Tunisia’s new constitution is a slide to an autocratic regime
Tunisia has voted to pass a new constitution that will hand President Kais Saied sweeping new powers. The low turnout for the referendum and lack of consultation have raised concerns over its legitimacy. Here human rights activist Farah Kanbi explains what the new legislation means and why this represents a reversal of the democratic gains Tunisia has made over the last ten years.
Tunisia has always been considered a leading country in the Arab world when it comes to women’s rights. Women have played a central role in Tunisian society since the 2010 revolution. During the uprising, they took the streets to call for democracy and were active in the political and civic scene. They were at the forefront of demonstrations and participated in the discussions leading to the drafting of the 2014 constitution.
In late 2021, Tunisia became the only Arab country to have a female prime minister when President Kais Saied appointed Najla Bouden. Unfortunately, appointing a woman as prime minister was nothing but a strategic move Saied made to gain popular support after freezing the parliament and deciding to rule by decree.
The same pattern continued after the dissolution of the Superior Council of the Judiciary, when Saied appointed new judicial council members, of which 10 were women. Saied is using these gender equality tactics to divert attention from his total seizure of power. While women’s representation in politics is indispensable, using them as figureheads does not serve equal representation.
A threat to freedom
By 2022, human rights violations and threats against freedoms have skyrocketed, in parallel with a decline in the freedom of press and expression. In fact, Tunisia declined 21 places on the annual World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
Furthermore, the right to a fair trial was put into question after the president dissolved the Superior Council of the Judiciary. The police have used force against protestors who take to the streets to denounce Saied’s decisions.
Tunisia has been living in a state of exception since 25 July 2021, when Saied dissolved the Assembly of People’s Representatives, Tunisia’s legislative branch of government. These exceptional measures keep transgressing rights and freedoms and discrediting different groups on social and political levels.
A critical interpretation of Saied’s Constitution
In June this year, Saied published a new constitution that was submitted to a popular referendum on July 25. This new constitution is shaped by patriarchal and tyrannical reasoning and it poses a threat to human rights, individual freedoms, and democracy.
In fact, Article 2 highlights that Tunisia is no longer a civil state, which constitutes a threat to women’s and minorities’ rights and freedoms. Article 5 of the draft constitution says that “the state is the only one that must work within the framework of a democratic regime to achieve the objectives of Islam by preserving the soul, honor, property, religion and freedom.” Based on this, the rule of law, political power and freedoms will be based on the objectives of Islam and its readings. It gives absolute power to the president legitimised by the use of Islam as a reference.
Several religious terms are used in Kais Saied’s draft constitution, “Islam of the Head of State” and reference to the Islamic Umma “objectives of Islam” (preamble and articles 5, 10 and 88). The religious basis is prominent throughout the constitution, bringing to mind the religious states of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Readings of Article 5 can only be correlated to conservatism and dictatorship and pose a step back for women’s rights..
The constitution is based on several populist aspects which are not new to President Saied. The concept of “the people” is referred to on several occasions, as the holders of sovereignty that can withdraw their trust from their representatives. President Saied refers to himself as the spokesperson and the embodiment of the will of the people. Yet, Article 110 states that the president can’t be held accountable. All the powers are within the hands of the President as he has the power to dissolve parliament (Article 106) and can dismiss parliament members. He has the power to appoint and dismiss the government (Articles 101 and 102), appoint judges (Article 120) and appoint members of the Constitutional Court (Article 120) which undermines the independence of the judiciary. The latter is crucial to upholding women’s rights in a patriarchal society.
The path to an authoritarian regime
Such a constitution can only birth an authoritarian system where the president has absolute power. It will pave the way for major human rights violations and decreasing freedoms.
Article 55 suggests that legislation could limit freedoms without the safeguard of the civil and democratic state. It states that “Restrictions on the rights and liberties provided by the Constitution may be imposed only by law and in order to fulfill the requirements of a democratic society and to protect the rights of others, or to meet the imperatives of public security, national defense, or public health…. It is the responsibility of the judicial authorities to ensure the protection of rights and freedoms against any infringement.”
Kais Saied’s constitution is the result of a unilateral decision-making procedure with the absence of negotiation with civil society and political actors. It does not represent Tunisians’ nor reflect their will.
The dangers behind the new constitution lie in the possibility of bringing back an authoritarian regime similar to that of Ben Ali, Tunisia’s President from 1987 to 2011 who was deposed by the Arab Spring. Taking into consideration the current political, economic, legal and judicial circumstances, Saied’s populism will only lead to chaos.
Farah Kanbi is a Tunisian human rights activist, project assistant with youth empowerment organisation Leed Initiative, and a mentor for Politics4her, a feminist youth-led movement.
Featured image: A woman votes at a polling station in Tunis / Photo: European Parliament / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0