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Tunisia begins work on drafting a new constitution

The opposition en bloc has taken to the streets en masse to protest against President Kais Saïed's roadmap
Kais Saied

PHOTO/Tunisian Presidency  -   President Kais Saïed oversees the swearing-in of the chairman of the Independent High Electoral Commission and its members, Tunisia, 12 May 2022

The consultative committee appointed by President Kais Saïed to draft a new constitution met for the first time on Saturday at the Carthage Palace, the residence of the Tunisian head of state, to initiate a process to provide the country with a new constitutional framework. Led by jurist Sadok Belaïd, professor emeritus at the University of Tunis, the consultations are to be completed before 25 July, the date set for the referendum.

"The new constitution will have to leave behind economic, social, cultural and educational problems," Belaïd said at the beginning of his speech. The public law expert and staunch enemy of the Islamist Enhada party asked the members of the commission to draft a two-page document by Tuesday containing "their vision and philosophy" for Tunisia over the next 40 years and how to realise them in the Magna Carta.

The consultative body, made up of the deans of law and political science at the Tunisian academy, where Saïed himself comes from, will be in charge of drafting the new fundamental laws of the state that will succeed those established in 2014, in the drafting of which Saïed himself participated. The committee's competences also include carrying out studies and proposals in the political, legal, economic and social fields.

In principle, the body would be composed of two subcommittees in which various associations such as the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Crafts (UTICA), the National Association of Lawyers (ONAT), the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LTDH) and the General Union of Workers (UGTT), the country's largest trade union, would also participate, excluding from the process the majority political formations such as Enhada and the Desturian Party for not complying with Saïed's roadmap.

Against all odds, the UGTT, a key asset for the president, refused to take part in the deliberations for "not fulfilling the conditions for real and meaningful dialogue", and organised a general strike on 16 June aimed at paralysing the country after the new government of Najla Bouden, the first female head of government in an Arab country, refused to increase wages.

Saied Bouden
PHOTO/Tunisian Presidency  -   President Saïed receives Prime Minister Najla Bouden, the first woman to head a government in the Arab world

"The strike on 16 June could deliberately turn into violence to give the army and the international community a reason to sack Saïed. They could accuse him of mental disorder and force him to resign", Tunisian consultant Mourad Teyeb tells Atalayar.

"The UGTT has supported Saïed from the beginning. Even when the president's measures began to lose popularity, they stood by him because their failure meant victory for the Islamists," Teyeb recalls. "Their recent change of position has its reasons: they are sure that Saïed is finished. However, he seems determined to stick to his plans for Tunisia at all costs. 

Last week, Saïed issued a decree officially calling the referendum to vote on the new Magna Carta. The deadline would be 25 July. On that day, Tunisians will be able to go to the polls between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. local time and will have to answer the question: "Do you approve the draft of the new Constitution of the Tunisian Republic? There are only two possible outcomes, 'yes' or 'no'. Tunisians living abroad will be able to vote between 23 and 25 July.

Until then, the process of legal preparation will continue. Salih Yasun, a political analyst and Tunisia expert, expects that "given the short time remaining before the scheduled referendum, many of the clauses of the current constitution will remain in place, although the president's authority will be substantially expanded". "This will be followed by a new electoral law based on single district voting with the aim of weakening the parties", he anticipates for Atalayar with eight weeks to go before the vote.

"The plan he announced before running for president was to have a kind of direct democracy mixed with a presidential system. Accordingly, elections take place at the lowest local level, from which representatives are chosen through a lottery," adds Yasun. Saïed considered the latest constitution to be ambiguous, dividing authority between the speaker of parliament, the prime minister and the president without clearly delineating their prerogatives.

Manifestaciones Túnez
PHOTO/REUTERS  -   Supporters of Tunisia's largest political party, the Islamist Ennahda, march during a demonstration in opposition to President Kais Saied, in Tunis, Tunis 27 February 2021

But the roadmap of Saïed, who decided in July 2021 to dismiss the government of former Prime Minister Hicham Mechichi, dissolve parliament and suspend the constitution to arrogate full powers to himself under a controversial interpretation of Article 80 of the Magna Carta, "an intervention with strong support from the military as well as an overwhelming majority of citizens" as Yasun notes, is increasingly being resisted by civil society and the main opposition parties.

Dozens of supporters of opposition parties took to the streets on Saturday to protest against the drafting of the new legal document. Only the Tunisian police prevented the protesters, who described the consultative committee meeting in Carthage as "illegitimate" for serving the authoritarian ambitions of President Saïed, from encircling the headquarters of the Electoral Commission. The demonstrations were led by five political groups, including Enhada and the Desturian Party, rival parties that share opposition to the president.

Saïed has been ruling by decree for a year in the face of warnings from the international community. In recent months he has been accelerating his constitutional reform by dismantling the institutional architecture with the appointment of a new executive, the dismantling of the Supreme Council of the Judiciary - the country's highest judicial body -, the definitive dissolution of parliament and most recently the dismissal of 57 judges for alleged corruption and protection of terrorism.

"It was not a surprise. He planned it months ago," says Teyeb. "He only dismissed those who opposed him and his roadmap. His decisions have nothing to do with the fight against corruption. The list of judges to be dismissed comprises more than 200 names. He will announce them in the future. Saïed only dissolves organisations that oppose him or remain independent".

Kais Saied
PHOTO/Tunisian Presidency  -   President Kais Saïed minutes before leaving for the United Arab Emirates after the death of his Emirati counterpart, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan

The charismatic 64-year-old jurist, who came to power in 2019 without political affiliation with more than 70 per cent of the vote, is trying to stamp his vision for Tunisia. Yasun defines him as "an inexperienced 'outsider' who managed to successfully exploit Tunisians' frustration with the political class, especially its inability to bring the economic development it had promised". The president blamed the parties, especially Enhada's Islamists, for holding back the country's development.

"Ennahda carried out multiple and sometimes contradictory tasks. On the one hand, it tried to reform institutions. On the other hand, it tried to place its supporters in key positions to ensure its survival," the analyst notes. "Ennahda has been one of the ruling parties since 2013, but it has never ruled Tunisia alone. Corruption has always existed, but it became visible after the revolution due to higher levels of press freedom and freedom of association. Arguably, Ennahda has also contributed to this perception, either because of some high-profile cases or because of the people it has chosen to ally itself with."

"However, the Tunisian state is highly segmented and Ennahda was never able to control its most crucial institutions, such as the security apparatus or the UGTT," says Salih Yasun. Saïed is now trying to seize all the levers of power that the Islamists failed to gain, but his real legitimacy seems to emanate from the street. "According to a telephone poll conducted by Sigma Conseil in April 2022, Saïed wins a hypothetical presidential election with 84% of the vote," explains the analyst.

Consultant Mourad Teyeb believes that his support "is gradually fading". "If we believe the credible polls, as well as the results of his so-called national consultation, he does not have the support of more than four per cent of Tunisians. Last May 8, he could not gather more than 300-400 people at a demonstration in Tunis, although all the government's facilities and logistics were mobilised to get people to attend."

Yasun points in this direction and is "sceptical" about the latest polls. "I see a sense of exhaustion among Tunisians. I would estimate that he probably still has the lion's share of support, but it is gradually eroding".