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The Media Line: Tunisians To Vote on Constitution That Gives PresidentAuthority Over Gov’t, Judiciary

Tunisians To Vote on Constitution That Gives PresidentAuthority Over Govt, Judiciary

Many think the people are not ready for democracy sinceparties can easily buy votes. They think we were much betteroff under Ben Alis dictatorship

By Debbie Mohnblatt/The Media Line

Tunisian President Kais Saied is urging citizens to vote “yes” ina referendum on a proposed constitution on July 25.

But Prof. Sadok Belaid, the head of the advisory commission onthe constitution, says that changes made to the draft by thepresident could pave the way fora disgraceful dictatorialregime.

Belaid added in an open letter published in the Tunisiannewspaper Assabah on Thursday that Saieds draft does notmatch the one the commission formulated.

“It is our duty to strongly and truthfully announce that the constitution that was officially published … and presented for referendum is not relevant to the constitution we prepared and sent to the president,” he wrote.

On Saturday, the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union alsocriticized the constitution, saying that it could endangerdemocracy in the country.

Tunisia is considered by many the only country that successfully developed toward democracy as a result of the Arab Spring uprisings. But on July 25, 2021, amid an economic crisis, President Saied declared a state of emergency, dismissed the government, and froze the parliament. Since then, he has ruled by decree.

Exactly one year later, Tunisians will vote to approve or rejectSaied’s proposed constitution.

Hamish Kinnear, a Middle East and North Africa analyst withVerisk Maplecroft, a risk intelligence company based in Bath,England, told The Media Line the proposed constitutionenvisages a political system in which presidential powers arevastly expanded.

If approved, he said, “it would enable Saied to remain president beyond the currently permitted two presidential terms.

“The proposed constitutional changes are being used byPresident Saied to codify his seizure of legislative and judicialpowers since last July into law,” Kinnear said.

Nelia Charchour, who described herself as a Tunisian militantfor democracy active since 2000, explained in an interview withThe Media Line that the Tunisians have mixed feelings towardthe president.

All Tunisians consider Saied to be an honest man, she said. Butthere are two clearly defined schools of thought that have takendifferent positions concerning his July 2021 decision to freezethe parliament’s operation, she continued.

“One group considers that the president deserves full supportjust because he got rid of the Islamists and a parliament thatused to totally ignore the president,” said Charchour.

This group also considers his honesty enough to justify himruling the country as he wishes after decades of deep financialand political corruption, she added.

The second movement considers the July 2021 changes anunconstitutional coup against democracy, noted Charchour.

“They think the president gave himself all the latitude to preparefor a new dictatorship. They consider his honesty insufficient tojustify him ruling freely, without any check and balances.”

Kinnear noted that according to the available opinion polls,which predate the unveiling of the amended proposedconstitution, Saied remains popular among the country’sapproximately 12 million people.

Fadel, a program officer with an international NGO in Tunisia,told The Media Line that the majority of Tunisians love andrespect Saied, “because he was an apolitical figure and he rosefrom nothing and became the president with no party or supportor whatever. He is also known for being honest and faithful andsomeone who wants to do good things for his country.”

Nevertheless, Fadel added, power leads to dictatorship, andthat’s why checks and balances are needed.

Charchour said that the entire opposition fears a newdictatorship. On the other hand, she continued, “many thinkTunisian people are not mentally and economically ready fordemocracy since parties can easily buy votes. They think wewere much better off under [President Zine El Abidine] BenAli’s [1987-2011] dictatorship.”

She added that it is too early to know whether the Tunisians willsupport Saied. “Only the ballot boxes can tell who is still withKais Saied and who is against him,” she said.

Kinnear added that a spectrum of political parties is opposingthe constitutional amendments and calling for a boycott of thereferendum.

He noted, however, that as there is no minimum participationrate for the referendum to be considered valid, a boycott couldincrease the chances that the constitutional changes areapproved.

Kinnear continued,There is also good reason to be skeptical ofhow free and fair the vote will be. President Saied seized controlof the electoral commission and appointed a new board,undermining its independence.

Charchour added that the political parties are very weakseparately and not representative enough. “They are not showingenough patriotism to unite around a single position,” she said.

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