Tunisia: A New Constitution, Presidential Powers and the Future of Arab Spring Achievements

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On the 25th of July, the only democracy in the Arab World, Tunisia voted and endorsed its new constitution in a referendum. This northern African country has been going through a grievous political deadlock since July 2021, when President Kais Saied sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and dismissed the parliament. For over a year, Tunisia has been governed by a presidential decree. 

Though Tunisia is hailed as the only success story of Arab Spring, where democracy endured for almost a decade, it was never a cakewalk for the people and leadership. In the recent past, the country was mired in political imbalances, economic breakdown, and social unrest, which the government was incapable of tackling.

Protesters demonstrating against Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis, January 14, 2011
The 2010 Tunisian Revolution ignited the Arab Spring.

Image courtesy-Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Even through the rough patches of trial and error, the coalition governments that have ruled so far have struggled to keep up with the hard-earned spirit of democracy. Nevertheless, Saied’s unforeseen move to snatch the constitutional powers vested with the parliament and the prime minister was a stroke for this nascent republic.

A New Constitution for Tunisia

The brand new constitution released on the 30th of June is a monolithic document that strives to bolster the preeminence of the president over the other organs of the state. The total turnout of the referendum, held on the first anniversary of the presidential rule, was only 30.5% (official report). The turnout is the lowest compared to the 2019 parliament and presidential elections. The low turnout tells much about people’s apathy towards Saied’s administration. 

People protesting in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, against President Saied’s referendum on a new constitution
Image courtesy-Reuters

Opposition parties have accused President Saied of staging a coup against the budding democracy. President Saied, being a political outsider, has no faith in Tunisia’s prevailing political parties and their democratic way. Through this constitution, Saied is trying to materialize his alternative system. To delegitimize Saied’s endeavour, opposition parties have called to boycott the sham. Nevertheless, irrespective of the electoral outcome, the constitution got enacted.

Saied’s Alternative

Saied’s intention behind formulating a new constitution is to end the division of power among the executive, legislature, and judiciary, thus centralizing all powers in the hands of one man. The 2014 constitution proposed a hybrid parliamentary democratic system, where the president and prime minister share executive powers. Also, the executive heads were made accountable to the legislature composed of elected representatives. President Saied tries to amass enormous powers with the imposed constitution by undermining other institutions. 

The President of Tunisia, Kais Saied

While addressing the media after releasing the new draft, Saied put forward a strange argument supporting his rewriting endeavour. According to him, the power-sharing provisions of the post-revolution constitution are the prime cause that led Tunisia to the ongoing political and economic turmoil. He believes that strong leadership will enable the administration to act quickly and decisively, which the country has been lacking since 2011. To achieve this end, the president should have more power and should be allowed to exercise it without being accountable to weaker bodies. 

President: The Omnipotent

Undoubtedly, the new constitution places the president at the helm of all state affairs. President can have two consecutive terms, but after that, it can be extended in case of unforeseen circumstances. President has the power to make high-level appointments in the armed forces, civil service, and judiciary. Members of the judiciary are expected to be loyal to him, which otherwise could lead to their expulsion.

The appointment of the prime minister is also the president’s discretion. He can handpick the prime minister and the cabinet members. Thus the parliament is being stripped of the right to elect its government. Also, the cabinet is made accountable to the president. He can dismiss the government anytime if found incompetent. All the executive powers are to be exercised by the president while each ministry only assists him in execution. It reduces the prime minister to a ceremonial head, similar to the 1959 constitution of Bourguiba.

Tunisian judges protesting against President Saied’s measure to dissolve the Supreme Judicial Council, February 2022
Image courtesy-Reuters

In addition to that, the functions of the legislature and judiciary are carefully restrained. The president alone can propose a new law or amend an existing law. He determines the priorities of policy making. No negotiations are to be done on matters related to national security, foreign policy, etc. A council of regions has been introduced, which will function as the second chamber of the parliament. However, the function and composition of the council have not been mentioned anywhere in the document. 

Role of Religion in Tunisia

Tunisia is an Islamic country. While secularism was dominant in its post-colonial history, the post-Arab spring political system drew more on Islamism. Article 1 of the 2014 constitution referred to Islam as the ‘state religion’. A culture of tolerance and inclusion allowed the state to incorporate Islamist elements into its politics without infringing minority rights. 

The Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia, a masterpiece of Islamic architecture

After the revolution, many Islamist legislators pushed to enforce religious laws to rule the country. They might want to assert the revival of Islam, which remained suppressed under Ben Ali’s regime. Despite the pressure, Tunisia adopted a civil code independent of Islam (article 2), partly modelled after the European civil code. Thus multitudes of religious perspectives, from secular to orthodox, were duly represented in the 2014 charter. 

In the new draft, President Saied scrapped the first and second articles of the prior constitution to articulate his version of an Islamist state. Article 5 of the current constitution defines Tunisia as a part of the ‘Islamic Umma’, where the state enforces “Maqased (principles of sharia) of Islam to govern and preserve the life, honor, money, religion and freedom” of its people. This theocratic provision takes Tunisia back to the Islamic legal doctrines of the early centuries. 

“A judicial system guided by religious principles is never ideal for a pluralistic democratic system.”

The laws of religion will have unprecedented authority over the social life of its citizens, especially women. A theocracy will only help to reinforce religious dominance. It alters the idea of political justice and social equality that Tunisian people have enjoyed for at least a decade. From a progressive standpoint, the theocratic provision will not reform the legal system. It only helps President Saied to strengthen his power by appeasing the conservative elites. 

Civil Society in Tunisia

The constitutional referendum has multiple ramifications for Tunisian civil society. After the Arab Spring, the role of civil society significantly increased all around the country. Associations, labour unions, NGOs, and interest groups became vocal about their demands or concerns. 

For a newborn democracy like Tunisia, the post-revolution constitution was a fair promise. In theory, it guaranteed and protected the population’s civil, social, economic, and political rights, which were restrained for decades. While free and fair elections followed, the past few years have seen the country lurching between several crises, leaving many Tunisians frustrated.

Due to the dire economic crisis in Tunisia, President Saied has decided to cut subsidies, freeze wages and raise taxes.

Tunisia’s economy has sickened since 2011, with low growth, rising unemployment, declining public services, and growing deficits and debt. People began to doubt the political will of the coalition government. This somewhat explains the initial popularity Saied received when he suspended the parliament. 

Conclusion 

Indeed, for the last three years, President Saied has done nothing to address the dire crises that paralyze the country. Civil conflicts and pandemics have worsened the already deteriorated economy. So there is a general disillusionment among people about Saied’s future programs. The low turnout of the referendum reflects this disillusionment. The rules set by Saied did not require a minimum turnout for approval. His unilateral decision-making approach sabotages civil society’s role in Tunisia. If there arise any disagreements or protests against the administration, he can easily silence them. 

All the above-mentioned provisions point to the rise of authoritarian rule in Tunisia. Unlike the 2014 constitution, which was a negotiated document that reflected a heterogeneous array of political, social, and cultural inclinations, the new draft is an authoritarian instrument. As the new constitution has legitimized the president’s iron fist, the future of democratic politics seems grim in Tunisia. 

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About the Author

Anaina M Raj

Anaina M Raj is a freelance writer and an avid observer of world politics. She tries to explore the alternative narratives and latent dimensions of interstate and intrastate relations. She holds MA in International Politics from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Her research interests include international security, geopolitics, IR theory, securitisation and foreign policy.

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