A year after laying the foundation for a constitutional takeover, Tunisian President Kais Saied has done away with a parliamentary democracy in favor of an independent executive branch that the Arab Spring had ended.
After a series of removals of the democratic checks on his power, Mr. Saied has strengthened his grip on power. By targeting judges, suspending parliament, and dismissing his prime minister, he was able to call the referendum that made Mr. Saied the new Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after his 2011 removal in Tunisia’s subsection of the Arab Spring, the Jasmine Revolution.
The new constitution was passed with 94.6 percent of the vote,with an extraordinarily low voter turnout largely due to the boycott of numerous opposition parties.
Mr. Saied claims that his constitutional takeover is necessary to eliminate the networks of patronage and corruption still at work in the Tunisian government. However, Mr. Saied has seen his support wane in recent years, encouraging him to maintain power by hijacking the political system and removing any opposition to him, be it in the media, the courts, or the executive branch.
Tunisia was effectively the only democratic success story of the Arab Spring; Mr. Saied has just brought this success crashing down.
Broad discontent with corrupt, authoritarian political structures in the Middle East and North Africa fomented widespread resistance. Tunisia’s internal revolution was immediately triggered by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010, protesting the corruption of the police force that constantly berated Mr. Bouazizi for bribes.
Just a few weeks prior, troves of classified documents were leaked, outlining the corruption of the ruling Ben Ali family. The most significant leak documented Mr. Ben Ali’s reach into numerous business sectors, a prescient revelation as the country’s economic hardships started to become openly entangled with Mr. Ben Ali’s corruption.
With one man’s display of desperation caused by the government’s turbidity, especially surrounding the economy, the pressure was beginning to mount on Mr. Ben Ali to thwart an uprising. Police were sent into Sidi Bouzid, but that did not prevent Tunisians from continuing to protest.
After several more deaths, triggered by the same desperation Mr. Bouazizi felt, the once-localized protests reached the capital of Tunis.
Mr. Ben Ali attempted to demonize the largely peaceful protestors, and offered vague promises to increase job numbers. Protests continued into January, showing Mr. Ben Ali that these protestors would not be satisfied with empty commitments.
On January 10, 2011, Mr. Ben Ali indefinitely shuttered all schools in what would prove to be a useless attempt to wrest back control of Tunisia. Four days later, he dissolved his government, declared a state of emergency, and fled to Saudi Arabia, where he was granted asylum.
A three-year transition period began, culminating in a new constitution in 2014. This was the constitution that governed Tunisia for eight years, until President Kais Saied did away with it.
Anti-establishment sentiments among many Tunisians brought Kais Saied to power in 2019. This wave continued through the new constitutional referendum, though his support among his constituents has decreased after his first landslide victory.
Mr. Saied started his takeover of government by clamping down on the media. On Zitouna TV, a network that did not trumpet every action of the Saied government, host Amer Ayad was arrested after reading “The Ruler,” an anti-dictatorship poem by Iraqi Ahmed Matar.
Zitouna TV was later shut down by the government, along with another network, Nessma. Al Watania is now the major source of news for the country; it is a state-run channel.
With media accountability internally impossible, Mr. Saied was able to dismantle the political and judicial checks on his power.
On July 25, 2021, Mr. Saied suspended Parliament, dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, began to reshape the Supreme Judicial Court, and permitted himself to rule by decree. Mr. Saied later selected Najla Bouden to succeed Mr. Mechichi, making her the first female prime minister in the Arab world. This appointment may have been made in response to criticism that the Saied government failed to implement the changes suggested by the Individual Freedoms and Equality Commission (COLIBE, in French), which would predominantly reform inheritance laws.
By reworking the political infrastructure, Kais Saied was able to build a system that allowed him to continue to consolidate his power, which as a byproduct degraded Tunisian democracy. Media and legislative inability to check Mr. Saied empowered him to target the judicial system, the last remaining obstacle on his quest for undemocratic power.
In June 2021, Mr. Saied illegally dismissed 57 judges by granting himself the ability to rule by decree. He permitted military courts to try civilians, and Article 5 of the new constitution states that Tunisia “belongs to the Islamic Ummah,” turning the once-democratic Tunisia into a religious puppet state.
Mr. Saied fully cemented his control of all branches of government by dissolving the High Judicial Court with Decree 2022-11 on February 12, 2022 and replacing it with a temporary body unilaterally appointed by Mr. Saied.
Kais Saied capitalized on the economic and political instability of his country in order to hijack any semblance of a democratic government and make it all work for his political ambition. By purporting to be fighting to defeat corruption in the ranks of government, Mr. Saied routed Tunisian politics and became the unaccountable head of Tunisia.
Tunisia’s new constitution would grant an extraordinary amount of power to a man that is supposed to be a democratic president. Kais Saied is now able to dictate the political and judicial direction of Tunisia at will, and he can remain in power by claiming that there is imminent danger to the state.
Mr. Saied has the power to form national advisory bodies for economic and social reforms, which are made up of people solely appointed by Mr. Saied himself without any meaningful oversight. A similar legal advisory committee is created the same way. This committee would surround Mr. Saied with the legal minds that would attempt to keep Mr. Saied in power indefinitely.
Tunisia now “belongs to the Islamic Ummah,” meaning that its political direction is heavily influenced by a worldwide community, discounting the possibility for secular progress.
Instead of a political system with equally weighted legislative and executive bodies, the new constitution makes parliament a pawn of the president’s broader objectives. With this power, Mr. Saied could further reshape Tunisia into a pre-Jasmine Revolution country, undoing the advances for which an entire country fought and died.
The most significant addition of this new constitution, though, is that the president is able to serve two terms of five years each, but if they feel that Tunisia is imminently threatened, they can disband parliament and continue to rule. There is no mechanism to remove the president, signaling that Mr. Saied is aiming for much more than a decade in power.
Despite only about thirty percent of the country voting in the referendum, Mr. Saied has been able to mutate Tunisia’s political structure to make him the next Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
One must only look at the numbers of the referendum to question the legitimacy of Kais Saied’s presidency. Only 30.5 percent of registered voters turned out, apparently voting 94.6 percent in favor of the new constitution.
The low voter turnout is undoubtedly due to several major parties boycotting the vote. Ranging from the Islamist Ennahda to the secular Social Democratic Path, and the communist Workers’ Party to the moderate Machrouu Tounes, a large proportion of the electorate sat out of the vote.
The National Salvation Front called on Mr. Saied to resign, citing the extremely low turnout for the referendum. Mr. Saied obviously will not resign; the mass boycott among opposition parties is exactly what he wanted. Mr. Saied can claim to be rooting out corruption, and the new constitution is exactly what he needs to confront these parties. With such a high “yes” vote percentage, he can say that the portion of the country that cares about Tunisia’s political direction wants him to lead.
This referendum has emboldened Kais Saied to continue strangling Tunisia’s democracy until it works only for him. A president and referendum of this nature is not how democracy is supposed to work, yet that is exactly how Mr. Saied is taking over Tunisia. Unless there is a concerted push by the opposition to hold Mr. Saied to account, Tunisia will fully regress back to the corruption and instability known before the Jasmine Revolution. Tunisians cannot let the Arab Spring’s only success story die.