CIVICUS speaks about Tunisia’s 25 July constitutional referendum with Amine Ghali, director of Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center (KADEM).
KADEM is a civil society organisation (CSO) that aims to promote civil society’s contribution to democracy and transitional justice in Tunisia and the wider Middle East and North Africa region, through awareness-raising, capacity-building and documentation.
Why is President Kais Saied holding a constitutional referendum on 25 July?
Changing the constitution or revising it is part of the president’s private project – a plan he didn’t announce either when running for the presidency in 2019 or during his first two years in office. This all started with President Saied dismissing the prime minister and suspending parliament in July 2021.
At that time, he didn’t even announce the revision of the constitution. It was only in mid-December that the president had to spell out a roadmap under international and local pressure. At the heart of Saied’s roadmap is a new constitution.
Unlike the 2014 constitution, which was based on broad consensus, the process leading to a constitutional referendum didn’t gain public support. When people were asked their opinion on revising the constitution, as part of online consultation organised in early 2022, only around 30 per cent of respondents agreed. Still, the president has gone ahead with the constitutional review process, with a referendum campaign asking Tunisians to vote ‘yes’ to ‘correct the course of the revolution’.
To what extent has civil society engaged in the process leading to the upcoming referendum?
Civil society has gone through unprecedented times in recent months. When it comes to its stance on the issue, in broad terms civil society has mostly been either silent or supportive.
At the start of the president’s July 2021 power grab, some civil society activists who were fed up with problems we have encountered in the past few years, with an inefficient democracy, saw Saied’s move as a political attempt to correct the trajectory of our democracy. One of Saied’s early promises was to fight corruption and bad governance.
But as soon as the president revealed his intention to change the constitution, political parties, influential people and some civil society groups started to oppose him.
Civil society is not one group or in one position – of course there is some diversity. The most vocal and influential groups are critical of him, especially since the planned new constitution was shared with the public; they realised its aim is not to ‘restore democracy’, but rather attack it. Now many are trying to stop the referendum process happening.
How has civil society organised against the referendum?
Although civil society’s response is late, they have recently used a range of means to oppose the referendum. Coalitions have been built, civil society has published position papers, conferences have been held.
Some groups are calling for a boycott of the referendum while others are trying to bring a case to court, although they do so in the face of presidential attack on justice: in June the president fired 57 judges, accusing them of corruption and protecting ‘terrorists’. In protest against judicial interference, Tunisian judges went on strike, only returning to work very recently.
The Tunisian League of Human Rights, a prominent CSO, has called on the president to withdraw his proposal and instead enter a wider dialogue with Tunisian society.
How free and fair might the referendum be?
When democratic transition took place in 2011 our country strived to create independent institutions such as the electoral commission and an anti-corruption body, among others. The proposed constitution dissolved almost all these independent bodies.
The only one it keeps is the electoral commission, which President Saied seized control of in May by firing its members and appointing new ones. In February he dissolved the High Judicial Council, as well as sacking the judges in June.
Given that context, the independence of this ‘independent commission’ running the referendum, and the integrity of the whole election, must be questioned.
What are your expectations for the results, and what impact will they have on the quality of democracy?
By examining the latest polls on President Saied’s approval ratings, he still has huge public support. But this is the result of his populism. He is a populist president and populism – at least in its early years – has many supporters. But once a populist president fails to deliver on their promises, they lose popularity and support. In Tunisia, we are still going through the early stages of populism.
Despite his popularity, I believe that his upcoming referendum will have a very low participation rate. With a small turnout, the legitimacy of the result will be questioned.
But the president and his regime don’t care about legitimacy. For example, when the national consultation took place months ago, it was a complete failure in terms of the participation rate. Yet President Saied used it as a justification to hold this referendum.
If the referendum is approved, it will be followed by parliamentary elections in December, according to his roadmap; parliament was dissolved in April. Meanwhile, there will probably be several ‘reforms’ and new laws. I am afraid to say that the next phase is quite scary because the president has the ultimate power to change laws without any checks and balances, in the absence of an independent judiciary, constitutional court and parliament.
Democracy means the separation of powers, checks and balances, and participation, but all of these have been cancelled by the president since July 2021. He has tightened his grip over the entire executive body, the entire legislative body, and even part of the judiciary. With an attack on the judiciary, we can count less on judges to be the ultimate defenders of rights and freedoms. Our democracy is probably at its worst level since the 2010 revolution that ousted autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
The human rights situation is worsening with the decline of democracy. We have witnessed several human rights violations, some of which reminded us of the kind of abuses that were committed during the early years of the revolution. The difference between that time and now is the absence of any accountability. The president hasn’t been held accountable for any decision he has made during the last year.
From our side, civil society has condemned these violations, but it was not enough, so we have been trying to network with various defenders of democracy in Tunisia as well as abroad. In the next phase, civil society will continue its pressure and mobilise against any deviations from democracy, given that the new constitution will guarantee the president extensive powers and open the doors for further violations.
How has the international community responded?
We feel the international community has left Tunisia behind. The international community is offering a very weak response to this attack on democracy and the loss of a democratic country. The community of democratic countries is not putting in much effort to keep Tunisia within its family.
Many of us are very disappointed by their reactions to the closure of parliament and what followed. The result is a very bad draft constitution that will probably cancel Tunisia’s democracy. But there has been no solid response from democratic friends of Tunisia.
In this way, they encourage the president to commit more violations. These countries are back to their policies of the past decades in prioritising security and stability over democracy and human rights in our region.