Tunis, Tunis –
Tunisian voters approved in a referendum a new constitution that gives more powers to the country’s president. It’s a step that gives hope to many in the North African nation, but critics warn it could return Tunisia to autocracy and say low turnout marred the vote’s legitimacy.
Some people interviewed by The Associated Press this week welcomed the result of Monday’s referendum and expressed support for President Kais Saied, who spearheaded the bill and proposed the text himself.
Others said they are concerned about what the changes could mean for the future of democracy in the country. The reformed constitution grants broad executive powers to the president and weakens the influence of the legislative and judicial branches of government.
Adel, a 51-year-old plumber who declined to give his last name for fear of political reprisals, said that while he supported Saied, he did not participate in Monday’s referendum because he thought the proposed changes gave too much power to the executive branch. .
“This constitution that he made was not long-term. Those who will come after Saied will do whatever they want without accountability,” he said.
In 2011, Tunisians revolted against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s strongman president, sparking the Arab Spring protests in North Africa and the Middle East. Tunisia was the only nation to emerge from the protests with a democratic government.
Saied won the presidency in 2019 with more than 70 percent of the vote. He continues to enjoy wide popular support; recent polls put her approval rating at more than 50 percent.
The referendum took place exactly one year after Saied froze Tunisia’s parliament and ousted his government. Opponents derided the moves as “a coup,” but many Tunisians supported the president’s actions due to exasperation with political elites and years of economic stagnation.
Similarly, many citizens think the new constitution will end years of political deadlock and reduce the influence of the country’s largest political party, Ennahdha. Others saw a “yes” vote as a vote for Saied and a chance to change their fortunes.
Saida Masoudi, 49, a fast-food vendor in a Tunis suburb who voted for the revised constitution, said she hoped the changes would pave the way for economic reforms and lower costs of living.
“We just want the country to improve and reform. That is why I participated in this referendum, so that the country returns to the way it was before,” he said, adding that he believes Tunisians lived better under Ben Ali than today.
However, Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s regional director, called the adoption of the constitution “deeply worrying”. She said in a statement that the reviews were drafted behind closed doors in a process controlled by Saied.
“The new constitution dismantles many of the guarantees to the independence of the judiciary, eliminates the protection of civilians from military trials and gives the authorities the power to restrict human rights or violate international human rights commitments in the name of the religion,” Morayef said.
Official preliminary results showed that around a third of registered voters cast their vote, with 94.6 percent giving their approval.
Opposition leaders had called for a boycott of the referendum, saying the process was flawed and arguing the turnout reflected discomfort with changes in Tunisia’s system of government.
“The referendum was rigged from the start, with no expected turnout threshold,” said the regional director of the International Commission of Jurists, Said Benarbia. “The low turnout and the opaque and illegal process by which the adoption of the constitution was made possible do not give the president any mandate or legitimacy to change Tunisia’s constitutional order.”
Several people the Associated Press spoke with said they did not vote in the referendum. Some said they were not interested in politics, while others said a new constitution would do little to change their quality of life. Several did not understand the changes it would introduce.
“I didn’t vote because none of this interests me,” said Khalil Riahi, a 26-year-old DJ. “Whether Kais Saied does this or someone else, I don’t care about him. Nothing will change.”
Monica Marks, a professor of Middle East politics at NYU Abu Dhabi, says many Tunisians have grown weary, disillusioned and cynical in recent years, but have “never called for a complete change of their political system.”
“What they have been asking for, for years, is effective government leadership that makes a real, tangible difference in their everyday lives and solves the economic challenges that they are desperately dealing with,” says Marks, explaining that many are attached to the idea that “one man can take the system, break it and maybe fix it”.
“There are still many Tunisians who believe that Saied is Mr. Fix It… They believe that he is the man who will fix everything, even though he has been governed by powers of personal decree for a whole year, and his situation is tangible” . he hasn’t changed.”