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Tunisian constitutional campaign continues as voter interest ebbs

Tunisian President Kais Saied’s campaign is flagging amidst international criticism and voter apathy and opposition.
Tunisia

TUNIS - Tunisian President Kais Saied’s constitutional reform process is suffering from discontent and resignations. Today the chairman of the advisory committee for the new republic, Dean Sadok Belaid, will submit the first draft of the new constitution, but it seems a weak reform amidst splits and resignations.

Judge Habib Rebai resigned from the higher independent electoral authority (ISIE), which is in charge of running the members of the advisory committee for the new republic. The ISIE claims that it will enroll more than 9 million voters out of a population of 12 million, yet voter and opposition movements such as the National Salvation Front, and the Free Constitutional Party (PDL) been excluded from the national dialogue and are calling for a total boycott of the referendum.

Tunisia’s so-called “referendum period” began on May 5, but the specially formed advisory committee did not sit in session for the first time until Saturday, June 4, with a minority of civil groups, including the union of trade, industry, and handicrafts (UTICA), the Union of Women and the League of Human Rights (LTTH), and just four political parties, including the nationalist party Echaab and the Popular Current.

However, those most noticeably absent have been the powerful general workers union UGTT, and major parties including Ennadha, which President Kais Saied has declared unwelcome. But many other parties have actively boycotted the process, including centrist and leftist parties traditionally opposed to Ennadha.

While the advisory committee sat in a gilded hall in the Palace of Carthage, a small group of leftist politicians and activists marched in the blistering heat to protest against the referendum, only to be met by a wall of police who pushed them back violently.

They bore placards calling the ISIE “The president’s fraud commission.” Front Populaire leader Hama Hammami told the international press that “we came as political parties and activists to express our beliefs, but police sprayed tear gas in our faces.” Although relatively small, it’s the most violent protest since last September.

Assistant professor of political science and Law at the South Mediterranean University (MSB) Eya Jarad believes protesters are right not to trust the ISIE “I’m not sure that I feel easy,” she said, “I’ve seen volunteers working with ISIE in the streets collecting data. We didn’t need people to go out to collect data, and there is a risk that this data being collected could be used to manipulate to get higher participation.”

While it took three years of hot debate to arrive at the 2014 constitution, the advisory committee initially set a deadline of June 20 to come to a first draft of the new constitution and final edit by June 30.

Political author Amine Snoussi said, “Saied’s real enemy seems to be time itself," which is running out quickly. “That is meant to reassure us that in 50 days we are meant to vote on a constitution that isn’t written yet. How can we try to take this seriously?”

Jarad thinks Saied’s timing is out of step with the real needs of the people right now. “With the inflation and strikes in different sectors families are cut off from water and it is incredibly hot and he [President Saied] is asking us to care about the drafting of a new constitution?” 

Head of the advisory committee Sadok Belaid raised more headlines when he proposed a fundamental change in the first article or preamble of the 2014 constitution: "Tunisia is a free, independent, and sovereign state, Islam is its religion, Arabic its language and the Republic its regime." According to an interview given to Agence France Presse, he believes that this will “block the way to political Islam,” despite the original text clearly stating that this first article could never be subject to revision.

Nationalist party Echaab, which has supported Saied since July 25, said that such a change to the fundamentals of the constitution could be a deal-breaker and fear that removing “its religion is Islam could be a serious provocation to ardent supporters of political Islam and a gift to Ennadha.

Echaab is considering whether to continue participating in the process. Spokesperson Oussema Aouidit told Al-Monitor that Echaab was more concerned with defining a moderated presidential system with a well-defined separation of powers and guarantees to personal rights and liberties by the state. But the party wonders if those ideas will be scrubbed from any new constitution if they leave the table.   

Jarad said, “We thought the first chapters would not be touched. The issue around religion is something to catch interest to divert people to the parts that really matter, the shape of the three benches, the legislative, executive and judicial. They will not tell us [what these changes are] until the end.”

The atmosphere of social and political tension has been progressively tightening in Tunisia since last September, when Saied consolidated executive power and chose to rule by presidential decree, with televised outbursts and sweeping purges.

On May 30 Saied raged against criticism of his proposed constitutional changes and referendum by the Venice Commission, which recently visited Tunisia. Their critique as reported by Reuters stated, "It is unrealistic to hold a credible referendum in the absence of clear and pre-established rules," and that legislative elections should take place before any referendum.

Saied stated on Monday, "If necessary, we must end our membership in the Venice Commission. They are persona non grata in Tunisia,'' adding, "Blatant interference is unacceptable."

Tunisia has been a member of the Venice Commission, which is a committee of legal and constitutional experts that periodically report on the democratic structures of member states.

Political author Amine Snoussi sees this latest outburst as the sign of a leader who is not secure in his own power. “What makes it scary is that this made him explode in the middle of the night and speak live on TV. That is the level of paranoia he is in.”

He added that this example gives insight into Saied’s psychological self-perception. “He leads and he has all the powers in the country but he still talks like he cannot do anything. He still talks about dark forces that do not let him do what he wants but he really does not have any opposition.”

As fault lines appear within the debate around the constitution, Saied continues to benefit from a battle-weary and fractured opposition. Jarad said she keeps hearing “from once-ferocious activists, “I’m tired.” People are literally tired. They cannot discuss this anymore. … Considering the whole atmosphere of election fatigue and people’s fatigue towards these events I anticipate a very low show.”

She does however see hope in the strike by judges in protest against the 57 sacked on June 3. “The judges and lawyers are very powerful in numbers and influence, so when they come together it is something serious.” The judges associations have declared a third week of striking.

The advisory committee and Saied have ten more days to deliberate over the new constitution, but despite the president’s authoritarian moves, the first draft seems like a watered-down version of the 2014 leaning toward what Echaab describes as a soft presidential regime rather than the radical reform Saied had promised. But much can be change between now and the deadline of June 30th for the final draft.

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