The time has come at the beginning of next week: Tunisian President Kais Saied will then have the Tunisians vote on the new constitution that he has had drafted over the past few months. The corresponding draft, which he presented a few days ago in the state’s official gazette, provides information about the trend. Overall, it very significantly strengthens the president’s powers and weakens the separation of powers to an extent that has critics worried.
Saied is obviously continuing the course he has been on since the summer of last year. In July 2021, he declared a state of emergency and dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi. He then dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council in February 2022, the previously suspended parliament at the end of March, and dismissed 57 judges and prosecutors in early June.
The draft for the new constitution is supposed to be legitimized by the fact that between January and March of this year the population was able to submit proposals for the text of the constitution online. However, only about 530,000 Tunisians took part – out of a total of 9 million eligible voters.
Demonstration by judges and opposition supporters against the dissolution of the Supreme Judicial Council, February 2022
criticism and approval
Despite many concerns that the president will become more sole ruler in the previous model country of the “Arab Spring”, the draft has been well received by a section of the population, says Heike Loeschmann, head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation office in Tunis. What is remarkable, however, are the enormous differences between town and country, as well as between individual regions. “People across the country see the institutions as corrupt, but especially in rural areas they hope the president will take action. Saied’s public speeches, in which he promotes the constitution, are well received because she shares the country’s grievances aptly outline,” says the expert. The residents of the big cities, above all those of Tunis, are more skeptical: “They are less likely to be won over by the rhetoric of a strong man and fear that the rule of law will be undermined.” They are also concerned about a loss of democratic freedoms.
The human and women’s rights activist Bochra Belhaj Hmida, for example, expresses negative opinions. “Of course, this constitution poses a threat to democracy,” she told DW. “We see the entire achievements of the revolution in question – such as freedom of speech and freedom of association.” The fight for an independent judiciary and for human rights is also at stake.
“Complete control over the state apparatus”
In fact, the draft – at the end of May the lawyer Saied received it from a group of legal experts, but then revised it again on his own initiative – now contains elements that could under certain circumstances override democracy and the rule of law.
The articles that define the president’s prerogatives reveal “complete control over the state apparatus,” say political scientists Julius Dihstelhoff and Mounir Mrad from the think tank Merian Center for Advances Studies in the Maghreb (MECAM) in an analysis for the Frankfurter General newspaper.
This tendency is reflected in several individual aspects. For example, the president has a head of government at his side. However, this is appointed by the President and does not depend on the trust of Parliament. In addition, regional commissions and no longer the political parties, which the president has constantly criticized, are to provide the members of parliament in the future. The judiciary is also clearly losing independence: the president appoints the nine members of the constitutional court and controls the judges.
Omnipotence through the back door
Article 55 of the new constitution is also controversial. It states that the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the constitution may only be restricted by law or by “necessity imposed by a democratic order”.
This wording is problematic, says Tunisia expert Heike Loeschmann. “Because the president can decree new laws at any time and thus change the legal framework. Experts and informed citizens now fear that legislation is largely subject to the political will of the president.”
According to activist Bochra Belhaj Hmida, the constitution abolishes the separation of powers, formulating her criticism even more harshly: “All powers are in the hands of the president; he controls everything. It is a ‘presidential’ regime legitimized by the constitution.”
Revival of religion?
The draft contains other controversial formulations – for example, that Tunisia is “part of the Islamic community” and that the state must work “to achieve the goals of Islam”. This is only limited by the wording that these efforts must be made within democratic parameters.
It is possible that the president is deliberately aiming for approval and sympathy within the supporters of the Ennahda party, which is considered moderate Islamist and whose influence he has consistently fought against. “Saied gave the impression the whole time that he was anti-Islamist,” says Heike Loeschmann from the Böll Foundation in Tunis. “Many secular citizens believed that too. But now the state is becoming the guardian of the implementation of Islamic principles. This is a dangerous identity-political project.”
All in all, the new constitution would result in a whole new model of rule, write Dihstelhoff and Mrad in their analysis – one that “sets the framework for the return of an authoritarian presidential system. It is reminiscent of the dictatorships of the Tunisian past.”
Concerns in Germany and the EU
For this reason, a “concern discourse” about Tunisia is dominating the European Union and Germany, says Heike Loeschmann. Germany and the EU would have an interest in keeping Tunisia stable between Algeria and Libya, not least in view of the refugee problem in the Mediterranean. In addition, Tunisia has so far been considered the only country in which the “Arab Spring” has not failed and in which democracy and pluralism have been established.
But for how much longer? The expert Loeschmann describes the problem of European politicians as follows: “They often cannot act consistently because they have interests in Tunisia.” Of course, the President knows that very well. And Kais Saied, according to Löschmann, “forbids any interference from outside anyway, as does the rest of the political establishment in Tunisia.”
Collaboration: Tarak Guizani, Tunis.