Opposition in Tunisia grows as Kais Saied prepares constitutional referendum
According to Reuters, the draft is set to propose a system based on a strong president who would appoint the prime minister. Saied has advocated a form of “democracy from below” that would empower the president and local government while weakening parliament and political parties. Critics say such a system would create conditions ripe for authoritarianism.
Saied’s announcement on July 25 last year to suspend parliament and sack the prime minister was met with cheers from the streets at the time and support from those disillusioned with the country’s fledgling democracy.
Democracy reigned in Tunisia after the Arab Spring. But economic hardship fuels dissatisfaction.
Many lawmakers in the North African country have accused many of failing to implement the economic and social improvements that people demanded when they took to the streets in December 2010, toppling the dictatorship in early 2011 and sparking revolts across the region, which has been described as became known Arab Spring.
In recent months, however, Saied’s increasingly autocratic approach has met with growing opposition. On June 16, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT, with its French acronym) staged a general strike in response to proposed negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a $4 billion loan in exchange for implementing unpopular austerity measures at a time when poor Tunisian families are already shelling out pennies to put food on the table.
Hundreds of thousands of public sector employees took part. Flights were cancelled, public transport stopped working and government offices were closed.
Union leaders strove to portray the strike as being driven by economic concerns rather than opposition to the president. But it was widely interpreted as a show of force to convey that the union “remains a key player in the city,” said Youssef Cherif, a political analyst specializing in North Africa. “They are the only powerful opposition force against President Saied and the ones who can mobilize the streets to say no.”
As the president slowly rolls back on Tunisia’s democratic gains, the UGTT — one of four Tunisian civil society groups that won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize — appears to be emerging as a bulwark against a return to authoritarianism.
After the Arab Spring uprisings, Tunisia weathered political turmoil and terrorist attacks to adopt a new constitution in 2014 that established a mixed presidential and parliamentary system and enshrined civil liberties. In a region where leaders tolerate little dissent, the country of 12 million has become a place of free speech and political strife.
However, the economy that sparked the first protests never improved and unemployment remained high, with many Tunisians feeling that the political class – and democracy in general – had not resulted in a better quality of life. A youth-led protest movement last year called the post-revolution elites corrupt and inept and called for the dissolution of parliament.
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A particular focus of the protest was the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, which has consistently won many seats in parliament and was part of the governing coalition but has been accused of failing to solve the country’s problems.
Ennahda leaders have acknowledged that Tunisians have had legitimate grievances about governance over the past decade and that the party bore some responsibility. But they have repeatedly defended their commitment to democracy and called for a return to democratic institutions and processes.
Saied, elected as an outsider in 2019, escalated his war on the political system in September by announcing he would rule by decree.
“For us, it was the moment of total rupture between Saied and civil society,” Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesman for the influential Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights, told the Washington Post. “This decree created a very authoritarian regime in which the President manipulates all powers.”
Saied has dismantled state institutions, dissolved parliament and threatened to ban organizations from receiving foreign funds – a ban that would do so “Cut out civil society completely, or at least the noisy civil society watchdogs,” said Lamine Benghazi, program coordinator at Advocates Without Borders.
Human rights groups have denounced the arbitrary arrest and detention of Saied’s opponents and the use of military courts to prosecute civilians. Most recently, former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali was arrested last week on suspicion of money laundering before a judge ordered his release on Monday.
Tunisia fell 21 places to 94th in the world in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index this year, with the organization warning that “intimidation of journalists has become normal”.
The moves have sparked concern in the United States, which once welcomed Tunisia’s political path. In May, Samantha Power, director of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that next year’s government budget was known proposed cutting aid to Tunisia because of the “disappointing turns of the current government, the crackdown on civil society, the move away from the rule of law and democratic institutions”.
Saied has also cracked down on the judiciary, unilaterally shutting down a regulator designed to ensure its independence in February and dismissing 57 judges in early June. These dismissals sparked a prolonged, week-long judges’ strike.
Yassine Azaza, a human rights lawyer and adviser to the Economy and Social Affairs Ministry, insisted in an interview with The Post this month that Tunisia is a democracy – because of Saied’s rule, not despite it. Previous governments were corrupt and undemocratic, he claimed, blaming the problems on the Islamists whom he accused without evidence of trying to “take down the state”.
Public opinion on Saied’s actions is difficult to gauge. Thousands of people joined protests organized by rival political movements in Tunis, the capital, over the weekend after the strike – a sign of both dissatisfaction with Saied and fragmentation of the opposition. However, polls continue to show that a majority of Tunisians support the president.
Apathy appears to have taken hold in much of the population and apart from the union general strike there have been few mass protests against Saied or the government.
The union could help form a “civilian front against the authoritarian current we are living through,” Lawyers Without Borders’ Benghazi said. “A lot of hopes are currently on the shoulders of the UGTT.”
Union leader Noureddine Taboubi told reporters last week that the government has no right to impose austerity measures and he has left open the option of calling for a boycott of the constitutional referendum. The union also announced a second strike on Monday.
“If there is a government that is created through institutions and elections, it will have the legitimacy to start negotiations on reforms,” he said, according to Agence France-Presse.