state funds recovered. “Everybody has a little hope with Kais Saied,” he affirmed.

“He will go after the lobbies and the corrupt,” Wiem, a 25-year-old graduate in public law in La Marsa who works as a part-time DJ while looking for a job, said. “I’m sure this referendum will change things in the general interest”.

A return to authoritarianism

Others voiced concern about the risk of Tunisia regressing into authoritarianism.

In Tunis’ northern suburb, a 60-year-old manager who wished to remain anonymous, said he is afraid that if the amended charter is passed it will lay the groundwork for establishing a dictatorial regime post-Saied which could become institutionalised.  

“The chief of state relieved us of a parliament of clowns and of a pseudo-democracy last year,” the manager said. “We needed a presidential system, but not a regime with very little counter-powers,” he added, saying he would vote ‘no’.

Golsom, a 48-year-old journalist, walking with her young son in Ennasr, a middle-class residential area, shared her fears of restrictions on the rights and freedoms of women. Although she felt relieved after the head of state’s coup de force last July, she had reservations about what would come next.

"It could lead to more autocratic presidencies next. We don't know who we might get after Saied"

“I initially thought Saied would take things in hand seriously, but we’ve seen nothing,” she said, still undecided on whether to boycott or vote ‘no’.

Others are also undecided but leaning towards voting ‘no’, fearful of warnings from experts that the new constitution bestows excessive powers on the head of state.

“It could lead to more autocratic presidencies next. We don’t know who we might get after Saied,” a 50-year-old engineer who wished to remain anonymous told TNA.

President Saied has held nearly total power since last July, when he sacked the government, suspended parliament, and assumed executive authority amid public anger against the political class.

While his initial power grab was welcomed by some Tunisians, there has been mounting criticism against his rule. But whichever way Tunisians vote in the upcoming referendum, much uncertainty remains about the trajectory of the country’s future.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec