The Washington Post

A dark day for democracy in Tunisia

- BY MONICA MARKS The writer is an assistant professor of Middle East politics at New York University in Abu Dhabi.

On Monday, Tunisians have been going to the polls to vote on a new constituti­on proposed by President Kais Saied. At stake is nothing less than the fate of the Arab world’s most promising experiment in democratic governance. If Saied gets his way, Tunisia could send an ominous signal to the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, where despotic rulers remain entrenched.

In 2011, a popular uprising in Tunisia sparked by a young fruit vendor’s suicide overthrew the dictatorsh­ip of Zine el-abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled for 23 years. The events in Tunisia triggered a wave of similar revolution­s across the Middle East and North Africa, an upheaval that came to be known as the Arab Spring.

Tunisians embarked on a halting, yet remarkable, transition toward democracy. Thousands of grass-roots civil society organizati­ons, hundreds of political parties and dozens of fresh media outlets sprang up. In 2014, Tunisia’s democratic­ally elected Constituen­t Assembly passed an inclusivel­y drafted constituti­on, painstakin­gly debated over two years, that enshrined safeguards for human rights, checks and balances, and other fundamenta­l pillars of representa­tive governance. For a country whose dictator had once “won” staged elections with farcical 99 percent margins, the fact that Tunisia managed to hold multiple nationwide democratic elections was extraordin­ary.

It is true that Tunisia’s post-revolution­ary government­s never managed to create a betterfunc­tioning economy, to reform the corrupt security state or to create a Constituti­onal Court. But despite significan­t failures, Tunisia’s strides in free speech and democratic governance catapulted it to the highest marks in democracy-rating indexes such as Polity IV and Freedom House. The symbolic importance of this — namely that organic, grass-roots-created democracy is possible in the Arab world — posed a crucial counterarg­ument to regional autocracie­s and violent extremists. Tunisia’s example gave hope to an entire region.

Now, Saied — a little-known law professor who won office in 2019 as a dark-horse populist — appears determined to reverse that progress. On July 25, 2021, he staged a presidenti­al coup that overthrew the country’s nascent democracy. Framing his takeover as a “correction” to jump-start urgently needed reforms, Saied painted the entire political class — including independen­t civil society organizati­ons and media outlets — as corrupt intermedia­ries standing between him and “the people.”

Saied shut down the democratic­ally elected parliament with tanks and seized the reins of all three government­al branches. He has ruled by fiat ever since. He has dragged his civilian critics in front of military courts. He has accused parliament­arians who convened virtually to condemn his power grab of “attempting a coup.” He has assaulted the judiciary’s independen­ce and seized control of the country’s electoral commission.

For a man who built his reputation on his alleged expertise as a constituti­onal lawyer, his unconstitu­tional assault on Tunisia’s institutio­ns has been tragically ironic. Undeterred by his critics, who now include nearly all political parties and a broad range of civil society groups, Saied is hurtling toward a style of authoritar­ian hyper-presidenti­alism that could be worse than the dictatorsh­ips that came before.

Saied released his draft constituti­on on June 30, just weeks before his vanity referendum. The draft, first issued with dozens of grammatica­l errors, bafflingly enshrined the Tunisian state as the sole and best interprete­r of sharia law for all Muslims. More importantl­y, Saied’s constituti­on obliterate­d basic requiremen­ts for democratic governance, such as the separation of powers and oversight between branches.

Days after the draft’s release, Saied’s handpicked constituti­onal committee vehemently disavowed it. This carelessly constructe­d, single-handedly-authored authoritar­ian constituti­on represents a massive insult to the dignity and hard-won democratic achievemen­ts of Tunisians.

Disgusted by the illegitima­cy of Saied’s coup-launched process, many Tunisians vowed to boycott Monday’s referendum. The minority who do vote will likely vote yes, because Saied’s promises — however unreliable — still represent to them a preferable alternativ­e to a decade of parliament­ary bickering and dysfunctio­n that failed to deliver tangible economic benefits. The last-minute nature of this crude plebiscite, the disorganiz­ation of Saied’s electoral commission, and the widespread perception that the vote will be rigged in favor of “yes” have stymied efforts to organize, observe and vote “no.”

Most Tunisians seem beaten down by economic hardship. “We’re sleepwalki­ng back to the dark old days,” 39-year-old Zouhair Khlefi told me over coffee in Redeyef, a remote town near the Algerian border. “I want to shake people awake, but I can’t. They’re too hungry, they’re too tired, and they’re too forgetful of how precious our revolution was.”

The absence of any minimum threshold for turnout — a striking departure from global standards in binding referenda — means Saied’s constituti­on will likely pass despite low engagement.

If it does, Tunisia’s democratic experiment could definitive­ly end. It remains to be seen whether the same people who once rose up so inspiringl­y for inclusive government might again stand to topple another dictatorsh­ip — one that will, tragically, be largely of their own making.

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