Tunisian security forces stand guard outside a polling location in Ben Arous Governorate, Tunisia, on July 25, 2022. (ANIS MILI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES).
ONE YEAR AFTER Tunisian President Kais Saied consolidated power and dismantled democratic institutions, his newly drafted constitution was approved by voters in a controversial July 25 referendum. The new document shifts the government from a parliamentary to a presidential system, giving Saied broad unchecked powers.
On July 27, Washington, DC’s Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) hosted Monica Marks, professor of Middle East politics at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus, and independent researcher and analyst Mohamed-Dhia Hammami to discuss the ramifications of the vote.
Marks noted that many questions surround the referendum vote, including the claim of the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) that 94.6 percent of voters supported the new constitution. To learn the true results would require “a forensic audit that would include a comprehensive analysis of campaigning, preparation, voter awareness, polling and tabulation of results,” Marks said.
Regardless, Marks pointed out that the undemocratic nature of the election has been evident for months. For example, those advocating for a boycott of the referendum were threatened by the government with prosecution. “ISIE made a decision not to even dignify the boycott as a valid section of public opinion that deserved representation in campaigning,” Marks explained. The boycott appeared to have an impact, as voter turnout was a reported 30.5 percent.
According to Marks, Saied has been obsessed with his political vision for upending and reshaping Tunisia’s entire political system since he first took office in 2019. However, she believes his ambition to remake political and civil institutions is at odds with the people’s desire for an economic revival. “We have zero indication that he is thinking about Tunisia’s economy in any way, shape or form,” she said.
The vast majority of the population is not interested in power politics, but instead focused on jobs and providing food for their families, Marks added. “Saied is in a very vulnerable position because he has no choice but to focus on the economic problems that have bedeviled his predecessors, but he is showing absolutely no inclination to do that,” she said.
Hammami expressed doubt Saied has any comprehensive plan to fix the economy. “We know about his ideological orientations…and he is nostalgic toward the 1960s state-led development,” he explained. “But these are general ideas. When it comes to concrete policy solutions he doesn’t have that much to say.”
Hammami was also skeptical that a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) would solve the country’s deeply-rooted economic problems. “The IMF’s role is not to deal with micro-economic problems,” he said. While IMF involvement may send a greenlight for other donors to get involved, without Tunisia having a clear, comprehensive economic program, “it’s difficult to see the end of the tunnel regarding the economic situation,” he lamented.
Even though Saied appears to have achieved his political goals, Marks said he is not necessarily in a position of secure power. She believes he is weaker today than he was a year ago, as his actions have caused the opposition to become more united.
“I think Kais Saied’s vanity referendum has given them a point of opposition to rally around,” she said. “There is a lot of broad unity insofar as we’ve seen the opposition—the political elite and the civil society elite—really start to congeal more around this idea that Saied is a dictator, and you can see it today. They are calling the referendum illegitimate and the outcome unreliable.”
Marks criticized Washington’s mostly supportive stance toward Saied’s leadership, but praised the comments by U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price following the referendum. The United States, Price said, has “noted the widespread concerns among many Tunisians regarding the lack of an inclusive and transparent process and limited scope for genuine public debate during the drafting of the new constitution.”